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 www.historians.org) 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."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Gospel of Creation

"Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God"
The second chapter of Laudato si is called "The Gospel of Creation".  It begins, "Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?"  It might seem strange for a pope to ask this question!  Aren't "the convictions of believers" part of his job description? But it is clear that Francis has a broader audience in view.  The deeply relational perspective he has on the whole of creation (which finds expression in the key phrase integral ecology, a phrase which will later get a whole chapter to itself) leads him to hope that the most wide-ranging possible dialog will be intense and fruitful.

Still, this chapter is addressed to Christians in particular.  "I would like from the outset to show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters".  Under the heading, "The wisdom of the biblical accounts", Francis expounds the creation stores of Genesis, the sabbath and other ecological laws, and the Psalms (like Psalm 104) which call on all creation to give praise to God.  Then, in the next sections, he turns to a sort of natural theology: what does the interrelated nature of the universe that we perceive tell us about the God who creates it? "The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God".  Section VI is 'the common destination of goods".  "The earth is essentially a shared inheritance whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone...the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable."  Those who would like to see Francis as some kind of revolutionary socialist may focus on this section, but the doctrine that he is restating is a commonplace of Catholic moral theology: see section 179 in this Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from 2004.  Finally, the last section, "The Gaze of Jesus", looks at Jesus' earthly life as an example of harmony with creation.  "The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated are now imbued with his radiant presence."

Christian thinking about creation care faces two significant dangers.  On the one hand, some have read the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 as a license to treat the nonhuman creation as mere "raw material", fit for nothing until humans have shaped it.  (This is bound up with the question of private property of course, via Locke's idea that property rights are conferred by the "mixing" of private human labor with the common stuff of creation.)  On the other hand, awareness of the intrinsic value of the nonhuman creation and the damage that sinful humans have wrought can pass over into a devaluation of humanity or even into regarding people as an "invasive species".  Here's Pope Francis threading the needle:
A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.... A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.
Earlier posts in this series here and here.

Photo credit: author

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Behemoth v. Broccoli

The broccoli aftermath
"We are growing some wonderful broccoli", I said proudly to Russ on Tuesday.  And on Tuesday, it was true.

When I said "we", I should of course have said "Liane".  My main contribution, apart from making malodorous compost, was to put up a fence to deter the predations of local groundhogs - which, we discovered last year, have quite a taste for vegetables, and brassicas especially.  Then, under Liane's care, the seeds began to sprout and take form, following their own internal mystery - "you know not how" (Mark 4:27).

Unfortunately, we discovered yesterday that my fencing was not up to the job.  A groundhog had managed to rip out the staples that fixed the fence to railroad ties in the ground, and then to enjoy a fine meal of broccoli and Brussels sprout plants.

When I went this morning to staple the fence back, my hammering disturbed a colony of underground wasps.  I was too preoccupied to notice what was going on until their stings forced me into a hurried retreat.  Aaargh! Nature is fighting back!

In a very small way, I am experiencing what is symbolized in the tale of Behemoth, "the primal unconquerable monster of the land": Nature does push back against the farmer.  Even so simple a task as growing broccoli involves subduing the earth, adapting it to our designs.  Yet in the Book of Job, the untameable monster turns out to be God's pet.

Where between our broccoli patch and the factory farm does "following the creation mandate" pass into "making the natural order merely an instrument", the throwaway society that the Pope warns against in the first chapter of Laudato si?








Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Chapter One: Our Common Home

Following up on my brief overview of the encyclical Laudato si, I'd now like to start going through the chapters one by one.  There are six of them and the first is titled What is happening to our common home?

To introduce it, consider this picture, part of an article that appeared in Life magazine in 1955.  (You can access this issue through Google Books.)

"The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean.", begins the article, "But no housewife need bother." [Hold the sexism, please.]  "They are all meant to be thrown away".

For the happy family in the picture, the invention of throwaway "pans, draperies, diapers, barbecue grills, duck decoys, beer and highball glasses, and a feeding dish for dogs" (etc) is a cause for unconditional celebration.

