The backlash against the donations to save Notre-Dame de Paris after the devastating blaze on the 15 April has been powerful. €750 million have been donated, sparking both gratitude and outrage by the general public: gratitude from those who see in Notre Dame a priceless religious and historical site that is worth the investment, and outrage that, within ten days, hundreds of millions have been collected to save a singular building, when people are suffering and the planet is dying.
It would be easy to accuse the protesters, the yellow-vests and the keyboard warriors of whataboutism — the act of criticising somebody for doing something good, because “what about all the other important causes?” Notre Dame is a historical site, one that is priceless and important not only to Catholics who still, until before the blaze, held masses within the church, but also to the collective consciousness. The church was built in the twelfth century and is one of the earliest gothic churches in France. It is thus not only a place for religious worship, but also a place that was witness to all historical events in the French capital in the last eight centuries: the crowning of kings, the French Revolution, the World Wars.
As a people, we are obsessed with leaving traces. The philosopher Feuerbach said that man is a God to man. Religious or not, oftentimes monuments like Notre-Dame are what we leave behind as testimonies of our own creative power and is our attempt at divinity. Saving the Notre Dame is the opposite of being materialistic: it places value on preserving the spiritual and historical memory of the city. It is more than just a building. It is an emblem, a symbol, a collective European heirloom that, without a doubt, deserves to be remembered and valued.
But nevertheless, the protests against the extortionate amounts that are being donated have a point that is hard to dispute. According to estimates published by the BBC, the restoration of the church would cost between a minimum of €300 million and a maximum of €600 million, meaning that already now, the donations exceed what is needed for the rebuild. Within less than two weeks, Notre-Dame has achieved not only the collections of millions of donations, but also to reveal the priorities of those that are wealthy enough to make these donations. They show how much money the rich have, and how much they are willing to give if the purpose aligns with what they deem worthy of saving.
Unfortunately, what they deem worthy of saving is a 850-year old lifeless structure of stone, not the 118 species that evolved over thousands of years that are currently endangered in France alone, according to the IUPCN red list. It seems almost too ironic to point out that Total, France’s biggest Oil and Gas firm, pledged to donate €100 million to save the church — an energy provider who lists a focus on “the least polluting fossil fuel” as their main environmental strategy.
Furthermore, the donations for Notre Dame are tax deductible, meaning that billionaires can profile themselves as charitable benefactors when a lot of their money actually ends up being paid back to them through the tax-payers.
What is similarly strange are the reactions from politicians and media around the world. Theresa May expressed her solidarity with the French people, while Donald Trump called the blaze a tragedy and Notre-Dame a part of the collective heritage of the world. Headlines declared that, together with the church, Europe had been deeply scarred by the fire. Yes, with Notre Dame, we lost part of our collective cultural heritage; but a year ago, China bulldozed mosques of the same age as Notre-Dame in Xinjiang and media and politicians paid hardly any attention to it. Meanwhile, 30 football pitches of rainforest are being cut down every minute. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong about compassion for our own culture, and it is logical that Western leaders will care more about what happens in their immediate surroundings, and about what concerns their own countries, but that does not excuse ignorance and neglect facing other issues.
Right now, maybe more than ever, humanity’s joint legacy is one of destruction and of exploitation. Should the money that we have really be spent on rebuilding stones that remind us of the grandeur of centuries past? Or should we attempt to move away from a Western, anthropocentric narrative to one where we may care about our own backyard the most, but where we don’t forget about everything else? By all means, preserve collective heritage, but preserve and value all of it, make informed choices and rethink what deserves to be prioritised.