(Below: "Does the Pope also Duckwalk?")
If we are honest and admit climate change threatens the survival of our species, right now and not next decade or next century, and don’t just turn away or accept the numbing banality that comes with avoidance of the subject, we would have to, to not be hypocritical, actually choose to do something about what we know we know.
But do what, exactly? Our institutions are not working. Any real change has to come from our personal footprint, changing our choices. Change is our only way of being truthful with ourselves, and not neurotic or schizophrenic.
What is needed, says Margaret Klein Salamon, founder of Climate Change Mobilization, are achievable goals, a set of actions that anyone can take and appreciate that they are actually changing the situation for the better. Merely changing light bulbs or buying a Prius won’t cut it. It has to involve not green consumerism but de-consumerism. We have to give up those fabulous perks that came with the Age of Oil; to discard zombie fashion. We have to stop having so many babies, eating so much meat, and cutting down so many trees. We have to go back to understanding our relationship with the land and our sources of sustenance, and showing greater care for the whole of the natural world that underpins our existence.
When people become agents for truth and vital change, they are elevated, enlarged, and lit up. The truth, and their role in advancing it, affects how they view themselves, what occupies their mind, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and what they once thought possible for themselves.
We cannot begin to say how refreshing it is to see Pope Francis face the urgency of the situation and awaken us to our need to be alive, and to swim upstream. To borrow a line from Jim Hightower, “Even a dead fish can swim downstream.” In his new encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis writes:
The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.***[I]f 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.
The pope comes out against technological advances that will save us from our modern sins or magically improve productivity by replacing human work. He eschews market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, condemning, like the popes before him, the profit motive at its root.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks, defender of both profits and the fossil economy, responds:
Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness…. [G]as and oil resources extracted through fracking have already added more than $430 billion to annual gross domestic product and supported more than 2.7 million jobs that pay, on average, twice the median U.S. salary.
We won’t quibble with either Brooks or the pope because they are speaking past each other. Brooks is right that lust and greed are powerful motivators, and part of our serpent brain. Francis is right that to live at peace with each other and the planet we have to set aside those childish things, open our hearts and begin to see the world as adults. Brooks is clinging to the past while Francis is salvaging the future.
Jeb Bush, shortly after announcing his candidacy for US President, told a reporter about the pope’s statement, "I don’t get my economic advice from my priest." His pollsters are telling him he is on the wrong side of the climate issue but his strategists tell him he doesn’t want to see the Koch brothers’ billions go to a rival. Perhaps he thinks he will pivot later in the race, before he has to debate Bernie.
What is new is that it is not even about pandering to voters anymore. Even half of Republicans now want this issue dealt with. Well, good luck, because the zombie lies aren’t about the voters. They’re for the donors, who make their living killing the planet. The question is not why today’s politicians suck more than ever, it is who they are sucking more than ever.
— Bill Maher
Paradigms change. Jason Hickel, Martin Kirk, and Joe Brewer, co-authors of a London School of Economics comparison between the encyclical and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), wrote in The Guardian:
He calls out the transnational corporations that profit by polluting poor countries. He criticizes the foreign debt system that has become a tool by which rich countries control poor countries. And he warns that the financial sector, grown too powerful, has eroded the sovereignty of nation states and “tends to prevail over the political.”
This is an important move, because without naming the forces that cause human suffering and environmental destruction, it is impossible to address them.
As Professor Ian Gough put it, "This revolutionary encyclical challenges both current ethics and economics."
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.
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. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.
It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed” (quoting the Pontifical Council For Justice And Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, at page 462).
Here Francis begins to sound more like the Dalai Lama. The Tibetian Book of Secret Doctrines says, "Cherish no notion of separated individuality." Subject and Object are one. Man and Nature are one. Form and Formlessness are one. Mind and Buddha are one. The encyclical says:
It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
Speaking directly to his "cheerfully reckless" critics, Francis says:
It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all” (quoting Omano Guardini,Das Ende der Neuzeit, (The End of the Modern World, at 56).***
Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.
The study by Hickel, Kirk and Brewer contrasted Francis’s vision with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals:
The SDGs are right to embrace a wide range of issues. Unlike their predecessors, the millennium development goals, they recognize that the problems we face are multidimensional. But they have confused thoroughness with holism, lists with patterns. It’s a mistake born of outdated thinking.
The pope, by contrast, has struck at the systemic nature of the issue. “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is connected,” he says. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.”
This is what makes the encyclical far more than a document about climate change. It is a profound critique of the deep logic of our political economy. This is a vastly more sophisticated paradigm than the one that underpins the SDGs and a large part of why the encyclical feels cohesive, fresh and relevant, where the SDGs feel inconsistent, clunky and 20 years out of date.
Francis is not above legitimate criticism, less for what he puts into the encyclical than for what he leaves out. Physicist Lawrence Krauss, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says:
First off, he dismisses the need to address reproductive rights for women, and also the concomitant problem of population growth in poor countries as part of any proposed solution to world environmental problems. If one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale, then one needs to worry about population growth. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level that provides all humans with adequate food and access to medicine, water, and security. Moreover, the environmental problems induced by overpopulation are also disproportionately born by those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. As I have argued elsewhere recently in this regard, ultimately empowering women to manage their own reproductive future gives them the surest road out of poverty.
Perhaps even more glaring is the double standard within which Francis, with Franciscan modesty, lives in a grand gilded palace, overseeing a legion of wealthy Cardinals, while calling for even the poorest among us to reduce consumption. To be sure, the encyclical was directed to believers within the church, including collegially off-key voices within the Vatican. Cardinal George Pell, its head of finance, currently immersed in a scandal involving paedophile priests in Australia, is a prominent climate change denier and plenty of other senior Catholics are dredging up lame, discredited arguments against His Holiness’s views. To them, Francis says:
Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.
(The power of truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth.
Salaman wrote, "Climate truth has the potential to be more powerful than any country’s independence; more powerful that overthrowing authoritarian states; and more powerful than civil rights or any group’s struggle for safety, recognition and equality. Climate truth contains such superordinate power because all of those causes depend on a safe climate."
Will the Papal Encyclical make any real difference in the battle against climate change? One need only recall what happened in 1979, when John Paul II traveled to Poland and preached thirty-two sermons in nine days. Timothy Garton Ash put it this way, "Without the pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of communism." Bogdan Szajkowski said it was, "A psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis…" The Poles who turned out by the millions looked around and saw they were not alone.