Reflections from COP26 2021, by Laurence Freeman – November 3, 2021

Mark Carney during COP26 (Photo: Laurence Freeman)

We make myths about myths. Rather than being ourselves, we draw pictures of ourselves and then imitate the pictures For example, we have made a myth about how egalitarian human beings were when we hunted and gathered, eating healthy seeds and berries. We only became hierarchical when we started farming and began to store food that became wealth that produced kings, priests and bankers. Archaeology disputes that. Europeans have other myths that allow them to wriggle out of the harsh truths about colonialism and the slave trade. Western attitudes to immigration wrestle with them.

In the real world it seems there’s always some people on top and others trying to topple them. All human beings live in constant tension, between their inner and outer ecologies. Spirituality – if it means anything more than feeling good –aims to reduce this tension to net zero by making the inner and the outer one.

Looking back on my few days at COP26, I sense this universal tension. It swirled around the hope that, yes, we can still heal the great disharmony of our time, the second Fall of humanity,  the separation between ourselves and the natural world we are married to. As in all social organisations, the gathering of 200 nationalities involved distinct, sometimes clashing zones of influence and self-importance. There are people and there are very important people, indeed there are very, very important people (VVIPs). Some of the people stand outside the fence demonstrating, some haranguing, like ancient prophets at the city gates, others in national costumes dance and sing as their ancestors did. We queued good-humouredly in the cold masked but in fictional social distancing. The biggest lane is for ‘Observers’, the lowest of the hierarchy of which I was one. But, as at a canonisation ceremony I once attended as a monk in St Peter’s Square, the degrees of clerical hierarchy reach high up out of sight to the cloud-covered peak where sits the one who is on top of everyone. And I don’t mean God.

What am I complaining about? Everything is like this, isn’t it? I am not complaining and yes, it is. Even when a great crowd of good human beings gather to save their planet, hierarchy is a necessary evil. As always, this carries dangers: desire for higher status, power struggle, fame, recognition, resentment, angry or hurt shame. The best of intentions and the most altruistic, selfless commitments can be distorted by hierarchy and invisibly infected by the microbes of egotism long before we are aware it is happening. ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right thing for the wrong reason’.

Awareness is the best first defence. Just being conscious of the necessary evil. The second-best first defence is humour. The Dalai Lama  or Pope Francis can climb off the pedestals they are placed on by simply laughing at themselves and the show they are part of. Desmond Tutu was once confronted by a white policeman who refused to make way for him on a narrow path and said, ‘I don’t make way for animals’, to which the diminutive archbishop, stepping to one side replied ‘no, but I do’. Real humility is not self-effacing but humorous and benefits others even as it challenges them. Consciousness deepens humility.

As the achievements of the project to achieve net zero rev up – and there are many already – humility will be as necessary as hierarchy is inevitable. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of Mark Carney and his associates, the money to fuel the saving of the planet is in the bank, all 130 trillion of it. But when the financial institutions discussed it yesterday, it was clear the plumbing to distribute this mighty torrent of liquidity, firstly to benefit developing nations, is not yet in place. As one titan of the industry said,’ we will be lying to ourselves if we think we know yet how to distribute it’. But if we do, if humility and humour temper hierarchy, the goal of net zero in carbon emissions may well involve a leap forward for human society even beyond the environmental crisis.

Consciousness, self-awareness, equal and compassionate care for everyone ensuring that no one feels humiliated and that the over-mighty are brought down from their thrones: all this is contained in the command to ‘stay awake and pray’. It is unlikely that the financial institutions or political players will remind us of this. The big question is will religion do so by transcending their caste systems and distributing the banks of wisdom they guard?

Laurence Freeman OSB
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