On the night of April 15, 2019, as firefighters in Paris tried to stop the fire that was devouring Notre Dame, hundreds of Parisians gathered on the banks of the Seine to pray and sing the Hail Mary before the destruction of its cathedral. Many cried, some kneeling, when they saw how the flames destroyed one of the world jewels of the Gothic, a symbol of France and European culture. They knew perfectly that with their prayers they could not stop the tragedy, but the warmth of the common song comforted them. Perhaps in recent years there has not been such an impressive metaphor, as that of those images, that shows the extreme fragility that surrounds the human and that begins to preside over an increasingly dark horizon. Cathedrals were built to last forever and ever, but in just a few hours the Notre Dame emblem was consumed amid helplessness and resignation. What was believed sacred, oblivious to the ravages of time, was hopelessly lost.
Our world today is like the French cathedral hours before the fire. The United Nations IPCC report on climate change has been conclusive: if we do not radically transform our energy and consumption patterns now, humanity will be doomed to continuous catastrophe in the coming years. Will we be able to stop it? To do this, we are warned, we must immediately stop the machine of the capitalist economic system that ceaselessly devours scarce resources, polluting energies and increasingly unlivable lives. In other words, moving towards a new social contract that at the moment has no signs of materializing due to the resistance of big capital, the absence of a global political movement to force it, or the emergence of new powers, such as India, which are now demanding the benefits of an industrialization that they could not enjoy at the time. But there are two other fundamental problems, structural, on which I would now like to dwell on, since without facing them I believe that we will not be able to overcome the greatest challenge of our time either.
First, and possibly unlike those who prayed before Notre Dame, the materialism of contemporary society has managed to hide from us our weak human condition. The ancient lesson of the classics has been forgotten: we are finite beings, briefly inhabiting a finite planet, and our glories and ambitions will soon pass away and will not be remembered. The only hope we have, like that of those who built the cathedral, is that our works and actions will endure. But now, armed with smartphones, the man and woman of the 21st century seem to live in a constant and exhausting hamster wheel full of consumption, immediacy, speed, changes and lack of time and peace. It is the continuous unconsciousness of those who, sleepwalkers of reality, do not realize the fragility of everything that surrounds them. If the average temperature of the planet increases by 3 degrees, the scientific community warns us, most of Spain will be practically uninhabitable. We, industrious and hyper-connected hamsters, imagine that one day our descendants will not be able to enjoy the houses, streets and squares in which we have lived until now? Can we continue to be ecstatic with Vivaldi’s works if we lose track of the seasons of the year? What we previously believed sacred, which for a short time, perhaps in childhood, we still saw as eternal, can disintegrate as the vaults of Notre Dame did. If that possibility does not concern us, it is because, full of atrocious individualistic materialism, we are no longer capable of even singing a common song of pity and condemnation.
Second, an increasing percentage of this legion of sleepwalkers fully develop their existence in an urban context characterized by large cities in which contact with nature is non-existent. It is very difficult to raise awareness about the value of biodiversity and its fragility to those who do not even know it, to those who never enjoy a walk in the countryside or the waters of the rivers and they believe that with an air conditioner they cannot there is an extreme heat wave that cannot be overcome. If we do not know when the olives or grapes are harvested, we will not be able to appreciate the true gravity of the fact that each year the harvests have to be progressively advanced. If, living in the concrete hell that megacities have become, they don’t even notice the change of season in the foliage of the trees and in the song of the birds, will they still understand that work by Vivaldi? The environmental sensitivity of some urban minorities, without a doubt laudable, is often reduced by the little commitment that they can deploy in rural territories (the vast majority of our countries), which see how, year after year, the population, the capitals , the media and social concerns are concentrated only on a few square kilometers of asphalt and blocks of floor.
Fighting climate change, the challenge that fiercely threatens us today, should also imply a complete change in our common way of life, where the absolute predominance of economic and material reason is abandoned so that we can lead a more humane life. , a more alive and harmonious life with nature. For this we have before overcoming the two problems mentioned, the excessive materialism that hides our fragility, and the paradigm of self-referential urban hyperconcentration that forgets the country and the natural environment in which it lives. With the majority renounced the path of humility and sacredness of what surrounds us that constituted religion and the idea of transcendence, it is necessary to rework a new humanism that constantly makes us aware of our limits and the value of all our cathedrals, be it the slender gothic buildings or the lemon tree we played in as children. Here political conservatism would also have to play a relevant role if it is truly concerned with the preservation of culture, tradition and the legacy of those who preceded us, today more threatened and contingent than ever. And, encouraged by this awareness of the ephemeral, we would already need to rethink urban “development” models to abandon the irrational hyperconcentration in large cities that threatens to end, even before climate change, with the little cohesion that we still maintain in some countries. Time is short and hopes are dwindling. Praying before Notre Dame burning cannot be the only way out we have.