Remembering My Parents

February 24, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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I was going to begin this post by saying that last July was the hundredth anniversary of the births of each of my parents. While doing some research on them, however, I discovered that last July was the hundred and first anniversary of said births. I was never very good with dates. So:

Last July was the hundred and first anniversary of the births of each of my parents: Helen Dodds Ronan, born July 10, 1916, in Chester Pennsylvania; Joseph Edward Ronan, born July 21, 1916, also in Chester. During the eleven-day hiatus between the two birthdays, my father was given to saying that he had married an older woman.

I was also going to write that I did not think about the hundredth anniversary of their births last July because I was at the Grail International General Assembly in Portugal, but that I had been thinking about them a good deal since then. That last part is true, regardless of when they were born.

It’s not entirely easy to remember my working-class parents with  warmth. Each of them experienced–suffered–serious trauma in childhood. When my mother was four years old, her older brother, who was six or seven, died of diphtheria. Because the disease was so contagious, public health officials just came and took the body away. No funeral. Mom’s mother also contracted the disease and was hospitalized but did not die; when she came home, my mother said, her head was shaved. Her father, my beloved Poppie, had a nervous breakdown after his son’s death and sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in washing to pay the rent. Mom said her parents never recovered from her brother Jimmy’s death. I suspect she never did either. In photographs of her from those years, she always looks frightened.

My father’s mother, Rose Mitchell Ronan, died when he was nine or ten, I believe from heart failure related to having had rheumatic fever. His father, the rotter Tom, then abandoned my father and his sister and brother to be raised by their mother’s unmarried sisters. After my father’s first year in high school, five years later, at the height of the Great Depression, the aunts put him out because they couldn’t afford to feed him any more. Soon after, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. As soon as he was old enough, he enlisted in the US Navy. I sometimes giggle when my father and his confrères are called “The Greatest Generation” because of their heroism during World War II. Daddy enlisted well before Pearl Harbor, because, I am pretty sure,  it paid better than the CCC— though, as the chief torpedoman on a submarine, I suspect he was also nobody to mess with.

Given all of this, you won’t be surprised to learn that affection and helping my brother and me deal with emotions was not exactly my parents’ strong suit. Years later, when my brother’s children were small, my mother told me she was sorry she didn’t hold and hug us more when we were little, as my brother’s wife  did. I had a hard time responding. Some of my clearest memories of my mother are of her raising hell with me if I  got anything below an A on a report card.

Yet as time passes, and my parents are no longer with us, I have had some second thoughts about them.  A few years ago a close member of the family left his wife and moved into a studio apartment that he furnished like a zen monk’s cell. When I asked him what he liked about his new apartment he replied that he liked that there weren’t piles of dirty underwear all over the floor. It had never occurred to me to be grateful that my parents always put their dirty clothes in the hamper. Similarly, whenever I see an article explaining that it’s better for families to eat dinner together now and then, I am grateful, as I never was before, that my mother served us dinner every night at 5;30–even if the food wasn’t exactly nouvelle cuisine.

But the thing I am most grateful to my parents for is their absolute commitment to my brother and me getting an education.  One of my earliest memories of my father is of his walking me, when I was a toddler, to the post office with him to buy stamps that he stuck into a booklet. When the booklet was full, he traded it in for a savings bond, which he then put in the top drawer of his dresser, saying “These bonds are for your college tuition.” You had better believe I was going to college.

And my happiest memories of my mother when I was a child are of her reading to me, something she did a great deal. I caught hell in the second  grade because I had stopped carrying the fairly heavy reader home with me after school; I couldn’t understand the point because I had always been able to read the stories. And I will never forget the books that were waiting for us  under the tree on Christmas morning.

Not getting an education was one of the great disappointments of each of my parents’ lives. My father won a scholarship to St. Joseph’s Prep in Philly but couldn’t go because the aunts couldn’t afford the car fare. My mother graduated from high school but then had to go to work as a secretary. A generation later my brother has two law degrees and I have a Ph.D.

I don’t have  any children of my own. But I have had many students over the years. And my memories of reading and discussing books with them are some of the happiest memories of my life. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

 

 

 

 

 

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Immigration Impasse? We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

February 16, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, U.S. Politics, world water crisis | 1 Comment
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I don’t need to tell you that we are in a serious political and cultural mess regarding the question of immigration, not only here in the United States, but in Europe, Australia, and in many other countries. A million eight-hundred-thousand people brought to the US  as children risk deportation, the time-honored practice of legal immigrants bringing family members to the US is in danger of being abandoned, as is the visa lottery. And right-wing groups are gaining increasing political power by means of the immigration question .

But all of this conflict is, in effect, nothing more than the calm before the storm, the storm of climate refugees who will be surging across borders in coming decades. Indeed, many more of the current large numbers of immigrants are actually climate refugees than most of us realize. As Jeff Goodell reports in his new book, The Water Will Come, every year three times more people are made homeless by floods, storms and other “natural” disasters than are displaced by wars and other conflicts. And according to the International Organization for Migration, there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050 (though some researchers predict as many as a billion). Yet, interestingly enough, climate refugees have no legal status in international law; to be a legitimate refugee, a person must have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or political position. For this and other reasons, many countries basically ignore climate refugees.

In light of all this, Goodell raises an interesting question. What do the nations who give off the largest percentages of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change owe to climate refugees, people driven out of their countries by climate-related sea-level-rise, drought, famine, etc.? He notes that at the various UN conferences on climate change and the environment over the past twenty-five years, the nations most responsible for climate change have fought tooth and nail against the inclusion in any UN agreement of taking financial responsibility for “claims and damages” against them by the most harmed nations.

