Contraction vs Distraction: Toward Earthier Coalitions

By Catherine Keller 

“Distracted by distraction from distraction.” That line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” has been circling in my head. It comes as a mutter when I think of the circulation of current world crises. A war with nuclear potential now distracts us from the persistent pandemic and climate change as we scrounge around for fuel for Europe—while Covid-19 had already effectively sidelined serious attention to climate change, which was already veiled from sustained public attention by the global force of economics as usual.

And as this blog’s deadline approaches, another horrendous challenge strikes in the US: the Supreme Court’s imminent termination of the right to abortion by overturning its 1973 decision in Roe v Wade. Reproductive rights are in jeopardy, and the issue of gender rises to the headlines again. Another “distraction” to the list of non-avoidable emergencies.

Does the universal gravity of climate change imply it is the only real issue and that the colossal loss of lives to pandemic, war, and failed reproductive care is somehow trivial by contrast, undeserving of their headlines? After all the death toll of global warming (close to a hundred million deaths estimated for this century) will be far greater, the consequences far more final. Shouldn’t we subordinate all other issues to the supervening challenge of the global ecology?

No, that won’t work. It would be neither realistic nor humane. Such emergencies as the war in Ukraine, Covid, reproductive (and other) healthcare do actually require attention of the first magnitude and they may continue to play out for some time with or without more supervening global shocks. Yet at the same time, we won’t have a chance of addressing climate change during the three-to-six-year window still open to us to make the immense needed changes if our collective focus continues to dissipate just when it needs to intensify.

So far, the shocks that climate change provides cannot quite compete for media attention. Last week’s Supreme Court revelation; California registered the three driest months on record; Santiago has seen thirteen years of drought; climate-driven malnutrition and displacement besets millions in the Horn of Africa; the ocean, which provides over half of our oxygen, is overheating and “gasping for breath.” The question of distraction from climate change remains dire—no matter how serious other crises are. And they come connected to each other: viruses jumping from animals to humans are linked to climate-change shifts in habitats, and stopping Putin means fast independence from his oil and gas.

I suggest then a brief meditation on the word “distraction.” It comes into Middle English from Latin distract-, which means “drawn apart,” or “pull in opposite directions”; the verb distrahere combines dis- “apart” with trahere “to draw, drag.” By the year 1600 it carries the sense of “violent mental disturbance, excitement resembling madness” (as in driven to distraction). Distraction then signifies a dragging apart, a disturbing separation. Isn’t that exactly what goes on with great competing crises?

It is however not just a matter of attention being dragged away, diverted, from one thing to another. Each of the global crises performs its own dis-trahere: Covid drove us materially apart with great mental anguish for many. Russia’s assault, driven by coldly pragmatic motives, at the same time exhibits a world-rupturing  “excitement resembling madness”  as it effects a violent “pull in opposite directions” between not only Russia and Ukraine but East and West.

In climate change, we witness a different dis-trahere: that of the slow but accelerating pace of our species being “dragged apart” from other species, indeed from the elements that make up our material world. We are kept distracted—by business as usual as much as by major crises—from that primal distraction. Whoever considers the projections of climate-change outcomes recognizes something like mental disturbance, “resembling madness,” in the political failure to prevent them. So at root, the distractions which endanger much of our world read as mass actions of disconnection, of dragging and being dragged away.

Ecology is the study of the interrelations that make up our eco, oikos, home. Every war and pandemic wreaks massive disconnections along with collective mental disturbances. But climate change names the ultimate “violent mental disturbance” (of the etymology above). Slowly we yield to the increasingly irreversible destruction inevitably following from the approaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the climate-change point of no return. To be distracted from facing the smoothed over madness of an economic system dooming our collective future—isn’t that its own madness? It means to be distracted from the interdependence that makes us and the world up, from the interrelations that constitute our quantum, elemental, biological, and mental life individually and together. For we simply do not exist outside of—or drawn apart from—our interrelations with the rest of existence.

Perhaps the only cure to the present multiple distractions comes in systemic contractions: drawing together again into some sense of a shared planetary life. That means that whatever mega-crises hit, we discern and resist new temptations to pull apart. We open eyes to the material connections between crises—like the links between Putin’s power and dependence on climate-destroying fossil fuels or his instrumentalization of gender to secure the loyalty of a conservative base. Above all, through all, beneath all, the connections to our shared planetary ecology.

Many of us have realized the global and particularly western European dependence on Russian fossil fuel exports only because of this war. In the face of the unbearable tragedy of Putin’s assault, however, we recognize that much of Europe and in particular Germany cannot quickly free itself from its dependence upon Russian energy. We listen hungrily for more signals of Europe’s intent to shift quickly to renewable energy sources. As to good US intentions, the fear that they will be trumped—by politics and economics as usual and all the more so by coming elections—circles us around to the autocratic threat to democracy that is in play in the US, albeit differently from in Ukraine. Indeed, democracy is flailing potentially across the planet and so threatening worse retreats from action on the climate.

Holding the connection between this war that threatens to go global and wider dangers to democracy and the climate is not a way of saying they have the “same” causes. It is a way that contraction can resist distraction: healing the madness of the disconnects and so drawing diverse publics closer together, contracting into fresh solidarities that keep us intersecting across all of our issues. All of these issues—and other ones, like the crisis of US racism—can feel like distractions from each other. Contractions themselves can be painful. But if we allow the severing of such issues from each other, they remain in competition, their publics further “drawn apart,” making it harder to address any of them.

Such polarizations and dissociations serve the wannabe autocrats and the fossil-fueled capitalists, the trumpers of the Earth, all too well. If instead we can sense and analyze the connections—not just react to each crisis in its abstraction from the others—then we may find ways that our issues do not distract from but contract into one another. Then we can grow and strengthen coalitions across and of the Earth. Liberal and progressive forms of religion may provide crucial affects of trust, love, and hope in motivating local planetary coalescences.

Without the enlivening practices of a mindful interdependence, we are left with “Burnt Norton”’s self-multiplying distractions: “Filled with fancies and empty of meaning. / Tumid apathy with no concentration.” That lack of concentration, that surrender to distractions, will remain a temptation. For when the struggle for a habitable world gets chilled into numbness, then we are “whirled by the cold wind . . . wind in and out of unwholesome lungs.” Perhaps if we breathe it mindfully into our polluted bodies, breathe it in deeply and together, that wind-breath of ruach, pneuma, spirit will begin to warm us into earthier coalitions.

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Catherine Keller is George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology in The Graduate Division of Religion, Drew University. Her books include Apocalypse Now & Then: A Feminist Approach to the End of the World; God & Power; Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming; On the Mystery;  Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement; Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public. Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances is the most recent. She has co-edited several volumes of the Drew Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquium, including Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science and the New Materialism and Political Theology on Edge: Ruptures of Justice and Belief in the Anthropocene.


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