The Fellowship Model: Faith, Sacrifice and Transformation

By Thiago Garcia, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, and Kira Vinke
March 2021

In recent decades, it became increasingly evident that the relationship of the majority of social systems with natural systems is characterized by unsustainable overexploitation that submits societies to growing risks. The Covid-19 pandemic is just one aspect of this fundamentally dysfunctional relationship that revealed how fragile the fundaments of our modern societies are. The ongoing corona crisis begs the realization that this dysfunctional relationship to nature must be transformed. But how? We believe that the answer may lie in changing the relationship between key actors involved in this tragedy, from the prevailing championship model, in which actors unite behind the strongest to produce “champions”, to a fellowship model in which actors move to protect the weakest, who are carrying the heaviest burden. The fellowship model is in line with the biblical teachings of Jesus and in part resembles his path to sacrifice for the greater good.

Our fellowship model builds on a popular saga: “The Lord of the Rings”, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an English writer, academic and philologist lauded around the world for his widely-read fantasy books. A lesser known aspect of his life is his religious denomination. Roman Catholicism was fundamental to his world views and writing. This article takes inspiration in Tolkien´s works and proposes an alliance model “The Fellowship Model” as a way to overcome the Covid-19 and the global ecological crisis, both of which are consequences of the organisation of current social systems. (Pillar 4 - Rebalancing social systems with nature in the wake of Covid19.)

Sense of Urgency

For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.” (The Lord of the Rings, p. 959)

The Covid-19 pandemic is one visible and immediate aspect of the overarching ecological crisis. In the case of Covid-19, the dysfunction lies with the relationship between food systems and biodiversity, as the consumption of wildlife led to the spread of zoonotic disease to humans. Following the interconnectedness between countries sustained by fast and affordable means of transportation, the virus spread quickly through countries and regions. Even with real-time information available on the developments of its spread, societies struggled to mobilize in time to stop this explosive process. Nevertheless, a large number of countries took extensive measures to slow down the dynamics of infections, recognizing the urgency.

It is now clear that countries and regions which relied on scientific knowledge and timely response could offer better protection to their population. Others were less successful in their containment measures because of delays in decision-making, often related to the undermining of the legitimacy of scientific findings and a lack of governmental efficiency. Despite the global efforts to contain the virus, the underlying problems, like rampant wildlife trade and the destruction of natural habitats remain, however, unaddressed. 

In the case of the climate crisis, years of inaction and science denial have caused climate impacts that threaten pristine ecosystems like forests and coral reefs, to materialize today. More severe and critical impacts can still be avoided, but the time window to protect humanity from a domino-effect of ecosystems’ collapse is shrinking rapidly, due to continuously high emissions. 

The climate crisis and the global pandemic are characterized by critical time points after which non-linear dynamics set off that lead to unmanageable damages which overwhelm the capacities of even highly industrialized nations. The Covid-19 pandemic forcefully exhibited these dynamics and thus made us more aware that we will ultimately be affected by the disturbances we are causing in nature and need to act urgently to change course. 

A Global Crisis and a shared Destiny

„For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.“ Romans 12:4-5

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis addressed the world from Saint Peter’s square in Rome, highlighting the shared destiny of humanity: “We have realised that we are in the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other” (March 2020).

The ecological crisis is global. Covid-19 proved that our relationship to biodiversity can appear deceivingly as a local or national issue. But it can have global repercussions, as the wildlife trade in China has proven. The protection of biodiversity and key ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, needs addressing on all levels of governance, requiring also global, multilateral efforts. This realization becomes even more evident if we take into consideration the climate crisis and its distribution of impacts. Although the effects of the ecological crisis vary greatly from locality to locality, no corner of the globe is exempt from it. Hit by wildfires, coastal erosion, floods, extreme heat, cyclones, floating plastic, coral bleaching, glacial recession or the spread of new diseases, all contemporary societies already experience some degree of pressure. Unfortunately, in our current configuration of actors and forces, we have so far not been able to change our relationship with nature.

The Fellowship – Sorelle e Fratelli Tutti

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs” (Canticle of the Creatures, Saint Francis)

As we gained a profound understanding of the magnitude of contemporary global challenges, our societies should be capable of promoting a process of purposeful dialog between actors divided by topical, historical, and narrative differences. The necessary change in the relationship to nature demands an unlikely and solidarity-based coalition of actors. 

In a post-Covid-19 world, it is imperative that dialogs already promoted by the common challenges are translated into alliances and fellowships oriented to the protection of the weak. These fellowships should be formed aiming at the protection of the weakest and heaviest burden carrying actors along their way to overcome the collective dysfunctionality. In that sense, the weakest actor, by the combined force of the fellowship, becomes the most powerful actor in face of the challenge. This proposition follows Tolkien’s idea, when in The Lord of the Rings, a fellowship is formed to protect the bearer of the greatest burden. 

In the Covid-19 Crisis, the most susceptible were the elder. In this case some alliances were formed between the younger population, religious communities, academia and governments to protect this share of the population. With more or less intensity and success, these alliances were based in the sense of urgency and solidarity.

