Climate Catastrophe and Secular Spiritual Possibilities

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“The Exaggerated Possibility of the End of the World”.  That is my translation of the title of an article in the French newspaper, Le Monde diplomatique.  (The Norwegian edition of August 2019).  The article’s author tells of “collapsology”, the different ways the looming collapse of the environment is dealt with in France.  Several books dealing with the collapse have appeared, providing alternative solutions for the French reading public.  Some people envision establishing new communities in the wilderness, far from centers of capitalist production, living off the land in anarchistic solidarity with respect for nature.  According to this vision, rural collapsologists will feel sorrow for the fate of urban communities they have known and for the loss of much that they have held dear, but they will rejoice at the disintegration of the industrial world and its poisons. They will welcome a life of autonomy and new meaning, living in nature, not at war with it.

I have read the Le Monde piece several times, having some sympathy with those wanting to establish ideal communities that would survive the apocalypse and find possibilities in outcomes of the collapse. These anarchist visions take me back to experiences with counter-cultures in England and the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Apart from my own escapades, I have the example of my older sister, an artist who moved to an island off the coast of western Canada where she lived without electricity for more than ten years. At that time her goal had been to start a revolutionary art school with her husband. It never got off the ground.  One reason she gives is that there was too much competition: those islands had attracted too many other folks hoping to create new worlds of creative expression. The history of my sister’s adventure puts a damper on any inclination I might have to meet climate change in a similar manner.

But the article contains a striking theme while discussing the French “back to the land” initiatives. This theme speaks to a solution I have settled on for the time being, as I contemplate the loss of life on earth as we have known it. Two French writers, Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Steven, bring up the topic of spirituality in talking about new rural communities. Spirituality, they argue, is basic to human existence, as well as being a precondition for anything as formal as religion: “There are non-religious, secular and even atheistic spiritualities”. Servigne and Stevens argue that, while environmental collapse can have catastrophic consequences for established religions, the new communities will find their own spiritual expression. This calls art into service.

There are increasing numbers of people who are responding to climate change by seeking either new sources of meaning or elaborating on more traditional sources. In Norway, in 2017 singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør released an album, “Music For People In Trouble”, which is not about ordinary human heartbreak, but speaks to climate grief. The first verse of the last song, “Mountaineers”, reads:

Jumbo jets spiralling down like vultures of the stars

Soaring above barren lands of boiling tar

The liquid rainbow spills an ocean of scars

Among the buzzing of a million cars.

Sundfør was partly inspired by her association with The Dark Mountain Project, started in 2009 as (in the words of one of the co-founders), a “cultural movement for an age of global disruption”. Two Brits, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, found that then-existing environmental movements did not provide room for expression of the darkness, the despair, that they and others felt about the world and the future. Their project evolved into a publishing enterprise, producing two books a year of various types of cultural expression, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art. Dougald Hine has since moved to Sweden where he started a new endeavour, “A School Called HOME” for “culturemakers” ( Hine and his partner, Anna Björkman, are working with like-minded souls to start conversations which could take place around a kitchen table in a home. Since that is not practically possible on a large scale, they are also travelling in Europe and looking to connect digitally, encouraging others to make culture as we enter this scary existential territory.

What am I doing, while I wait for politicians to get serious, or for voters to elect or somehow choose politicians who will do the needful? Not being an artist or a poet, but a historian, I have been engaging with traditional sources of meaning. (But I also regularly support the Sunshine movement in the USA [] and Extinction Rebellion worldwide [].) There is a kind of solace in reading and writing about past groups of people who renounced the avid consumption of natural resources. I got into this mode as I planned some years ago to take part in discourses about capping consumption. At this point I am mostly pursuing privately climate grief as I take a new (for me) pathway into civilization in India (my area of scholarship). By studying the long history of ascetic ventures there, one learns a lot about experiences of meaningful denial. One also learns that ascetics, some of them, long for status, honor, and domination, but they tend to fulfil these desires without undue use of resources.  Our current crisis can draw us to old topics that we view with new needs, thus maybe finding new conclusions.

It has been many years since India has been seen as an area of spirituality in colleges and universities in Europe and North America. In the 1970s, issues of rituals and divinities came wrapped in studies of politics and regimes. Historians, anthropologists, and political scientists moved into spaces once occupied by scholars of religion, letting the study of transcendent experiences remain the preserve of a devoted few. The academic buzz was about the popular worship of politicians. Admittedly, with a Hindu nationalist regime in New Delhi beginning its second term in power, ascetics in the daily grime of politics become of increasing interest for South Asia scholars. Attention has been drawn to Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. An ascetic from a famous monastery, among his other activities, the yogi heads a youth organization, Hindu Yuva Vahini, an armed and dangerous group with gang-like behaviour. Such a development in Indian politics means that there is an interest in academic publishing for studies of holy wo/men and monasteries.  However, my long-term intention is to uncover what the subcontinental production of holy men and women might teach us about controlling material urges, so as to organize for secular spirituality leading to prudence and solidarity in common sense.  In the meantime, I have registered to receive news from the culturemakers of “A School Called HOME” and in that spirit, am ending with more verses from Susanne Sundfør (from the song, “Mantra”):

I’m as lucky as the moon

On a starry night in June

Looking down on a lagoon

I’m as lucky as the moon

I’m as empty as the earth

An insignificant birth

Stardust in a universe

That is all that I am worth




Pamela Price, Professor Emerita, University of Oslo

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