What About This Cathedral? The ‘Environmentalist’ Response to Notre Dame

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week (in which case what is your rent and is there more room under there), you’ll know that part of Paris’ beloved Notre Dame cathedral burnt down last Monday. It was a terrible thing to happen to such an iconic building, and naturally there was a global outpouring of grief. So why am I wasting this Monday slot to talk about it?

The fact that the response itself was surprising is not what I want to talk about, that’s been covered by both better writers and more heavily invested parties than me. I want to talk about the response of certain parts of the ecological community and other environmentally minded folk.

What followed shortly after the global outpouring of grief and promises of millions of dollars to repair the cathedral from the world’s wealthy, was a slew of posts and articles bemoaning the attention given to ‘some old building’ when we’re ruining the planet every day.

At this point I’ll interpolate and make two things very clear. 1: I’m not a Christian, and Notre Dame was never my favourite Parisian tourist attraction (the Sacre-Coeur Basilica takes that title). 2: I am an ecologist who is in a constant stage of frustration at how little the world seems to care about what we do to the environment on a daily basis. BUT.

We are NOT entitled to make people feel bad for a loss of something that was deeply meaningful to them. It is completely permissible to be sad about the loss of Notre Dame. Belittling someone who expresses emotion at the loss of something that had a special place in their heart is akin to rocking up to a funeral and yelling “WELL WHAT ABOUT THE PLANET” at a second cousin of the deceased.

Being angry at another cause for getting more attention than another cause* is an issue that I believe plagues ecology. I was at a lecture recently when an influential ecologist bemoaned the fact that climate change is so widely talked about when human land use is a much larger problem. What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.

I will admit, it’s frustrating to see the amount of money raised seemingly overnight for the cause**. I believe the public despair will fade in the minds of those without close ties to Paris or the Catholic Church over the coming weeks. The fire was a one-off event with devastating consequences. The public’s reaction to smaller, more catastrophic occurrences is always is always more pronounced. It was always going to get more attention than the slow, drawn out ecological collapse our planet is suffering from.

So let’s not get pissed off at people who felt shock, anguish or grief at the damage done to Notre Dame (though feel free to rain down ire on those who are pissed off at the loss of their planned Paris instagram post). Instead, let’s find new ways to talk about ecological damage in the hope that we can at least learn some lessons from the Paris fire.

*Though admittedly, hearing Macron’s pledge to fix Notre Dame must grate for the yellow-vest movement.

**Especially given the lack of a similar effort after the fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro last year. Although I would argue that was a product of the world not understanding what was lost, which is ON US.

7 comments

  • Well said, and thanks for being brave enough to say it. I hope you haven’t been slammed too badly on Twitter for saying it.

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    • Just about to post it now, fingers crossed the response is measured and diplomatic (that’s what Twitter is known for being, right?).

      Also, huge thanks for the support!

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  • Question Sam: what if the answer to the question “What can environmentally-minded people learn about attracting attention and support from the Notre Dame fire?” is “Nothing.”? You seem to hint at this answer in the post, when you note that the fire was a dramatic one-off event, unlike something like degradation of a reef that’s been ongoing for decades and likely will continue for decades more. And there are many other obvious disanalogies between Notre Dame and say, a coral reef or an endangered species or the whole biosphere. But perhaps I’m misreading you?

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    • First of all, damn you sir, for forcing me to organise my many but utterly incoherent thoughts on this!

      I don’t think the disanalogies are that strong. Notre Dame may have been a one-off, but there are fires every year in historical sites due to poor (or a lack of) upkeep. Look at the fire in Rio last year. The lack of attention it was given by Brazil’s politicians was called out immediately after the blaze. The analogy is pretty obvious here.

      https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/article-the-notre-dame-fire-was-a-warning-bell-but-will-europe-listen/

      The second obvious disanalogy is that Notre Dame is a building and should theoretically be easy to repair (although admittedly it simply won’t be the same afterwards). But Holly Jones and Oswald Schmitz posited in 2009 that “most ecosystems globally can, given human will, recover from very major perturbations on timescales of decades to half centuries”. So the planet CAN recover if we take action now (although admittedly it simply won’t be the same afterwards).

      https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005653

      What to learn though. With Notre Dame being such a cultural icon, the parallels I think of are the mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016/2017 and the recent fires in California, as they’re both extreme events indicative of a global trend. We need to start making that strong cultural link between these natural ‘cathedrals’ and the gap that they’ll leave behind them. But also that recovery IS possible, given human will.

      After this my thoughts become too rambling and vague, so I’ll leave it here for now.

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  • Continuing to think out loud, trying to articulate why I’m so bothered about the responses to the fire that I’ve seen from some ecologists and environmentalists on social media…

    One response I’ve seen from some ecologists and environmentalists to your point is to say something like “I’m not saying that people shouldn’t care about the Notre Dame fire, I’m just saying that they should also care about (say) coral bleaching too, for the same reasons that they care about the Notre Dame fire.”

    To which I think your funeral analogy provides the right response. You wouldn’t go to a stranger’s funeral and say to the mourners “I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about Grandpa Jim’s passing, but you might want to consider whether the Great Barrier Reef deserves a place in your heart too, for many of the same reasons Grandpa Jim did.” You wouldn’t do that because it’s not the time or the place. It’s not appropriate to use the immediate aftermath of a tragedy as a means to the end of attracting attention to some other thing you wish people paid more attention to. Even if you’re not telling them to pay *less* attention to the tragedy, or to pay attention to some other thing *instead*, but merely telling them to *also* pay attention to some other thing. And even if you’re *right* that the thing you want people to pay more attention to really does need and deserve more attention.

    I do think it’s normal and fine to respond to a tragic preventable loss by saying “this tragedy highlights the need to do X, Y, and Z to prevent similar tragedies in future.” But for that to be an acceptable response to a tragedy, I think you have to be referring to sufficiently similar tragedies. Otherwise, you come off like someone going to a funeral and trying to call the mourners’ attention to something else. And I’m sorry, but personally I just don’t think that coral bleaching or species extinctions or whatever are sufficiently similar to the Notre Dame fire to qualify (and I say that as an ecologist who cares a lot about coral bleaching and species extinctions and etc.). It’s one thing to respond to the immediate aftermath of the Notre Dame fire or the National Museum fire to call for, say, better maintenance and fire prevention of historically- and culturally-significant buildings. It’s quite another to respond to the Notre Dame fire or the National Museum fire by saying “this tragedy highlights the importance of taking steps to save the Great Barrier Reef before it too figuratively ‘burns down’.” I guess an analogy between environmental causes and the Notre Dame fire might be ok to draw after some appropriate period of time has passed after the Notre Dame fire. But within 24 hours of the fire? Personally, I don’t think that’s the time to be whipping out even the most well-intentioned analogy between the Notre Dame fire and environmental causes.

    I wonder what ecologists and environmentalists would think if the shoe was on the other foot. There is usually a decent amount of public and media attention whenever the last individual of some iconic species dies. Think of when Lonesome George died. Now imagine that cathedral preservationists had tried to use Lonesome George’s death to call attention to the importance of cathedral preservation. Honest question to my fellow ecologists: do you think such a call would’ve been both appropriate, and effective?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think your last example is a very appropriate analogy. I’m sure that even happens within ecology, whereby you have one species go extinct and another scientist scoffs and reminds us that insect species extinct every day and no-one cares (or even knows).

      I get that we need to have varied priorities within ecology, but I don’t think that using a moment like this to insist that our own particular cause is more valid helps anyone or anything.

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  • Pingback: Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face – Ecology is not a dirty word

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