Following the same logic, in the global climate crisis there are three groups that resemble the role of the “weakest” actor. One are the poor, whose livelihoods often directly depend on functioning ecosystems, such as is the case for smallholder farmers or fishers. People living in poverty do not have the resources to adapt to climate impacts through the fortification of their homes or other measures. Therefore, the poor are carrying the highest burden of impacts. The next group is the youth, who will see the largest share of impacts in their lives. Moreover, they have already taken on the burden of responsibility, by organizing and engaging in mass protest to stimulate political and societal action. The third group are the marginalized, like women, people with disabilities and people of colour who are in many contexts more vulnerable to climate change impacts and at the same time have historically been excluded from decision-making processes. For example, while side events around the international climate negotiations have become increasingly diverse, with more women, people of colour and youth participating, the actual negotiations are still dominated by older, often white, men, representing the structures and viewpoints that cement their positions of power.

Another example would be the biodiversity crisis, in which the weakest actors are the poor and the native populations. The current championship model allows powerful industrial actors the depletion of fisheries by commercial fishing, the expansion of palm oil exploration or the destruction of Amazonia – not for the greater good, but for the benefit of a few. A critical mass of politicians, lobbyists and media outlets have in the past united behind these exploitative industries in the hope that the strongmanship will deliver trickle down benefits to their personal advantage, or the middle class in general.

In the same system that has created this overarching ecological crisis, the solutions are unlikely to be implemented. Hence, a different constellation of actors is required. A global fellowship of governments, civil society, academia and religious actors committed to the protection of the weakest, could lead the process in overcoming the systemically dysfunctional relationship with nature. It requires the alliance of the older generations who hold more political and financial power, to protect the young, the poor and the marginalized. The organised forces for the overexploitation of those ecosystems have to be matched diametrically by the pooled capacities of the fellowship, to enable people with intact relationships to nature to show the way forward for society as a whole.

The Way

The title of this section is a direct reference to John´s gospel, Chapter 14:5-6: “Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way? Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the story of “The Lord of the Rings”, there is a ring of power forged in a remote past by evil forces, and the objective of this ring is to dominate all living beings in a fictional world called middle earth. According to the narration, the ring must be destroyed in the same fire it was created before the evil forces can find it. There are many difficulties to accomplish this deed, but the main obstacle is the attraction this ring of power has over its bearer. The ring offers incredible power to the owner, but the level of moral corruption that wearing the ring causes raises questions on who is in control. The only ones who can resist to the pull of wearing the ring are the Hobbits, which are bare-foot, small, relatively weak and simple life creatures. One hobbit named Frodo receives the task to keep the ring, but as the evil powers organize an offensive to take over middle earth, it is imperative that he carries the ring of power all the way to its destruction. He is infinitely weaker than the forces he will face, but a counterintuitive aspect plays in his favour: the fact that he chooses not to wear the ring and therefore does not indulge in its power, makes him almost invisible to the forces of evil. In other words, his greatest strength is not using the power available to him, although he is constantly tempted to do so. He sets-off in a perilous journey and to protect him, an unlikely alliance is formed at the Council of Elrond (the fellowship of the ring) between different races and social groups. In this “Fellowship”, all actors concerned with the imminent threat of the forces of evil set aside differences and join efforts to protect Frodo on his mission and to save the whole middle earth.

The analogies with the life of Jesus and especially the way to the Calvary are recurrent in Tolkien’s story. Jesus as God has all the power to save himself and could use it at any moment. The devil was aware of the power available to Jesus and tried to persuade Him to use his power, as it was explicitly object of the temptations of Jesus during the 40 days in the desert. But to save humanity, He chose to walk the Via Crucis and did not use His power to save Himself. He offers Himself as the ultimate sacrifice and by doing that, Jesus showed the way to salvation, which is Himself. Although no further sacrifice is needed, the path demonstrated is narrow. In Tolkien´s narrative, an image of Jesus is collectively constructed by different races and groups with the purpose of bringing peace to their fictional earth. All main actors in the fellowship volunteer to put their lives at risk for the protection of the weakest. This mission brings about sacrifices with the objective not to obtain and keep, but to destroy the ring of power. Had fear prevailed and had other actors chosen to stand by instead of taking action, evil could have captured all.


In the Covid-19 pandemic, a fellowship-like model was functionally adopted in several countries. All parts of societies sacrificed and pooled their capacities to protect the weakest actor, carrying the potentially highest burden of disease: the older generations and people with pre-existing health conditions. In the climate crisis, the levels of exposure to the risk are diametrically opposed. Here we argue that the young, the marginalized and the poor need our protection, so they can lead us with grace to a better future. By adopting a fellowship model of collective action, a strong moral unity for a quick transformation of our relationship with nature can be built in several critical contexts.

Some aspects of the transformation of our relationship to the natural systems will demand more than can be predicted from our standpoint. Ultimately, the transformation will require more than sacrifice or moral rectitude, it will also demand faith.