Economic growth, wild nature and the Book of Job

Bill McKibben is a leading American environmentalist and author of several bestselling titles on climate change, including the first popular explanation of the problem, The End of Nature. Among his books is a more unusual one, a commentary on Job called The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the scale of creation.

The book of Job, McKibben suggests, is about a man wrestling with an experience that defies the conventional wisdom of his time. The understanding of his age was that God rewarded the good and punished the wicked. And yet, he suffers as an innocent man, and it throws up difficult questions. For his contemporaries, represented by the two friends in the dialogue that occupies most of the book, Job is simply wrong. His suffering must be because of a sin he will not admit. His experience challenges the orthodox understanding of God, releasing a disruptive new idea into his world.

“We too live in the grip of conventional wisdoms that no longer fit with the observable facts” says McKibben. “We – 21st century Westerners – are beginning to struggle with an orthodoxy of our own – the central economic and social idea that more is better, that growth is necessary.”

This idea is all pervasive: “If the world’s politicians were all locked in a single room and told to agree on one statement, the only sentence they would be able to write is this: “Our task is to promote economic growth’”. And yet, the climate crisis calls the wisdom of growth into question. “The ‘obviousness’ of growth , environmentalists are starting to realise, is only obvious if you ignore the fundamental biological and chemical facts of creation.”

Job’s conundrum and ours have something in common, according to The Comforting Whirlwind. Both are expressions of human centrality – anthropocentrism. Both put the human experience at the centre of everything. In Job it’s a matter of using our human logic and sense of fairness to explain the ‘acts of God’ that have befallen the book’s protagonist. With economic growth it is the assumption that the earth is there for our use, with no regard for the life that shares the planet – a claim that the climate crisis shows to be recklessly mistaken. We are not in control.

In the final sections of Job, we get God’s reply to this anthropocentrism. In a poetic and bitingly sarcastic speech, God offers a tour of wild nature – consider the lions, the vultures, the wild donkeys, the rain and the snow, the giants of the deep sea. God loves creation independently of humanity, seems to be one of the main messages. It’s not all about us.

That should cultivate humility in us, says McKibben – a deeper understanding of ourselves as part of nature, with a tempered claim on its resources and on our own population growth. The earth is the Lord’s. We are invited to be stewards, but it is not ours to do what we like with it. We are invited to fill it and flourish, but not to overload it and destroy it.

Secondly, God’s great speech at the end of Job should call us not just to humility, but also to joy. The voice from the whirlwind calls us “to immersion in the fantastic beauty and drama all around us. It does not call us to think, to categorise, to analyse, to evaluate. It calls us to be.”

The challenge to us from the book of Job, McKibben concludes, it to balance humility and joy.  Humility on its own would be overly negative; joy on its own irresponsible. In the balance of the two we find our place on the earth. And grounded in that rightful place among our fellow creatures, we can let go of the claim to ‘more’, and learn to live with the joy in enough.

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