Reading C. S. Lewis during the climate crisis
Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Laudate Deum,” hits a grim, somber note that feels appropriate given the gravity of our current climate crisis: “Despite all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue,” he writes, “the signs of climate change are here and increasingly evident.” He poses a stark question to the leaders and governments that created this catastrophe: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power, only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
The pope is fed up with conference after conference, promise after promise—and it shows.
The lesson, from both the climate disasters so far this year and this strident new encyclical, is simple—climate change is not something that will become a crisis 20 or 30 years down the road. It is here right now.
In “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis paints a rich, multifaceted picture of the afterlife, one that could teach Christians quite a bit about life on Earth today.
Recently, I had the chance to re-read one of my favorite books, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Lewis paints a rich, multifaceted picture of the afterlife, one that could teach Christians quite a bit about life on Earth today—and particularly about what it means to grapple with crises of existential magnitude.
Lewis begins by situating us at a “bus stop” in Hell, one that brings passengers from all over the Inferno up to see Heaven, and even to enter it if they are able. Passengers have to come a long way if they want to make this trek: Their quarrels have forced the residents of Hell to move thousands of miles apart from each other, spreading its population over an infinite, dark gray expanse of imaginary houses.
The bus is freely available—should they make the trek, anyone can go up and visit Heaven. But most never do. In fact, a good number are under the impression that they are not in Hell at all. Some think the worst of Hell is coming, of course: Lewis’s protagonist has a whispered conversation with one traveler who insists that “[Hell’s] evening is really going to turn into a night in the end” and that “no one wants to be out of doors when that happens.” The conversation seems a bit silly to us readers, and even to the protagonist—what good would imaginary houses do when this danger arrives? Moreover, is Hell itself not the ultimate night? If this isn’t “the night,” what is?
Others are even more oblivious to their damnation. In response to this conversation, one night-denier chimes in: “There is not a shred of evidence that this twilight is ever going to turn into a night,” he claims. “All the nightmare fantasies of our ancestors are being swept away. What we now see in this subdued and delicate half-light is the promise of the dawn: the slow turning of a whole nation towards the light.” He seems to think that this process of infinite expansion, separation and individualism will be Hell’s ultimate redemption—a suggestion that current-day readers might find both absurd and familiar.
Lewis begins by situating us at a “bus stop” in Hell, one that brings passengers from all over the Inferno up to see Heaven.
In “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis calls out a similar form of obfuscation, one that believes technological innovations will save us from ever having to reckon with the real costs of climate change. As he writes, “To suppose that all problems in the future will be able to be solved by new technical interventions is a form of homicidal pragmatism, like pushing a snowball down a hill.” No, we will not innovate ourselves out of this one.
These forms of “night-denial” are recognizable tropes, and they are big stumbling blocks in climate discourse today. On the one hand, we have those who insist, against the scientific consensus, that our current path is sustainable, and that climate change won’t be so bad. There are even those who believe that fossil fuels are our future, or “the promise of dawn,” if you will. On the other hand, there is also a softer denialism that fails to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis today, one that can only speak of climate change in reference to our “children and grandchildren” and never in reference to the millions displaced by it right now.
Any meaningful climate action must start with the acknowledgment that climate hell is not 30 years away. It is already here. But the action doesn’t end there. In Lewis’s world, knowing you’re in Hell isn’t enough on its own to make it to Heaven. In order to do that, the characters must kill all of the attachments and vices holding them back: their lusts, greeds, grudges and misplaced affections. This is harder than it seems. Most fail—they cannot let go of the tiny things locking them out of Paradise, so they turn back in despair and board the next bus bound back for Hell.
Any meaningful climate action must start with the acknowledgment that climate hell is not 30 years away. It is already here.
It is possible to enter Heaven, though. In one of the book’s most poignant scenes, a man struggles with lust, personified as a lizard on his shoulder. An angel explains to the man that the lizard must die if he is ever to reach Paradise, and the following dialogue takes place (abbreviated here):
“Don’t you want [the lizard] killed?” [...]
“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time. May I kill it?” [...]
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all.”
“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day. All days are present now.” [...]
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like.”
The man tries every tool in the book to avoid, dodge and delay. But Heaven will allow for none of that. The lizard must die, and it must die now if there is to be any hope. Truthfully, it is a tiny, tiny thing when put up against the magnitude of the Heaven that awaits him. In fact, after it is killed, the lizard of lust transforms into a glorious stallion suitable for Heaven. As another angel explains, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”
Which lizards of ours must be buried if we are to make it into that country? What is holding us back from leaving behind what increasingly looks like a hell on Earth for far too many? At the end of “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis underlines the answer in bold: “Emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries…. [A] broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.” That irresponsible lifestyle? That Western model? Our lifestyle, our model and our lizards.
The angel puts it well. There is no time, and the gradual process is of no use at all. Our lizards must die if there is to be any hope for the Earth.
There is a more hopeful question we could ask, too. Once we kill those lizards, what stallions await us? As Lewis demonstrates, we will never know until we let go of the cultural, political and economic attachments that keep us trapped in this hell and imagine something different. This is the task of my generation, one that we must take up with both joy and urgency.