By Kumar David –
Combating Climate Change Needs “Bold Cultural Revolution”
The end of June was a week of high theatre. First came Pope Francis’ passionate petition on behalf of the Earth, our common home, followed by US Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage (the judgement is resonating far beyond American shores) and its decision putting Obamacare beyond challenge. The week was topped off by Obama’s searing rhetoric in Charleston; relaxed eloquence of amazing self-assurance. My subject today is limited to the first of these.
If it is not sacrilegious for a hard-boiled Marxist to confess secret admiration of a Pontiff and if buttonholed in a discreet corner of a darkened room, I will own up: “This Francis is a splendid chap!” About six years ago I watched an hour long interview of Lee Kuan Yew by pre-eminent interlocutor Charlie Rose; the final question was “What do you consider the greatest concerns of the Twenty-first Century?” In a flash came the answer: “Managing Sino-American relations and dealing with Climate Change”. If the facts and the science are not new, and if the damage human activity is doing to the planet is now hardly disputed, what is it that a Papal missive can add? Answer: The influence it can bring to bear on global decisions, and secondly its moral dimensions and their consequences; I will deal with both.
*Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka Jan. 13. Photo courtesy: Alan Holdren / CNA.
The effects of the Encyclical will be immense if clergy and laity pursue it with commitment and courage; otherwise it will be a damp squib. Its influence is spreading; Protestant pastors and 300 rabbis in the US have declared allegiance to this call for environmental justice. If pressure is sustained, Catholic political leaders will be on notice and businessmen will no longer be able to live in two compartments. Jesus made a slip when he quipped “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mathew22:21). This sensible advice to nurture a balanced dialectic of life has ever since Adam Smith been twisted by capitalism to mean ‘Go to church on Sunday and mumble your chants; for the rest of the week, exploit, extract surplus-value and worship mammon’. In one scorching section the Pope (not Karl Marx) equates laissez faire economists to mobsters, drug lords, organ harvesters and human traffickers for whom humanity is just another commodity to exploit.
I fear that if the Encyclical threatens power and profit, Pope Francis will not be safe; external forces may conspire with the inside to rid the world of this tumultuous monk. Henry II cried “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” to dispatch Thomas Becket a millennium ago. The habit has caught on. In recent decades, in Catholic country’s, Patrice Lumumba 1961, Salvador Allende 1973 and Benigno Aquino (Ninoy) 1983, leaders who were troublesome to wealth and power, have had their dispatch papers summarily served. If physical removal is out of fashion these days, this intrepid prelate can be gently eased into early retirement, can he not? A big-time American TV media-pig, Rush Limbaugh, has already denounced Francis for his “communist way of doing things: Controlling mankind through governments backed by police and military power.”
The title of the Encyclical, “Laudeto Si” is taken from a line (Laudato si, mi Signore – Be praised, my Lord) from a beautiful canticle composed by St Francis of Assisi in 1224 in praise of god’s creation; the earth, the sun, nature and what in modern parlance we call the ecosystem. Laudeto Si, was more than a year in the making and draws on the best scientific and environmental studies and on scholars and theologians. It is 180 pages long, divided into 246 paragraphs; too long for me to summarise here. Therefore I am giving you a synopsis of a five point overview by Christopher Hale dated 18 June in the Time Magazine website.
- Climate change is real, and it’s getting worse. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political, and in the distribution of goods. It is one of the principal challenges facing humanity. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems with serious consequences for all of us.”
- Human activity is a major contributor to climate change though reactionary politicians, mainly in the US dispute it; science says they are wrong. The Pope argues that humans are despoiling the Earth: “We see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will”.
