Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time: Engaging the Cultural and Spiritual Presence of the Past to Promote a Sustainable Future

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Divinity


This project will investigate the contrast between short term temporalities and the long run temporality of 'ancestral time' in order to understand and repair the failure of modern industrial societies to mitigate human climate impacts.

When considering the future allocation of resources it is common practice for government and business to discount returns on investments both with respect to time and value. This produces a short-term temporal outlook in public life that trades future costs against present-day consumption. It also promotes a framework in which responsibility for climate and ecological costs is diffused or denied. By contrast secular environmentalism, such as the 'Transition Towns' movement, advocates for care in the light of dramatic future climate change. However 'climate apocalyptic' has catastrophist overtones and assumes a radical break between the present and the near future. Socio-psychological studies reveal that catastrophism can be demotivating to positive change. Climate apocalyptic may therefore be no more effective than economistic temporalities in sustaining a sense of legacy between present and future generations.

Religious organisations, like cultural institutions concerned with heritage, think differently about time, community and responsibility. This is because their mission is to engage the weight of the past in the present. We call this awareness of past time in the present 'ancestral time' and this refers to a spiritual disposition in which debts to past and future generations of humans are honoured. Christian understanding of time is shaped by a conception of intergenerational community, known as the 'communion of saints'. In this idea present generations are conscious of the presence of the past and of their consequent debts both to the dead and of their legacy and responsibilities to future generations. Hence the earliest traces of the human built environment in Scotland are ancient memorials to the dead, such as the neolithic cairns on Orkney. The project team will explore the viability of ancestral time through research into the motives, practices and values of climate activists who are also members of religious communities.

In this project we will seek to discover whether ancestral time can offer an alternative to both economistic and climate apocalyptic temporalities and sustain a greater sense of connection and responsibility between present and future generations. The project research will also seek to articulate a deeper conceptual frame for faith-based climate activism, which, as our practitioner partner notes, often manifests a passionate but 'ill-defined feeling of "care for creation" and can lack a sense of structure, legacy and impetus'. The project brings together the ecumenical charity, Eco-Congregation Scotland, consisting of over 280 churches across Scotland, with an interdisciplinary team from the University of Edinburgh. Drawing on insights from theology, environmental philosophy, economic history, geography, and political theory the project will enable eco-congregations to clarify and re-imagine their vision of the future.

The moral tragedy of climate change is that its effects will be felt decades after the behaviours that cause it: this presents a cultural imperative to promote behaviours and practices that are responsive to a long term 'ancestral' chain of cause and effect. The Scottish government has recognised the potential offered by spiritual temporality by providing financial support to Eco-Congregation Scotland to embed sustainable and low carbon behaviours in local communities and households. The clearer articulation of a unique 'ancestral' temporal horizon may further invigorate religious climate activism, and provide important new resources for secular climate activism and policy makers as they seek to influence businesses, householders and local communities to act in ways that respect the ecological legacy of present generations in the future.

Planned Impact

1) Who might benefit from this research?

This research brings interdisciplinary scholarship into engagement with third-sector activism to enact and sustain a conversation about how to formulate a robust response to climate change. Given the variety of stakeholders involved, it has the potential to benefit several different groups in addition to those academic specialists described above (under "Academic Beneficiaries").

- First, this research offers a direct benefit to those working to effect climate change action in faith groups and civil society groups in the UK including church clergy and laity, church charities and the general public.
- A second group of stakeholders who may derive additional benefit from this research are those in government and the NGO sector working to frame public policy, deploy behaviour change with regards to carbon generation by persons in Scotland and provide paradigms for living with environmental change.

2) How might they benefit from this research?

The academic research undertaken in this project will resource public and third-sector climate change activism in several respects. First, the research will look beyond the traditional temporal framing which focuses on the immediate past (driven by the limited empirical range of climate science) to a more robust 'ancestral' narrative which links contemporary action to past and future. In this way project research will provide avenues for a new and more formalised rapprochement between the environmental humanities and climate change action, particularly within Scottish churches.

A key objective for this project is to help Eco-Congregation Scotland empirically assess their past public impact and develop a new vision statement to guide future public engagement as they look ahead to furthering project impact on climate change action in Scotland. In this way, the project promises to shape and enhance the effectiveness of this public service and offers a possible contribution toward environmental sustainability, protection and impact reduction in Scotland. Following these two objectives, project investigators will engage concretely with eco-congregations in two ways. First, project investigators will help to develop and deploy an empirical study of eco-congregations impact on behavior change in Scotland. Second, Adrian Shaw (from Eco-Congregation Scotland) will serve as an active participant in research seminars. At a project seminar in year two Mr. Shaw will present a new mission statement for Eco-Congregation Scotland. This presentation will provide a feedback loop to other co-investigators and offer an opportunity for early deployment of critical apparatus developed in research seminars in the ensuing conversation.

Eco-Congregation Scotland is recognised as an important part of government action in Scotland on climate change, and hence its secretariat has attracted government funds. Enhancement of the eco-congregations project offers a potential influence on evidence based policy-making in Scotland and a related influence on public policies and legislation at a local, regional and national level. To this end, a second pathway to impact will involve the hosting of a conference which will include important supporters and members of the Eco-Congregation Scotland including persons involved in the creation of climate policy and members of the Scottish Government.