Goodell suggests that a way to pay off such a debt is for the countries involved to take in the same percentage of climate refugees as they have emitted greenhouse gases in the industrial era. For the United States, that percentage is 27%–the most of any nation on earth, though the European Union comes pretty close, with 25%. Assuming that 100 million people will need new homes by 2050, Goodell’s proposal means that the US would take in twenty-seven million people over the next thirty-two years, more or less.

But Trump and his supporters are determined to exclude virtually all immigrants now, even those that can claim refugee status under international law. So how on earth –no pun intended–are we going to respond  to the millions of climate refugees coming north in the decades to come?

 

 

The Collusion of Almost Everybody

February 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Catholicism, Climate Change | 7 Comments
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We’ve heard the word “collusion” a lot in recent months. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia? Did members of the FBI collude with the Clinton campaign? Etc., etc.

In his 2016 book, The Environmentalism of the Rich,* Peter Dauvergne details the ways in which mainstream environmental organizations have colluded, so to speak, with environment-destroying corporations. Here’s my review of that book, which appeared in the Grail’s monthly publication, Gumbo, in January:

 

At first glance, the title of Peter Dauvergne’s book could be off-putting. “Environmentalism” can sound pretty broad, or abstract, while “of the rich” surely doesn’t have much to do with people like us, right?

Actually, the title notwithstanding, Dauvergne’s book has a whole lot to do with people like us: concerned about the degradation of the natural world—God’s creation—but also necessarily up to our necks in the consumer society that is the 21st century United States—driving cars, flying in airplanes, eating processed food, buying cell phones, etc., etc., etc.

The “environmentalism of the rich,” as Dauvergne understands it, is a way of thinking and acting that has come to dominate the mainstream environmental movement in recent years. It focuses on “eco-consumerism”—favoring corporate products that are “green”—and making small life-style changes like composting, recycling, and taking shorter showers, even as overall consumption skyrockets around the world. And thanks to crack-downs since 9/11, state security agencies have suppressed many of the world’s direct action environmental movements that previously succeeded at confronting corporate and government harm and galvanizing the attention of the public.

Especially stunning in Dauvergne’s delineation of this shift from radical environmentalism to the environmentalism of the rich is his documentation of the rise of partnerships between retail corporations and mainstream environmental groups. Consider, for example, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). Already in the 1960s WWF was lobbying for stronger environmental laws, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to save endangered animals and highlighting the threats that economic development posed to wildlife. It went on to sponsor conservation projects around the world.

But in the 1990s the WWF began advocating “eco-labelling”—working with corporations like Cargill, McDonald’s and Walmart to certify various products and activities as “green.” In 2006, it began partnering with Coca-Cola to promote freshwater conservation in exchange for a $20 million donation. In 2011 Coke and the WWF launched a campaign to raise funds to conserve polar bear habitats; consumers could donate to WWF using “Coke Reward Points”; these projects are now in 50 countries. Coke revenues in 2014 were $46 billion. And it takes 150-300 liters of water to produce a half-liter of a sweetened beverage, in a world where billions of people live without adequate fresh water and obesity is sky-rocketing.

And it’s not only the WWF: The Nature Conservancy partners with Dow Chemical and Cargill; Conservation International works with Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Disney, Exxon-Mobil, McDonald’s, and Nestlé, to name only a few; while the Environmental Defense Fund also partners with McDonald’s. All of these partnerships help to fund the huge numbers of staff people needed to run environmental organizations around the world. Even Greenpeace, a group that has engaged in radical environmental protests over the years, now also engages in eco-consumer campaigns, thus helping to legitimize “the very political and corporate processes that are causing the overall rate of unsustainable consumption to escalate.”

Please do not get the impression that Dauvergne dismisses the contributions of mainstream environmental groups. Some of the best parts of the book are his stories of the achievements of those groups—protecting wilderness and animals, alerting the public to environmental dangers, and so forth. Yet ultimately, he is forced to admit, as are we, that despite these contributions, the situation of the planet is getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s going to take a lot more than the environmentalism of the rich to change it.

But that’s not all. Just after the review came out, I heard a discussion on the radio about another book–God forbid I could find the scrap of paper on which I wrote the title–about the relationships between food banks across the country and food chains like Walmart. Such mega-markets donate to the food banks and then claim they support the hungry. But something like 17% of Walmart employees are on food stamps because they’re paid to so little. Collusion ?

Then I was watching a Big East basketball game with my esteemed companion (I learned to love basketball in the Catholic schools in Philly when I was growing up.) It was a game between two Catholic universities–Marquette and maybe Xavier. During a time-out, an ad for Marquette described it as a university rooted in the Catholic faith. Quite inspiring. Then it was followed by a Jeep ad. And the game was airing on Fox, a network whose news coverage is widely recognized for its profound commitment to Catholic social teaching.

And then there’s my husband and me, with our money in Chase bank.  I mean, a Catholic university can’t be expected to pass on commercials that support its sports team that in turn supports its bottom line just because cars are a major source of the green-house gasses that are destroying the planet, can they? And should the Big East (all Catholic schools, I believe) stop using Fox, when it gives them the best deal, just because Fox commentators are racist nationalists? For that matter, should Keith and I be using some credit union when the Chase branch is walking distance and, conveniently, has more ATMs that any other bank out here in Brooklyn?

Let me conclude with a paraphrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All have colluded and fallen short of the glory of God.” The question is, how are we going to stop?

*Peter Dauvergne , Environmentalism of the Rich (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018).152 pp.  Paper. $16.95.

 

 

 

 

 

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