Sunday, July 12, 2015

In Praise of Saving the Planet

I recently read Pope Francis’ new encyclical on climate change, and I was moved by its lyricism, the depth of scientific understanding it displays, and its intensely serious concern for a problem that affects every person on earth. Though I disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings about some things, I appreciated this strong statement of environmental awareness and its empathy for the poor and dispossessed.

Generally referred to as "Laudato si" (the full title is "LAUDATO SI', mi' Signore" or "Praise be to you, my Lord"), the encyclical is named for a canticle by St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis not only shares St. Francis’ name but also his joyful interest in and concern for the natural world. It is notable that this strongly worded admonition to Catholics – and in fact all of us – to do what we can to reverse climate change comes from the first pope to hail from the global South. I also learned on Democracy Now that one of the authors of the encyclical was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and understandably "Laudato si" frequently reminds us that climate change will cause the most suffering for the poor and those in the developing world.

The encyclical pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for his canticle that praises Brother Sun and Sister Moon. To some this language seems almost animistic, but the encyclical notes that, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” [Section 11]

“Laudato si” is sometimes focused on religious matters, but it attempts to appeal to a wide audience by acknowledging many points of view. For example, it praises participants in the environmental movement and those “who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.” [Section 13] Those who are concerned about loss of biodiversity will be glad to read statements like this: “In our time, the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings, as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish.” [Section 69] But human beings are given priority and the encyclical clarifies: “Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others.” [Section 90]

Sometimes “Laudato si” enters the realm of social ecology as it criticizes "rapidification" or the "more intensified pace of life and work" that we experience in the 21st century [Section 18]. It calls into question our "throwaway culture" that "quickly reduces things to rubbish.” [Section 22] As a result, it says, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” [Section 21] Global climate change is seen as a consequence of the intensified consumerist lifestyle enjoyed by those in the developed world, and we are told that this needs to change because "The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all…. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” [Section 23]

“Laudato si” never loses sight of the twin problems that are its focus: “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” [Section 49]. In fact, there are echoes of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything as when the encyclical describes our world as one in which “… economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” [Section 56] And everyone is encouraged to be part of the solution: “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. …This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. … Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.’” [Section 206]

Sometimes the language in “Laudato si” is so strong that it calls to mind an ecodisaster novel: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” [Section 161]. Catholic or not, serious readers will find it hard to ignore a plea to avoid a future of “debris, desolation and filth,” though even the Pope’s authority is not enough to guarantee success. A change in lifestyle takes commitment and a willingness to "act locally."

For example, using public transportation helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and here in Tucson that means riding SunTran buses. But local transit faces a number of financial and logistical problems -- not to mention attitudinal problems, by which I mean that people resist using it. (Interestingly, “Laudato si” addresses both the benefits and problems of public transit as follows:
The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety. [Section 153]
On July 8, I attended the monthly membership meeting of the Tucson Bus Riders Union where we talked about how difficult it is to get the mayor and City Council to increase transit options in our city rather than cut them. Casa Maria, a lay Catholic Worker community that helps homeless and needy people, is a driving force behind the current Bus Riders Union, and I have seen, again and again, the Casa Maria folks stand up for low-income people, refuse to be intimidated, and consistently fight against throwing poor people “under the bus” as the city decides how to allocate ever-diminishing funds. At the meeting we agreed that appealing to elected officials is necessary, but it is even more important to get more people to come to our meetings, speak about their needs, and stand up to the “undignified conditions” SunTran riders must often endure.

In a recent blog post at the Casa Maria site, Brian Flagg said he was proud to be Catholic as he watched Pope Francis live up to his stated concerns for the poor and the environment. From what I have seen, Casa Maria truly has a similar commitment to answering “the call to solidarity with the poor” that is at the heart of their mission. By nurturing the Bus Riders Union, Casa Maria does more than most of us to help address climate change and its consequences. And anyone in Tucson who cares about the poor and homeless is aware that climate change is here and poor people must bear its harsh realities most painfully. (See “Cruel and Unusual: Closing Downtown’s Parks to the Homeless in a Heatwave.”)

Another lifestyle choice, switching to a plant-based diet, is a solution that is particularly important in a world in which overpopulation is a problem few want to address. Because of the Church’s longstanding opposition to birth control and abortion, I expected that Pope Francis would insist that overpopulation is not the problem. (Here’s what Laudato si has to say about overpopulation: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. [Section 50]) But many people on the left and in the progressive movement also refuse to cite overpopulation as a major driver of climate change. (See Naomi Klein’s extremely harsh rejoinder to a question about population at a Town Hall Seattle talk she gave last October for This Changes Everything:, Minute 44.)

But as the film Cowspiracy shows, animal agriculture is another powerful driver of climate change, and it seems that the more meat-eating humans there are, the less room there is for all the other creatures praised by St. Francis and Pope Francis. In Cowspiracy Dr. Will Tuttle says, "Ten thousand years ago free-living animals made up 99% of the biomass, and human beings only made up 1% of the biomass. Today, only 10,000 years later, which is really just a fraction of time, we human beings, and the animals that we own as property, make up 98% of the biomass and wild, free-living animals make up only 2%. We basically completely stole the world/ the earth from free-living animals to use for ourselves and our cows and pigs and chickens and factory farmed fish, and the oceans have been even more devastated." No amount of praise for the remarkable beauty and diversity of the natural world will bring it back again if habitat is destroyed to make way for factory farms and fields of fodder.

Not only would a turn toward a plant-based diet make make our carbon footprints smaller, it would also end the factory farm system that subjects pigs to gestation crates, hens to merciless crowding and other cruelties which are experienced by billions of creatures every year. (Here’s what Laudato si has to say about animal abuse: “We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”. [Section 92]) When I was a child Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays. A re-institution of that practice would help both the planet and the animals, as well as bringing the health benefits of a plant-based diet to more people.

There does in fact seem to be an increased interest in the benefits of veganism, and there is something of a flurry of activity around the plant-based diet in Tucson this summer. The film PlantPure Nation is being shown in Tucson this week. Opening night featured a vegan food court and a chance to buy a cookbook by a local vegan restauranteur, the proprietor of Lovin’ Spoonfuls. We also now have two vegan restaurants downtown -- Urban Fresh and Veg in a Box. Greg and I have eaten at Urban Fresh several times recently, and the food is well-prepared, reasonably priced, and wholesome. In addition, the proprietor and his wife are knowledgeable advocates for plant-based eating, and the vegan meals they offer are fresh and delicious. I only wish that more writers and activists who tell us about the need for lifestyle change to save the planet would advocate veganism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

A Fifth and Final Ekphrastic Essay About Our 2022 Road Trip: the Prairie and the Dust Bowl

  Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexandre Hogue When Greg and I were planning our 2022 road trip, our goal was to visit friends a...