But Pope Francis sees it as a symptom of spiritual malaise.  Media coverage wants to call the encyclical "the Pope's statement on climate change" or something like that, and it is true that climate issues are front and center, both in Chapter 1 (which begins with a brisk summary about climate change) and elsewhere.  But on my reading, one of the key phrases of the first chapter is throwaway culture, which is introduced right after the initial discussion of climate:
These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. (22)
 As he develops this theme, Francis closely links two ideas:
  • The first is that an economic system that is based on a one way journey from resource to waste is not sustainable and, more importantly, that it is not in accord with the model revealed in the closed-cycle workings of the natural order.  Such an economic system may be expected to fail both by exhaustion of sources and by overfilling of sinks (the encyclical gives examples of each: water resources in the first case, climate pollution in the second).
  • The second is that treating the nonhuman created order as "throwaway" and treating other human beings as "throwaway" are part of the same moral deformation.  
 The second point is important because some (not all) of the pushback against the Encyclical is likely to argue that there is a tradeoff here: even though climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poorest, it does not follow that mitigating climate change is the best way to help the poor - perhaps we should regard mitigation as a luxury we should forgo in order to use resources to alleviate poverty in other, more effective ways.   (For instance, Bjorn Lomborg's response in USA Today tends in this direction.)

It seems to me that the Encyclical does not accept the "tradeoff" idea at all - and this is partly because it is operating at the level of ethics rather than policy.  Making of any part of the natural order merely an instrument or resource - "the chicken turned into an egg machine", as C.S.Lewis said - - already carries within it the roots of destructive greed.

So there is no place for the "weak response" of complacency in the face of the consequences of greed: the chapter mentions climate change, water shortages, biodiversity loss, and the decline in human relationships.










Thursday, July 2, 2015

Reading "Laudato Si"

Pope Francis Korea Haemi Castle 19 (cropped) I've been reading the Papal Encyclical on the environment - or rather, as Pope Francis calls it, "on care for our common home".  I have never tried to read a papal letter before so I did not know what to expect.  It's certainly a lengthy document - and wide-ranging!  Perhaps a quick tour through the table of contents will be a place to start.

The Pope begins with the most wide-ranging appeal, set in the context of his predecessors, of the Patriarch of the Eastern Church, of Saint Francis, and of the whole human family in its "common home":

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.
After this come six extensive chapters, as follows:

  • What is happening to our common home?
  • The Gospel of Creation
  • The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis (this title is surely an allusion to the famous Lynn White thesis)
  • Integral ecology
  • Lines of approach and action
  • Ecological education and spirituality.
The Encyclical closes with two prayers.  Here is the first

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned
and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,
not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
I'll try to post more later about the specifics of this vast letter.  For now, let me just note the links to a couple of posts I found helpful in thinking about it.
Photo attribution: Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, June 8, 2015

Thoughts from Dave Newport about "sustainable brands"

Dave Newport is a campus sustainability officer at UC Boulder and maintains a blog at "Inside Higher Education" on the interrsection of sustainability and academic life.

Today's piece describes his visit to a "sustainable branding" conference.  He begins:

"It would be easy to flip off the Sustainable Brands conference. Corporate raiders spouting the S-word? How much gooey new green wash can these suits concoct?

But that would be stupid.

Want proof it’s stupid? Well, the flip-off was my first impulse. ‘Nuff said.

So after a few years of people telling me it was worth the price (hefty) and the time (four days), at great personal sacrifice I went to the chichi San Diego oceanside resort hosting this green corporate orgy to rub cotton with the suits.

My excuse? Paul Hawken told me to. Well, sorta."

Read the full piece here

Friday, June 5, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 2

Continuing my thoughts on MATH033... At the end of each class at Penn State, students get to fill out "SRTE" forms - that is "Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness", a.k.a. "course evaluations".  I was especially interested to see what the students in Math 033 would say and I emphasized as strongly as I could that the course was brand new and that through their comments they had an opportunity to improve it for next time it was offered.  I was very glad to see the many extensive responses to this request.  In addition to comments via the SRTE process, three students took the time to write me longer emails describing their experiences in the class and their thoughts about how it might be made more effective.