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.