Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Escaping the Spiral: Chapter 5 of "Laudato si"

In this series of posts I have been blogging chapter by chapter through Pope Francis' encyclical "on the care of our common home", Laudato si.  We've now arrived at the fifth chapter, which begins, "So far I have attempted to take stock of our present situation... [Now I will] try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us."

The activist might read this as suggesting that the Pope is finally getting to the point!  After all the theological talk, time for some action!  But that would miss one of the central ideas of Laudato si, namely, that how we respond to environmental crisis is, ultimately, a function of how we see and celebrate creation.  I nearly wrote, how we think about creation, but that is too cerebral.  What lies behind activism (according to the Pope) is not just a way of thinking, but a way of allowing creation to impact our lives - to be seen - which is itself part of a personal relationship.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Caring for Creation with Pope Francis"

That's the title of an adult Sunday school class that I'll be facilitating on September 20th (just before the Pope arrives in the USA) to introduce the message of the Encyclical  (On Care for our Common Home)  and the way our Christian tradition summons us to environmental stewardship.  If there's interest, I can also offer some small group sessions to follow up.

For those in State College who might want to attend, here are the details:
  • Location: State College Presbyterian Church, 132 West Beaver Avenue, State College PA.   
  • Room: Westminster Hall (every Presbyterian church has to have a Westminster Hall)
  • Time: 10:15-11:05 approx.   Coffee and refreshments are available from 10:00
  • Date: Sunday, September 20th
  • Contact: you can contact the church office at 814-238-2422 or email me, but of course you are also welcome to just show up!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Cecil, Job, and Climate Change

Ugo Bardi has an interesting article about climate change communication over at

In it, he reflects on what it takes for a "meme", a conceptual unit, to "go viral" - to replicate itself exponentially in a "conceptual space" like Facebook.

Bardi identifies three characteristics of a "supermeme": a simple narrative, a clear villain, and a reassuring message.

For instance, the story of Cecil the Lion meets all these criteria: simple tale (man kills lion),clear villain (evil hunter), reassuring message (our moral outrage proves that we are good). 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Chapter Four of "Laudato si": Integral Ecology

John Muir
John Muir once wrote, "Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".  (My First Summer in the Sierra, chapter 6)

This seems to me to be the central idea in the short Chapter 4 of Laudato si, whose title is "Integral ecology".  It starts out

Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected....We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Roy Scranton's "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene"

Today I came across Roy Scranton's article from 2013, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.  I had missed it when it first appeared on the New York Times' philosophy blog.

Scranton is a philosopher who also served in the US Army from 2002-2006.  He begins his article with a vivid picture of post-invasion Iraq:

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.    With “shock and awe,” our military had unleashed the end of the world...
 In this hellish environment, Scranton learned to face the apparent inevitability of death.
I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it.
In fact he made it back to the US.  But something continued to gnaw at him.  Growthist civilization was bringing about its own demise.
Many thinkers have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene.
The essay is an impassioned plea to heed the challenge of climate change at an existential, not merely a technical, level.  Read it here.

Photo: Bust of Parmenides   Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Grain of Reality

US nuclear test (DoE)
In my last post, I drew attention to the way that  "in the Pope's vision, the Genesis account acknowledges but also limits the scope of human dominion, and therefore does not license arbitrary exercise of power; only that which works with the grain of reality."

This reflects language from Laudato si like the following
Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chapter Three: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

"It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms", begins Chapter III of Laudato si, "without also acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis." Francis wants to show that the looming threats that he has delineated in Chapter I have cultural roots, deeper than physics and thermodynamics: roots in the way that we human beings understand one another and the world.

The title of the chapter is a nod to Lynn White, (pictured; picture from whose famous 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis", touched off an extended debate about the relationship between religion (especially Christianity) and environmentalism.  "What people do about their ecology", wrote White,  "depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things in their environment".   This is also the basic point that Pope Francis is making in this chapter.  White came to believe that the Genesis creation account (the subject of Chapter 2 of the Pope's encyclical) had prepared Europeans to believe in "dominion as domination"; when the Industrial Revolution put power into their hands, therefore, they were predisposed to use it in a "contemptuous" way. "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt", he said. "We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man."