Since the night that Notre Dame was devastated in a fire, most people have assumed that the Gothic cathedral at the centre of Paris should be lovingly restored – and more than a billion euros have been pledged towards restoration.
Experts have estimated that the work would take between 20 and 40 years – by which time the UN’s climate agency estimates that we will have long exceeded dangerous levels of global warming, if current levels of emissions continue.
On the same day that Notre Dame was blazing, protesters shut down parts of London, urging emergency action against climate collapse. Nations and coastal cities are starting to disappear under rising oceans. Densely populated regions are becoming too hot for humans. Many people in the global south are staring the collapse of functioning society in the face.
It therefore seems a strange time to restore at such cost a monument to the western civilisation that helped create these conditions. It is time to take a hard look at buildings such as Notre Dame and ask what they represent, and whether we should still be treasuring them.
Our current ideas on climate, environment, and inequality are partly the product of medieval Christian states. They saw humanity as dominant over and separate from nature, rather than part of it. Religious teaching emphasised that Earth was a place of sin, unhappiness and temptation. Good Christians should turn their thoughts to God, obey their priests, and look for justice only in the afterlife. The world would end before long, which meant it would be destroyed and replaced with a new, perfect place in which saved souls would live forever.
Church authorities regularly described neighbouring populations as irrational “pagans” who were too close to nature, who worshipped trees, thunder and lightning. This was a justification for invading their lands, converting them to Christianity, and cutting down their sacred trees.
The remnants of these ideas persist in various forms today, from harmful land management practices through to the idea that it is rational to prioritise the economic goals of the state over addressing environment collapse. The reluctance of wealthy nations to deviate from these attitudes is a major cause of climate and ecological breakdown.
So let’s not restore Notre Dame. Instead, let it stand as a symbol of the damage that our climate denial and environmental entitlement have already caused our planet; a reminder of the much greater losses that will follow, and a call to action.
Why Notre Dame?
Given the emotions around this cathedral and the great love expressed for it by so many people, it may seem strange to target Notre Dame for such a gesture. But when its history is considered, it becomes apparent that Notre Dame and the causes of climate and environmental breakdown are far from strangers.
During the nearly 200 years that Notre Dame was being built, the kingdom of France became increasingly powerful and closely governed. This was a crucial stage in the emergence of the modern nation. The ruling dynasty, the Capetians, were skilled propagandists. The new cathedral was built to assert royal and religious prestige. It was a place from which crusades were announced, and the population was taught that God valued obedience from the people. Social inequality was the human condition, and injustices were to be endured.
The construction, which began in 1163, was financed through taxes, tithes – 10% of annual income that all laypeople were required to hand over to the church – and labour from the peasant majority. Many of these people were serfs tied to the land they lived on, required by their lords to intensify the ongoing clearing of woodland and draining of marshland to extract the maximum from the terrain. In these areas, ecologies were disrupted and biodiversity declined. Soil erosion, flooding and silting of rivers resulted.
The coercive, extractive rule on which Capetian France was founded – and on which Notre Dame was sanctioned – drove a wider exploitation of nature. For example, demand among the elite for furs and other luxuries led to severe reductions in animal, bird and fish populations. Beavers, wildcats and most other fur-bearing animals bigger than a weasel, together with sturgeon and some native salmon, were rare after the 12th century.
In areas where the rule of nobles was weaker and peasant farmers more independent, biodiversity was far better maintained. Peasants were not forced to focus on growing cereal crops to feed nobles and their animals, and so had more varied diets. They were healthier and the risks of famine in the population were lower. There are very clear connections between the strength of the French church and state’s coercive rule and the degree of ecological damage, unscrupulous extraction and social inequality.
Notre Dame for the future
The most compelling critique of plans to pour money into the restoration of Notre Dame has come from the “gilets jaunes”. They asserted that their protests against rising poverty and inequality had been largely ignored by the same wealthy elites who could find, overnight, a billion euros for the state-launched fundraiser in aid of the prestigious cathedral.
From this perspective, it seems that when making decisions about what matters, the priorities and values of the French state and elite have changed little. The main difference is that it is no longer just the poor of France whose interests are at stake.
To adapt to the challenges of the future, we need to take a radically different view of Europe’s past. We must recognise how deeply the roots of western civilisation and our contemporary way of life are entangled with sharp social injustice and environmental destruction.
Notre Dame could become a symbol of that recognition. For people of faith, clearing it for worship but not indulging in an expensive restoration could be a powerful way to act on Pope Francis’s call for a drastic transformation of how humans treat the planet. It might seem dramatic, but only a strategic surrender of our damaging ways of living and thinking will enable us to respond to the fierce demands of the coming decades.