A third pathway to impact is focused towards general public engagement. Throughout the project, we will communicate our research activity to the public through the eco-congregations blog and email list, popular religious press, and through the project website. In addition, in cooperation with Eco-Congregation Scotland, we will organise and host a workshop for ministers-in-training and parishoners who are interested in, or currently engaged in sustainability initiatives at the local level on the topic of caring for the future and responding to climate change.


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Ginn F (2015) When Horses Won't Eat: Apocalypse and the Anthropocene in Annals of the Association of American Geographers

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Kidwell J (2016) Time for Business: Business Ethics, Sustainability, and Giorgio Agamben's 'Messianic Time' in De Ethica. A Journal of Philosophical, Theological and Applied Ethics

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Northcott M (2015) Myth, Ritual, and the New Universe Story in the Inner Hebrides in Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture

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Northcott M (2016) Economic Magical Thinking and the Divine Ecology of Love in Environmental Humanities

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Northcott M (2016) Planetary Moral Economy and Creaturely Redemption in in Theological Studies

Description We have completed our enquiries and we can confirm we have found evidence that the community groups we investigated have understandings of action toward sustainability that are different to those conventionally attributed to 'environmentalists' and in particular that they were motivated to action for the environment primarily on the basis of concerns about the human justice impacts of climate change and species extinction both in respect of poor communities in the developing world, and in Scotland, and in respect of future generations. This indicates to us, and we are sharing this knowledge with policy makers in conservation organisations both governmental and non-governmental, that public messages, and policies, around actions towards sustainability should enhance the human dimension of environmental messaging and policy, and affirm the positive human effects of more sustainable kinds of behaviour, as well as the effects upon nonhumans and habitats.
Exploitation Route Framing climate change or biodiversity issues around regard for nature is less likely to appeal to the community groups we researched than framing them around the needs and rights of presently existing persons, including refugees and others who are displaced or whose lands become effectively unliveable or uneconomic because of extreme weather, or degradation of habitat resulting from greenhouse gas emissions or from harvesting of local natural resources by outside agencies both commercial and governmental. The other groups for which people said they were and would continue to pursue pro-environmental behaviours were known future adults, and in particular the children and grandchildren of present persons. Despite the advocacy by philosophers and others of concepts of 'intergenerational justice and intergenerational injustice' our data indicate that vague appeals to future time or future generations have weak motivational power. This has research impacts in the environmental humanities - including philosophy and ethics - as well as for policy makers and law makers.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The project has demonstrated to the Scottish government the wisdom of their support funding for the network of communities Scottish Ecocongregations as our data showed the impact of this network on community efforts towards environmental and climate change education, reducing carbon footprint, and enhancing connections with nature or biodiversity through such activities as vegetable growing and new approaches to churchyard care, Sunday Schools and congregational activities in the community such as beach and river bed litter clean ups.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Researcher led workshop for Scottish Government civil servants and policy makers, Victoria Quay, Leith 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Northcott and Kidwell led a one hour presentation and discussion with civil servants responsible for climate change and communities and energy policy in Victoria Quay, Scottish government civil service site. The presentation shared the conclusions outlined under narrative elsewhere in research fish,and additional conclusions. The main findings as shared were as follows:

We report on a UK government funded research project of Scotland's largest network of communities engaged in environmental education and behavioural change, Ecocongregations Scotland. We conducted research in 20% of network churches, including sixty in depth interviews, and achieved a good geographical spread from Orkney and North Uist to the lowland cities and the Borders. Our principal findings:

Almost all churches in the network had an 'eco' pioneer who formed a 'green group' which encouraged church members and the kirk session to engage in environmental behaviours and educational activities to raise awareness.

Environmental behaviours stimulated by 'green groups' included installation of low energy church lighting; church collections of batteries, printer cartridges and other post-consumer waste not well managed by local government; turning down church heating; draft proofing / insulating church buildings; changing church and household energy accounts to renewable energy providers; providing annual audits for church building and members of their carbon footprints; encouraging car sharing for church meetings; holding public-facing environmental educational events on climate change etc; engaging church members in community gardening, beach or river bed clean-ups; visiting primary schools to give talks about caring for the environment; investigating and installing renewable energy for church heating and electricity such as biomass boilers and rooftop solar and small wind turbines.
Church of Scotland churches more inclined to join the Ecocongregations network than others; Ecocongregations offices located in CofS HQ in 121 George street; CofS is more lay led than other churches so a lay green champion is able to form a green group, present reports and proposals to the kirk session without formal appointment by a salaried clergy person.
Location of church in local communities provides a public space for environmental engagement and for community mobilisation around projects such as environmental clean-ups, community gardening, car sharing.

Some used environmental engagement as a way of extending the appeal of the church in a social context of declining interest in religion, including engagement of younger families.
Potential of churches as community eco-pioneers is under-realised. Very few had PV installations or visible exterior markers of pro-environmental values or behaviours. But we obtained limited evidence that where the church had led on e.g. PV installation, its visibility prompted householder installations.
Environmental values in the network included:
intention to preserve a stable climate and rich biodiversity for future generations;
intention to mitigate suffering from climate change already being experienced by poor farmers in developing world countries with strong church links such as Malawi;
desire for churches to lead broader political and economic environmental behaviours - for example by divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies;
individual empowerment towards pro-environmental behaviours through community engagement evidenced in belief that small actions by individuals when copied by others in the same residential community have greater collective impacts than when individuals act alone.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016