If Basil the Great Lived Today: His (Imaginary) Take On The Problem of Climate Change
The central thesis of On Social Justice by Basil the Great, like many other theology texts, seems to be rooted in his experience of being Church. Raised as part of the nobility in ancient Europe, more specifically Caesarea Mazaca (modern-day Turkey), Basil attended some of the most prestigious higher learning centres of the Roman Empire, including Athens, and his family amassed large amounts of property.
This experience contrasted with the reality of poverty and inequality that surrounded him at the time. According to the text introduced by Gregory P. Yova, as much as one-third of the population in the then Roman Empire lived in slavery, without proper health care, food or other basic needs covered. It was a social structure that might sound all too familiar to those on the 21st century: “enriching a few while leaving many without the means to meet their daily needs”, according to Yova.
This was until, similarly to many other well-known Christians, Basil experienced a deep experience of enlightenment and conversion. In the following words towards the end of his days, he recalled this event:
‘I had wasted a great deal of time in vanity, losing nearly all my youth in the empty work to which I applied myself to learn the teachings of that wisdom which God has made foolish; until one day, as if waking up from a deep sleep, I looked at the wonderful light of the truth of the Gospel, and considered the uselessness of the wisdom of the princes of this world who are doomed to pass away. Then I wept a great deal over my wretched life.’
– Basil the Great
In hypostatic union
In more than one of his works St Basil teaches that if one cannot divest oneself of wealth, one has not fulfilled the law of love for one’s neighbour. “For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love,” he says in To The Rich, probably his most popular homily.
Just like the Holy Trinity lives in a personal and relational nature, Basil recognizes that it is in our nature as humans to love, to express in a self-emptying manner our generosity for others, to move beyond appearances and recognize how connected we are to one another and to the rest of creation.
This way of describing the relational nature of each person is explained in more detail by orthodox theologian Edward Rommen. In alignment with Basilian wisdom, the potential of personhood “created in God’s image,” he explains, can only be fulfilled when living in relationship with others, when living in authentic love.
“Ultimately a particular being is “itself ”– and not another one – because of its uniqueness which is established in communion… That which, therefore, makes a particular personal being itself – and thus be at all – is, in the final analysis communion, freedom, and love.”
– Edward Rommen
A message for years to come
Basil’s points on social justice, love and the ethics of sustainability last the test of time. The principles of personal love covered in Basil’s homily To The Rich, for instance, could be applied to problems as current as the modern fight against climate change. It is no secret this is an issue that affects primarily the most vulnerable in our society, the poor, migrants and many others on the margins.
How does climate change affect humanity and, most especially, those on the margins? This question can be examined by looking at which regions are most vulnerable to its effects. A report by World Bank Group released in 2016 alerts that climate change has the power to push more than 100 million people back into poverty over the next fifteen years. And the poorest regions of the world – Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – will be impacted the most.
In other words, the countries that have contributed the least to carbon dioxide emissions (the principal contributor to the problem of global warming) are the same regions that will be most affected by the impacts of climate change. See the map below.
Global Climate Demography Vulnerability Index. Red corresponds to more vulnerable regions, blue to less vulnerable regions. White areas correspond to regions with little or no population (Samson et al 2011).
Now, let’s take a look at a map of national carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
National average per capita CO2 emissions based on OECD/IEA 2006 national CO2 emissions (OECD/IEA, 2008) and UNPD 2006 national population size (UNPD, 2007).
What would Basil say to those who exploit God’s creation and the goods in it to the detriment of others? How would he address a pernicious worldview where our common home is only to be consumed, with not enough regard for the suffering of a majority of persons living in poverty?
He would probably coincide with that David Korten, author of Change the Story, Change the Future has to say. “The Earth is primary and humans are derivative,” he states. “The prior rights of the entire Earth community need to be assured first; then the rights and freedoms of humans can have their field of expression. There is no such thing as a human community in any manner separate from the Earth community.”
His words echo the teachings of Basil the Great, who persistently called us to be deliberate about our relationships with those who are at risk in society. He saw the segregation between the rich and the poor as one of the biggest if not the most important obstacle to the church’s mission of peace, to the promotion of a new city of reconciliation and justice. He professed what Gregory P. Yova would call the ethics of sustainability, “based upon an economic philosophy that might be described as a ‘limited resource paradigm.’
Basil believed that God has provided limited resources (land, food and usable materials) to satisfy the needs of everyone. These goods, however, are limited and must be shared out equitably.
Possibly inspired by Basils’ homily I Will Tear Down My Barns David Korten questions the point of promoting a system that ultimately isn’t sustainable. “No matter how fat our bank accounts or advanced our technologies”, he says, “we depend on Earth’s health for food, fresh water, clean air, and a stable climate… Our hope lies with the growing millions who work to heal our human relationships with one another and nature in a bold effort to turn the human course.”
“When riches are closed up like this so that they become stagnant, what do they do for you?… Wells become more productive if they are drained completely, while they silt up if they are left idle. Thus wealth left standing is of no use to anyone, but put to use and exchanged it becomes fruitful and beneficial for the public.”
– Basil the Great
- St Basil the Great. On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38) . St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Édition du Kindle.
- Rommen, Edward. Come and See: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective on Contextualization . William Carey Library. Édition du Kindle.
- “Managing the Impacts Of Climate Change on Poverty” Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. https://www.gfdrr.org/en/feature-story/managing-impacts-climate-change-poverty (accessed March 31, 2019).
- Samson, J., D. Berteaux, B. J. McGill, and M. M. Humphries. “Geographic Disparities and Moral Hazards in the Predicted Impacts of Climate Change on Human Populations.” Global Ecology and Biogeography. February 17, 2011. Accessed April 02, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00632.x.
- Korten, David C.. Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (pp. 79-80). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Édition du Kindle.