- Climate change disproportionately affects the poor and its worst impact “(is) felt by developing countries. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by warming, and their means of subsistence are dependent on natural reserves and ecosystem services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.” Environmental inequality creates an economic phenomenon: Poor countries are financially indebted to rich ones. The Pope calls for policy reversal and payment of a “social debt to the poor … because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”
- We can and must make things better; the process is not irreversible, we should not lose hope. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of good and making a new start”
- Individuals can help, but politicians must lead. While personal responsibility counts, political and structural transformations are essential for lasting change. “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and new structures of power”. Nothing short of a “bold cultural revolution” can save humanity
Look, I am not making any of this up; go read it yourself; the full text is all over the web. I do admit I was astonished by the mighty sternness of the tone; as CNN said “Pope Francis knows how to deliver a stern lecture; on Thursday, he gave one for the ages”.
The moral dimension
The core of a Papal encyclical cannot be science, environmentalism, not even social justice; it has to be its moral dimension. In his message Francis asserts a moral vision shaped in the slums of Buenos Aires which he knows first-hand, but it goes well beyond a demand for justice for the poor. Laudeto Si questions certain values and behaviours of modern society. A few sound bites are better than attempts at restatement in my words.
- His most challenging barb is aimed at consumerism and calls for a drastic change in “lifestyle, production and consumption away from unsustainable habits to more mindful means of caring for our common home”.
- “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way”.
- “(H)umanity has become enamoured of another apple – and this time no Eve nor serpent is around. Temptation may have shifted from a forbidden fruit, but the sin remains the same: hubris”.
- “We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which claims that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”
- The Encyclical is also critical of an abject surrender to consumerism in the guise of technology and warns of a “cult of human power” and describes the blind adoption of technology as a Faustian bargain offering a wealth of benefits but at the risk of losing our souls.
- “Life has become a surrender to situations conditioned by technology; itself viewed as the key to the meaning of existence”.
- There is also an echo of Arahat Mahinda (‘creation care’ in Christian parlance) “We are not God; the Earth was here before us and has been given to us.”
I am uncomfortable with the superficial wording of some critiques-of-technology paragraphs; shades of Ludditism. First, the malaise is human culture and an ethos of obsession with material things, not the gadgets and gismos themselves. Second, I am wary of a style that blurs the line between the machine and the man who moves it; will you blame the Kalashnikov for a Jihadist’s shooting spree?
Consumerism is the post-war world’s mass ideology and the critique of vapid consumerism is spot on. Though dented by recent economic debacles, consumerism still overpowers and controls human behaviour. Individualism is touted as an absolute good and collective social responsibility is eschewed. Radical political and social critiques reached a high point in the 1960s but subsided afterwards. The global Left is peripheral and weak in practical action though Marx’s thought stands intellectually validated and vindicated. Therefore something remarkable has happened; religious actors, some evil some compassionate, have sprung to life and grabbed the centre of the historical stage. The prime example of contemporary religious power wielded as an evil is Jihadism. Conversely, the Pope’s intervention on ecology and his still stymied efforts to bring homosexuals within the pastoral (not doctrinal) fold of the Church, fill empty spaces in morally and practically wholesome ways
Can Lanka’s religious top-order rise to a challenge?
Evangelical Christians are cockeyed pre-Darwinian creatures for whom the Pope is the Anti-Christ and reality is revealed through a mist of surreal stonewalling. But it is not the irrelevance of the Evangelicals that rankles me; it is that the top-order (forgive a cricketing adage) of our established spiritual establishments in Lanka, one and all, are comparative midgets on social, ethical or moral matters.
Does not our top-order, robed, cassocked or loin-clothed, hasten to the defence of racial prejudice, wealth and power? True there are men of integrity in the middle-order; among Christians, there have been ‘lates’ like Emilianus, Leo and Lakshman; I will not name ‘quicks’ to spare others who will not be named the embarrassment. And there are stacks of admirable tail-enders. But at the pinnacle there is an order of magnitude gap in quality, commitment and purpose from the man who is the subject of this essay. The Dalai Lama, in a different way, is a man of stature but unfortunately he cannot reach a billion and a half people. Well, it’s time to stop this pleasant reverie on the outreach of men of robe, cloth or codpiece and let you get on with whatever you have planned for this sunny Sunday morning.