The Great Work of our time

Published Tuesday, December 24, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Climate change is no laughing matter, but a book on climate change I read recently included this joke. 

A man is walking down a road in India.  Suddenly he spots a crowd of panicked people rushing toward him.  “Run for your life!” they cry as they sprint by.  “There’s a mad elephant on the loose!”  But the man thinks, “I am not worried. God will take care of me.”  And he continues walking.

Soon he meets another crowd dashing toward him.  “Run!” they shout.  “An elephant’s on a rampage!”  But the man continues on.  “I am not worried,” he reaffirms.  “God will take care of me.”

Soon he meets a third group of screaming people racing toward him.  “Run!” they yell.  But again he reassures himself, “I am not worried. God will take care of me.”  And he keeps walking.

Suddenly, he spies the elephant.  It spies him, rushes in and tramples him.  As he lies dying, he moans, “God, why didn’t you take care of me?”  And from the clouds the voice of God rings out: “You idiot!  Why do you think I sent all those people to warn you?”


I try to keep my spiritual beliefs apart from the science of climate change, but I can’t help wonder: if I were God, and if I wanted to demonstrate to North Americans the dangers of climate change and convey a not-so-subtle message that it’s time for action, where would I choose to make my point?  Perhaps in a major population center, to reach as many people as possible?  Or in a hub of global commerce, so people could understand that a stable economy is impossible without a stable environment?  Perhaps near the headquarters of fossil fuel companies?  Or maybe in the home city of a Prime Minister?  

If I were God, I suppose I might choose to make my point in Toronto, Calgary and New York.

Ironically, last July 8, Toronto was struck by a gigantic thunderstorm that caused flash flooding and stranded commuters across the city.  With estimated damage of $850 million, it ranks as Ontario’s most expensive disaster ever.

Last June, torrential rains flooded much of downtown Calgary, including the headquarters of major fossil fuel companies.  With over $6 billion in damage, it stands as the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.

And on October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy pounded New York City.  With a total repair bill of $65 billion, it was the second most costly hurricane in US history, behind Hurricane Katrina.

Ironic.  Of course, it could all be just coincidence.

Great Works

From time to time throughout history, humans have been challenged by circumstances to rise above what they believed was possible and create colossal, enduring, positive change.  In his writings, priest and Earth Scholar Thomas Berry calls such movements the Great Work of a People.  Examples include the creation of democracy by the ancient Greeks; the engendering of three great religions by Israel; and the order brought to the scattered states of Western Europe by the Romans.  In modern times, the peaceful transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela into a multiracial democracy could be called the Great Work of that nation.

Our Great Work

It’s nice to imagine that the great environmental challenges of our time will mystically be solved by outside forces so that we can just keep doing what we are doing to the Earth that sustains us.  

Alas, that is an impossible hope.  The triple task of stemming the damage we are doing, undoing the harm we have already done and transforming ourselves from plunderers to partners in a complex, integrated community of life is ours and ours alone.  You could call it the Great Work of our time.  Like all Great Works, it must be the work of all people; no exceptions.

So, in 2014, may we all find time in our busy lives to contemplate, focus and act upon the Great Work that calls us.