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I’ll meet you on the Field of Mars – A Druid’s view of COP21

The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Paris over the past few weeks, culminating on the morning of Saturday 12th. From the deliberations of the world’s governments over night and day, an agreement has been created – 31 pages of aspirations, promises, and plans, all concerning the steps that will be taken to protect our atmosphere, oceans, soils, and habitats from climate change. It is the first time any such agreement has been truly comprehensive; including all our world’s nations as signatories. It is, in this way, a historic act. But the agreement itself is not nearly enough. Taken together, the commitments made by the parties will still allow carbon emissions rise to an unacceptable degree. The doorway to a sustainable future remains open – but we are still a long way from crossing the threshold. The influence of big emitters remains strong, the ambition of national governments remains relatively weak. As such, despite the agreement, some commentators have said that COP21 was a failure.

I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.

When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.

With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:

Obviously, this isn’t to say that there weren’t any Pagans at COP, or that Pagans didn’t engage with the process in other, meaningful ways. Witches in Paris and elsewhere raised a protective, empowering, golden circle around the Conference and the city, “to summon the great, powerful, irresistible Goddess of Love – the Great Mother – she who grounds, protects, and tips the scales.” The importance of magical work cannot be underestimated; by focussing our energies onto collective ends, miracles can (and do) happen. And I have no doubt that there were Pagans taking part in marches and protests – in Paris and elsewhere – throughout the Conference. What I find interesting, is not what Pagans were doing, but what we weren’t doing, compared to other faith traditions.

Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).

Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a seed-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions – we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.

This passivity has consequences. Before I went to COP, the final Climate Histories seminar of term was on the topic of religious engagement with climate change. Dr Jonathan Chaplin, the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) gave a fascinating talk on the subject, focussing upon the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale’s compilation of Climate Change Statements from World Religions. The much-discussed Pagan Statement on Climate Change was not even listed amongst them. In comparison to the statements created by other faiths, further, the Pagan Statement itself seems oddly cursory – it does not refer to a broader literature, nor does it take steps to link our ecological concerns to social justice. As has been argued on Gods and Radicals previously, this shortcoming allowed the Catholic Church to effectively steal our thunder with Laudato ’Si. Indeed, at one of the lectures hosted in the Green Zone, the discussant – Dena Merriam, the Founder of Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) –  invited a series of speakers to discuss the spiritual malady at the heart of environmental destruction. The person tasked with speaking to how we might reconnect with the living world was not a Pagan, but Father Michael Holleran – a Catholic Priest and Zen Buddhist Sensei. He spoke well, and even mentioned us: “The Earth is our Mother. That’s not just… you know, “Wiccan”, you know, that’s… Pope Francis uses that image in here as well, and many traditions wisely and correctly do.” The is an implicit sense here, that Wicca is the fringe, from which the notion of the Earth Mother must be reclaimed. At this talk, incidentally, were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, a Muslim, and a Lakota elder. But no Pagans.

It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.

Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.

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But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.

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Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.

The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.

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Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.

I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.

I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.

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Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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11 Comments »

  1. I organized the “Witches in Paris” working that was referenced in your article and wish I had known you were in Paris too. I was working inside the UN Blue Zone credentialed area and ventured to Climate Generations/Green Zone only a few times since I was working 10+ hour full days. Your description of the Green Zone is accurate. What’s missing? The creepy, giant, planet earth posters plastered with happy faces that greeted visitors after we passed armed guards astride motorcycles and horses. Was their message ‘Take Prozak and get happy while the planet burns?’ or ‘Smile or else?’ Your description of the talks is also accurate: the agreement itself is not nearly enough. We are on a dangerous course for 3.5 degrees warming: a death sentence for countries/communities that did not create the emissions but are still suffering from their disastrous effects. I often contemplate the role Pagans could/should be playing in climate change. Many Pagans including myself, were active in the 90s during the fight to save ancient old-growth forests in Northern California. We fought corporations like Maxxam as individuals and also organized with the Church of All Worlds and the Reclaiming Tradition. But, was that a fluke? Are Pagans too distrustful of authority and organized religion (and each other) to come together around climate change like other religious/spiritual traditions? I welcome the opportunity to discuss further and thank you for this article. [On a side note: you use the word “faith”, but I personally don’t like the word “faith” because it implies a belief not based on proof. I have direct experience of my Gods. They do not require faith or belief. But humanity…well that is another thing entirely.]

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Laurie! It’s wonderful to hear from someone who was was also at COP21, and has such a wealth of experience of environmental campaigning.

      I agree with you totally about the creepy posters – apparently the entire design for the site was done in-house by the French Government, which perhaps goes some way to explain the curiously statist, minitrue aesthetic!

      You raise some very good questions: personally, I think the answers that we give to them will determine the extent to which Pagan traditions will flourish in the coming years. One of the things that has always acted like rocket fuel to spiritual and philosophical movements in the past has been moral leadership – if we don’t respond in that way, I think interest in our traditions will diminish.

      [If I’m honest, I don’t like faith either – for the very reasons you yourself give. Its presence here is a concession to the dominant discourse of the spiritual fora in the Green Zone – where “faith” is part of the lexicon. Perhaps something that we should challenge!]

      It would be great to chat to you more about these things. Could I perhaps trouble you for your email address?

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  2. Thanks for going and reporting back. I supported some people from Lancaster in a small way by denoting money at a fund-raising gig to help them fund their bike ride. I wonder whether a part of the lack of Pagan organised groups was not only our disorganisation but a lack of funds?

    When I was an Interfaith worker for the University Central of Lancashire the Islamic Society were the most unified group doing the most to bring about positive change and always voiced their commitments to the environment when I spoke about paganism.

    Sounds like a powerful gathering on the Fields of Mars. Let’s hope its magic works toward decreasing climate change.

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    • Thanks for your comments Lorna!

      Money is always a bit of a stumbling block isn’t it? I have to say, though, I encountered plenty of really small groups of limited means who were nonetheless able to make it to Paris (including charities with only one or two full-time employees, campaign groups composed almost entirely of students, and of course indigenous groups who are often of very limited means). So I’m a little loathed to let us off the hook that easily 😉

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  3. I think the lack of pagan organisations represented at the COP is a general reflection that pagan organisations generally don’t participate in the wider community but generally only within the pagan community. Also there are many diverse pagan organisations, none of which can claim to speak for other than their own members at best, many of these groups are small local groups who may be active in local environmental initiatives but who would never consider being involved in an international event such as the COP. However there are larger organisations such as the Pagan Federation & druid orders such as OBOD who could potentially take on a more public role in representing pagan views in wider society, particularly on issues such as spirituality & the environment. But this would be a big shift to make as we have no history of engaging in wider society in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anne, thanks for your comment!

      I think your characterisation of the community at present is very fair: lots of very small groups, and a few big ones, all of which are quite inwardly focussed. I feel that is not only a great shame, but it’s also going to become harder and harder to sustain. As more and more of our planet is laid waste; more people suffer and die; and times become harder and harder – we will not be able to hide away, even if we’d want to.

      So yes, a big shift is needed, but that’s the stuff of life – big shifts all the way along! Nothing we can’t handle, I reckon.

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