Do you remember the terrible heat of last summer?Temperatures that forbade restful sleep because they didn’t drop below 90 degrees? Receiving news of record-breaking temperatures every day, people must have begun to understand the serious nature of climate change. But as the cool breeze returned, those memories faded. How long can such forgetting continue?
‘Is it too late?’ In 1971, a book with this title was published in American theology. It would become the first seminal work on the unfamiliar topic of ‘ecological theology.’ Its author was a leading theologian recognized for his advocacy for process philosophy, a new paradigm of theology considered heresy by conservative Christians. The author experienced a great revelation in his mid-40s. It was unlike the average religious experience, for the realization that shook his very essence was the fact that the human civilization he’d assumed would continue perpetually was in fact on the path to extinction.Since then, he has worked enthusiastically towards what he embraced as his calling: to convert the modern capitalist industrial civilization into an‘ecological civilization.’ Building connections among not only the economists,architects, and various academics of the world, but also with other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, he has sought strategies to move the world towards an ecological civilization. 93 years old as of this year, he is now considered an elder ecological thinker, but he still lives a life of an international activist. His name is John B. Cobb Jr., professor emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology.
He visited South Korea to participate in the Civilizational Transition and the Role of the Cities conference hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government (October 11) and the International Conference for Ecozoic Culture (October 12 – 14) of the Earth and People Forum. In time for his visit, a collection of his writings titled Ten Thoughts to Save the Planet was also published. Han Yun-jeong, researcher at the Claremont School of Theology who formerly worked as a journalist in Korea, had compiled and translated a selection of Cobb’s unpublished writings that would capture the breadth of the theologian’s life and thoughts.
When I met John Cobb at the Plaza Hotel in Seoul, South Korea on the October 10th, Professor Jung Gun-hwa of Hanshin University’s economics department acting as translator, he said, “God calls me to do everything we can to reduce suffering and increase the possibility of the survival of the human race. I cannot say that Marxists or Buddhists do not share that calling.”
“I do not think there is any chance of avoiding a terrible disaster. We are now destined to undergo tremendous suffering. We have already passed the point at which we may have stopped the decline of this vast civilization, and the only remaining battle is how much we can prevent the situation from getting worse and leave a base for reconstruction.”
What does he mean by the collapse of civilization?
“There are so many scenarios that it is impossible to know what will actually happen. There is still a big possibility that a nuclear war or a huge conventional war breaks out. Even if there is no war, climate change can deplete water and cause war within thirty years, making it impossible to produce enough food.”
Could not the self-correcting ability of the present capitalist economic system resolve this ecological problem, much as it did in its competition with communism? Unfortunately not, Dr. Cobb concludes: “The main production motive of the capitalist system is not reducing energy use. It is to make profit. This system cannot fundamentally resolve the present problem; it is critical to transform the global economy into a local economy.”
In his recent book, Cobb describes this radical turn towards a local scale economy, ending the fossil fuel-intensive globalized production and trade regime to produce and consume regionally. He advocates eating locally-grown produce, meeting energy demands with local alternative energy sources, and using local currency issued by community banks. But would people choose to live such an inconvenient life? Dr. Cobb believes they may if they have hope that a better future is possible by doing so:
“Of course, in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, people would only be concerned with finding a job or home and caring for their families. But I don’t think people are completely disinterested in the transition to ecological civilization. When people do not feel hope that they can do something from a long-term perspective, they become trapped in short-term concerns and indifferent to the alternatives.”
Thus, Cobb believes the role of leaders of society is critical. This view was greatly influenced by Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to You”), as well as Cobb’s experiences in China. Recently, he has visited China every year, at the invitation of the Communist Party government, to provide advice on the construction of an ecological city. Before this trip to Korea, he had stayed two weeks at Lishui City in the Zhejiang Province of China.
Cobb said that the Communist Party played an important role in incorporating ecological civilization as a national goal in the party constitution. “The Chinese government leadership is cooperative in the efforts to transition into an ecological civilization. The government is trying to convince people of the merits of the life agricultural life, and it is said that the number of young people who choose to go into farming is increasing.When climate catastrophe strikes, rural communities will become bridgeheads for civilizational survival. When the leadership demonstrates positive possibilities to the people and lead towards them, people can break out of their state of indifference.”
He is more pessimistic about America. This is understandable, given that an anti-environmentalist and climate change denier like Donald Trump had become president. However, Cobb discussed the paradoxical potential that Donald Trump had actually created some hope. “President Barack Obama had a brilliant rhetoric, but he did not even propose the kind of action necessary to stop the boat from sinking. But once someone so explicitly against an ecological civilization like President Trump got elected, many people realized that they themselves need to act in order to prevent the worst case scenario. If you raise the temperature slowly, the frog in the pot will die,but if you turn up the heat suddenly, the frog will desperately struggle to escape.”
The noteworthy thinkers garnering the most attention tend to romanticize the future based on novel technology. Academics declare that “a divine, immortal human race will emerge through the development of artificial intelligence and biotechnology” (Yuval Harari), that “it is possible to create a utopia that only requires working 3 hours a day for five days a week through a universal basic income” (Rutger Bregman), even that “nanotechnology can remove atmospheric carbon dioxide and restore the atmosphere to pre-Industrial Revolution levels” (Eric Drexler). Such claims evoke hope without requiring any sacrifice or inconvenience in the here and now. But can we can be satisfied with that? We have already enjoyed much without paying the proper price, and Nature has begun to demand that cost. This is why we cannot easily reject one elder theologian’s insight and prophecy that we will go bankrupt if we do not pay this price in advance.
Whitehead-inspired process theology
In 1925, John Cobb was born in Kobe, Japan, where his parents worked as Christian missionaries. He had visited Korea when he was eleven years old while traveling to China in 1936. “My memory is uncertain, but I stayed in Seoul for about two days, and also visited Gwanghwamun and somewhere like a temple.” This is Cobb’s first visit to Korea since attending the International Whitehead Conference in 2004. Six years ago, he visited North Korea.
The process theology Cobb espouses is an adaptation of the process philosophy developed by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861~1947). Cobb studied philosophy under Whitehead’s disciple Charles Hartshorn at The University of Chicago Divinity School. In particular,Cobb was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s rejection of the Cartesian separation of Nature and Man, the idea that nature also has agency, and that humans and nature influence each other in an organic relationship. Dr. Jung Gunna declares that “because this ‘organismic philosophy’ shares many commonalities with Eastern philosophy that maintain that all beings exist in relation to each other, China is also using Whitehead and Cobb as a conversational partner with Western philosophy.”
Process theology’s novel idea is that God also is not omniscient and omnipotent and immutable, but rather a being influenced by the actions of Creation. Like the rest of Creation, God is an open being in the process of becoming complete. This process theology also argues for religious pluralism, the idea that Christianity is not the only truth, but can be supplemented through dialogue with other religions. Such is the reason why fundamentalist Christians who use a textual interpretation of the Bible to promote homophobia, religious xenophobia, or anti-abortion politics can only be critiqued.
Cobb currently lives a communally with about 100 other retired ministers in a retirement facility called Pilgrim’s Place, which he helped found in Claremont, California. He needs regular treatment for skin cancer in his forehead every six months, but does not suffer from any other chronic disease. He is a pescatarian, practicing an ecological lifestyle.
This article was originally published in Korean. Go here to read the original text.