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In praise of hypocrisy

  • 15 May 2007

Public discussion of climate change and drought has a familiar shape. There is a growling exchange between the big picture and the small picture. Those who demand demonstrable effectiveness deride small and local initiatives as romantic, useless and even harmful. Saving shower water will do nothing for the Murray Darling basin. Without international cooperation, curbing Australian carbon emissions will do nothing for the world but will hurt Australian prosperity.

Some critics supplement this criticism by accusing their opponents of hypocrisy. Advocates for radical action to address climate change are found to drive gas guzzlers, spend their life on planes, and live in houses that need their own power plant to run them.

To a Catholic sensibility these exchanges seem familiar and crude. They recall Reformation polemic against the value of sacraments, and Enlightenment polemic against the value of prayer and of faith. Seeing is believing, what cannot be measured is ineffective, what is flawed is without value. Hostility to symbolic gestures, of course, goes back beyond Christianity. When the Syrian Minister Naaman came to the prophet Elijah to be cured of leprosy, and was instructed to bathe in the Jordan, he complained about the triviality of the gesture. Even if it had any value, there were better rivers back home to bathe in.

Christian reflection on sacraments provides a useful lens for looking at ecological gestures. Sacraments are symbols that bring into effect the things that they symbolise. Water is life-giving; baptism gives life. Bread sustains life, and so does the Eucharist. Sacraments are effective. The key to understanding how they are effective is to realise that they work in another dimension. Baptism and Eucharist give life and sustain life in the spiritual dimension. Anti-sacramental polemic always assumes that sacraments and prayer are effective in the physical dimension of our lives.

When seen in that light symbolic gestures, whether at personal or at national level, are effective, even though they will have a barely measurable effect on water supply or global warming. Their effectiveness is in another dimension. They shape the ability of human communities to respond to the challenges posed by nature.

When we become personally involved in ecological issues by saving water or by reducing our need for power, our attitudes change. Our world becomes different, and our sense of what has priority in it also changes. We find it natural, not quixotic, to live more simply, to question our profligate waste of