Camille Paglia on “Climate Crisis”

In which I toss my hat into the “foolishness-of-atheism ring” in response to a revealing quote from one of my favorite critics.

This facile attribution of climate change to human agency is an act of hubris. Good stewardship of the environment is an ethical imperative for every nation. But breast-beating hysteria merely betrays impious tunnel vision. Thousands of factors, minute and grand, are at work in cyclic climate change, whose long-term outcomes we cannot possibly predict. Nature should inspire us with awe, not pity.

This is from Camille Paglia’s recent column. As is usual with her column, there are nuggets among some pretty crass stuff. Paglia is a rarity on the left, a serious social liberal (she’s a lesbian) with the guts to confront the liberal conventional wisdom about almost everything. I certainly don’t agree with all she has to say, but the above struck a chord with me, primarily because of Paglia’s language.What I find most interesting is the lack of foundation for what she says in her atheism (born of avant-garde feminism with a seasoned post-Catholic moralism).

First, she calls the Gore non-campaign’s talking points “hubris.” Hubris was a serious crime in ancient Greece. While it had a pretty specific meaning at the beginning, it came to mean any act of astonishing pride that put one at odds with moral law (sometimes represented by the gods). In drama (thanks to Aristotle), the act represented the “fatal flaw” of the protagonist. Oedipus is the classic example. Afflicted by a spiritual blindness, he refused to see the truth about his father’s murder. When he does see it, he blinds himself physically. Numerous examples exist in other dramas: Antigone and Medea in classic drama; Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth in Shakespeare; even, one might say, a character like Torvald Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll House. I am sure Paglia would disagree with me on this, but all these characters and their acts seem to depend on the violation of an objective standard.

Similarly, “stewardship” explicitly means caring for something that belongs to someone else. True, stewardship has come to mean a careful management of anything, but historically, it’s built on the idea of a master/servant relationship. The steward manages the household or estate for the master or lord; in The Lord of the Rings, for example, the Steward of Gondor keeps the kingdom against the return of the king. This doesn’t work if it’s applied to an impersonal nature; but of course, it does work if we see nature as God’s creation, put into the care of his vassal (or suzerain, to use a more appropriate but more difficult to explain term). But if an impersonal nature is the captain of her own fate, the idea breaks down. Stewardship is not an end in itself, as Jesus’ parable of the talents makes clear. We are good stewards because we look to the return of the master. I suggest that stewardship that has in mind mere self-preservation is not stewardship.

And of course, there’s that pesky word “ethical.” As better writers and critics have pointed out (Douglas Wilson among them), ethics really cannot exist without an objective standard. The only “ethics” that can exist without such a standard are situational or utilitarian at best; when someone else decides they like their ethical foundation better, the old might as well be swept away as useless.

But it’s Paglia’s last sentence that really grabs me. We should indeed view nature with awe, and I think of that every time I see the sun rise over the mountains of my hometown. But without the recognition that that nature answers to her Creator, I woulod actually be capable of nothing but fear. I can imagine no more capricious goddess than a berserker nature, one who brandishes hurricanes and earthquakes and tornadoes like weapons, indiscriminate in her disregard for human life. The rampage of viruses like Ebola and HIV take fear to a new level, as our brothers and sisters in Africa can attest.

When I think of all that, I can only thank God for his great mercy (an appropriate response for the season, no?). He superintends His creation with ultimate wisdom, presides over it without the ultimate long view. I cannot predict long-term outcomes of those countless factors, but God is not at a loss when faced with either the minutiae of natural phenomena or the mess we humans have made of things. He sees the end clearly, and it’s a mending of all that was broken by the Fall.

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One thought on “Camille Paglia on “Climate Crisis””

  1. Pingback: The Honest Atheist

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