Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pope Francis’s Encyclical and avoiding hell on Earth

Before I wear out my welcome or lose you entirely while trying to make my point: Read the Encyclical (ENCYCLICAL LETTER, LAUDATO SI’OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME).

Throughout humanity’s existence, there have been many attempts to warn ourselves about damaging our environment, a place we have increasingly become aware of as our life support system. From the reverence by native peoples around the world for the place they called home, to the holy books of many faiths demanding that we care for our fellow creatures, to the writings by St. Francis Assisi, George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Leopold Aldo, Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Al Gore, (and many more, of course), we have had only limited success in getting through to ourselves that our actions on our environment matter.

George Perkins Marsh, one of the most important and effective environmentalists you have never heard of, wrote Man and Nature in 1864 (revised in 1872 as “The Earth as Modified by Human Action) while he was US ambassador to Italy. This very influential book (it provided the foundation of our US forestry system under Gifford Pinchot who served under President Theodore Roosevelt) received worldwide acclaim as a most thorough assessment of past agriculture and forestry abuses in the hope of preventing future devastation just as the US was diving headlong into the Second Industrial Revolution. Many listened, but most (fueled by the allure of more stuff) did not.   

The public, especially the public in the developed world, has continued to believe itself to be in a position of security, not compelled to act to prevent environmental excesses. At various points in history, the warning of environmentalists have been ignored and massive development went on regardless of environmental and health impacts. It seems (because massive numbers did not immediately drop dead) as if the alarms from environmentalists about overpopulation and sustainability were all overblown. Which is the not the case at all. Pollution, the loss of biodiversity that is resulting in the Sixth Great Extinction, and Climate Change are all catching up with us. Until now, the mere size of our world and our technical prowess have helped mask our ravishing of our environment. But with Climate Change we are hitting a wall that has no historical precedent. Like the myriad debris gathering from a great flood quickly forming a dam, the accumulated mistakes from our past development are building up an impossible barrier. 

The most recent invocation for environmental attention is the widely anticipated Encyclical by Pope Francis. It is an extremely auspicious work, coming at a moment where there is still time enough to effectively communicate to the world the importance of a substantial agreement before the COP21 Paris Climate Conference in December. What makes the Encyclical so significant is not only the charisma of a religious leader of 4.3 billion people; it is a moral indictment of the collected environmental abuses of the past culminating in the present Climate Change crisis. It is perhaps the last chance to take stock of our moral Climate Change crisis and make a difference.

The Encyclical, while a religious text, is meant for the world. This is what Pope Francis says on paragraph #14 of the Encyclical:

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” Encyclical

While worldwide media (not Rochester’s local media*, of course) have extensively quoted from the Encyclical (on the shortcomings of our economic system, the condition of the poor, and the part about “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth…” (161, Encyclical)), this paragraph that describes the interrelatedness of all life and our machinations grabbed my attention:

‘It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation.” (Paragraph 34, Encyclical)

But, and I want to stress this again, the public and our leaders need to read this critical work in full—not just a few showcase quotes. It took me several days to read the Encyclical, not because it was so long (it’s only about 80 pages including the references) but because I found myself pouring over every paragraph—sometimes reading them several times to absorb their insight.

I, as an Atheist, can appreciate the Pope’s wisdom regarding individual actions to address Climate Change, even though I believe in a practical sense our individual actions need to be accompanied by systemic societal changes and in a time frame that will actually make a difference; otherwise, our little experiment with life on this planet will be over.

There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. (211, Encyclical)

However noble our everyday actions, at this point in time they will not be enough to mitigate Climate Change. Those kind of actions must come from our leaders. Still, if we change our ways, Pope Francis implores “… any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.” (149, Encyclical)

Hell on earth doesn’t have to happen if we listen to the wise voices that focus our priorities on our life support system—and not try to bake in all our whims and desires into them before we act.
*Ok, there was a moment when folks in Rochester came together (albeit on the radio) and talked about the Pope’s Encyclical:

Connections: The Pope and Climate Issues We examine the meaning of Pope Francis' new encyclical on climate change. What does it mean for the Catholic Church? More broadly, what does it mean when an organized religion wades into climate issues? Our panel discusses that and more: (June 22, 2015) Connections 


There should be more platforms for local Climate Change discussions.  With Climate Change and the disproportionate suffering of those who did not cause this crisis, it will indeed be a very hot hell on earth.

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