Their pain has emerged from a religious vacuum
Her name is Louise and she is 24 years old. She bears a certain resemblance to Greta Thunberg, or perhaps it is simply her demeanour and her choice of words which create the illusion of similarity. Despite being half a decade older than Thunberg, she exudes the same sense of childlike bewilderment at the complexities and difficulties of the adult world, the same adolescent impatience with the trade-offs and compromises that necessarily characterise supranational policy-making on a planet of eight billion.
Normally I find Just Stop Oil activists infuriating, possessing as they do the blank-eyed incuriosity of the true fanatic. There is something inhuman about the way they stare fixedly into the middle distance as some poor harassed mum begs them to let her take her daughter to hospital. However, the video of Louise, perched on a gantry above the M25, made me feel very sad.
On Tuesday Louise Perry argued for UnHerd that the green protestors of the modern day are natural successors to a certain Christian tradition. Specifically, according to the piece, they are the new millenarians, whose rhetoric is based on “radical, apocalyptic elements in Christianity that have been with us for two thousand years.”
Watching this young activist, though, I thought it was a tragedy that the decline of Christian practice and belief has left her, and many others, weighed down by despair and misery with little prospect of any kind of existential relief. Her admirable instinct for justice and fairness is being channelled into a campaign which is ultimately anti-civilisation and inhumane, inflicting inconvenience and suffering on ordinary people in the name of an unachievable goal. She has absorbed a narrative of apocalyptic destruction and collapse, which fails to give any kind of real reason for hope or reassurance.
A typical Marxist-influenced riposte to this idea is to reiterate the old propaganda point about religion being the opiate of the masses, a way to get people to ignore worldly problems in favour of “pie in the sky when you die”.
But the argument is not that we should ignore climate change, or simply go to church and forget about difficult policy issues. Churches have plenty to say about the moral questions arising from climate change: note, for example, Pope Francis’s teaching document Laudato Si’.
Rather, it is that the Christian worldview gives people an ultimate hope which might prevent them from falling into the catastrophising unreality which has consumed Louise. It provides a way of channelling their admirable zeal for the improvement of the world into direct, practical help for real individuals known to them, rather than grandiose gestures in the service of abstract campaigns.
The Christian emphasis on the importance of each individual, which has so often proved irritating to totalitarians, would benefit those Just Stop Oil activists. They maintain an Olympian disdain for the mundane concerns of others, like getting to work or to hospital or to see their families, but a new focus on selflessness could provide them with the salvation they so desperately seek.