Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 1 Comment
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The following is a revised version of a review that appeared in a recent issue of The Irish Edition, a publication based in Philadelphia, and in the newsletters of several groups I belong to. I seem to have forgotten to post it here.

Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.

In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes Pope Francis’smessage a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic container and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.

 

 

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Would Jesus Condition His Hair?

February 4, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 1 Comment
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If you read my previous post, the review of  Bryant Holsenbeck’s book on how to give up disposable plastics, you might have gotten the impression that my interest in the topic was theoretical.

Actually, it’s personal.

After the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last October, which clarified the dire climate situation we are in if we don’t change our ways, I decided that writing about all this isn’t enough. First of all, I decided to eat way less meat. That hasn’t been so hard. Our food co-op sells all kinds of bean burgers and tofu turkey. Some of it actually tastes good.

The other area that I decided demands behavior change was—you guessed it—plastics. For years I believed that since New York City picks up and “recycles” plastics, my extensive use of them didn’t really matter. Then I learned that a lot of the “recycled” plastics were being shipped to and landfilled in other countries, not recycled. And only 9% of disposable plastics ever get recycled in any case.

Some of the changes I undertook weren’t terribly hard: I stopped buying a tub of pre-washed mixed lettuces once or twice a week and instead bought, washed and sliced heads of lettuce. When I couldn’t find the salad dressing I wanted in glass, I made it myself. We began buying locally produced milk in glass bottles at the green market, though they cost twice as much as the milk in plastic bottles at the supermarket. The challenge with all of this, of course, is the inconvenience. How much time do I want to spend washing lettuce or making my own salad dressing? Notre Dame Philosopher Ken Sayre targets our obsession with convenience as a major cause of the environmental crisis.

The dimension of disposable plastic that’s more challenging has to do with health care, especially as a person gets older. My prescription medications all come in plastic bottles, and I have a hunch CVS isn’t likely to be switching to non-plastic containers any time soon. My receding gums require cleaning out with dental tape and an electric toothbrush, available only in plastic, and the mouthwash for my dry mouth doesn’t come in glass either.

Then there’s personal appearance. I was a fat, homely young person, and my appearance is important to me. I did stop buying make-up, but as for my hair…a friend in Australia l suggested that I wash my hair with bicarbonate of soda and condition it with cider vinegar. I freaked out at the very idea. I need my conditioner! As a Christian, I was ashamed: would Jesus condition his hair? In the midst of this ethical conundrum, I made the wonderful discovery of a company called Lush that produces shampoo, conditioner, and other personal care products in bar form. And they have four stores in Manhattan!!!

Bryant Holsenbeck’s advice in The Last Straw was a great help to me as I waded through all this: do what you can, she writes. Just keep at it.

But I then read something that took me a step farther than Holsenbeck’s sensible advice about reducing my use of disposable plastic. A January 21 article in The Guardian reported on a new global alliance of businesses that, in the face of the growing crisis of plastic waste around the world, has committed $1 billion over the next five years to reduce the amount of such waste and improve recycling. The largest signatories to the agreement, however, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Saudi Aramco and others, are at the same time investing multi-billions of dollars to build plastic production factories around the world, as fracked gas production cuts into crude oil profits. About 8 million tons of plastic waste continues to be dumped into the sea annually, “choking fish, destroying marine habitats, and entering the food chain.” The head of an environmental NGO focused on plastics said, “river and beach cleanups would not work” as long as there is a steady stream of new plastics being produced.

Neither, in and of themselves, will my efforts and those of Bryant Holsenbeck. Or as a logic professor once explained to be, these actions are “necessary but not sufficient.” Along with cutting back on our use of disposable plastics, we have to turn out onto the streets, and at politicians’ offices, and at board meetings, to demand real changes in the profit-making system that is driving the climate crisis. Jesus may not condition his hair, but I am fairly certain he expects strong political action from us on behalf of God’s threatened creation.

This blog post is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the February issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US, the women’s movement I’ve been involved in for fifty-four years.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere and…?

January 5, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, world water crisis | 3 Comments
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The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life without Disposable Plastic. By Bryant Holsenbeck. Durham, North Carolina: The Resource Center for Woman and Ministry in the South, 2018. Paper. 169 pp. $25 (includes tax and shipping). https://rcwms.org/product/the-last-straw-a-continuing-quest-for-life-without-disposable-plastic/

The Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965, had been involved in the back to the land movement since the 1940s, so I had long been aware of the importance of the land, and of sustainable agriculture. But I began reading, writing and teaching intensively about the planet’s dire environmental situation after attending a week-long program on the world water crisis with Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist, at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York in 2001. Barlow basically scared the bejesus out of me.

Recently, however, I have also become aware that the strategy Barlow used, and that had such a  big impact on me—laying out the horrifying facts about the situation—for many, or even most people, simply doesn’t work. For example, there was my attempt to get the new pastor at my parish here in Brooklyn to place more emphasis on climate change in sermons and religious education. When I told him that scientists are predicting that if the temperatures continue to go up at the current rate, we face the end of civilization by 2100, he told me I was the kind of crazy person who believes the end times are coming.

Then there was my article in the September 2018 issue of the Grail’s national publication about how flying is unethical because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted by airplanes. Two Grail members, whose different projects I cited as examples of how much we in the Grail fly, wrote to accuse me of being against their particular effort. Then two weeks later a very dear Grail friend, whose work for the Grail in Tanzania I admire enormously, sent out an invitation for US members to travel to East Africa to learn more about the Grail there. I was fairly certain she wasn’t proposing that they travel there by boat.

Basically, almost everyone with whom I share the increasingly dire information about climate change and environmental degradation tells me that my critique can’t apply to them because what they’re involved in is too important.

I have concluded that I need to find another approach, and that that approach needs to have two characteristics: it must involve storytelling, and the stories need to be beautiful or seriously creative in some other way.

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Given this evolution in my thinking, to say that I was thrilled by Bryant Holsenbeck’s new book, The Last Straw, is to vastly understate the case. Holsenbeck is an environmental artist who became curious about where all the plastic we throw away actually goes. She discovered that there is no “away”—it’s ending up in landfills and clogging our streams and oceans.

She decided, as a result, to give up single use plastics for a year, hard as doing that might be. Then she blogged about the experience. Now the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South has published those blog posts in a splendid, beautiful volume, The Last Straw.

Bryant Holsenbeck is by no means the only, or even the first person to write a book about giving up single-use plastic. Already in 2012 Beth Terry, a Bay Area accountant, published Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and blogs to keep people up to date. But Terry pretty much belongs to the strategy school that I have resigned from: telling readers everything there is to know about the plastics crisis and trusting that that info will motivate them—us—to follow her in giving up plastic.

Bryant Holsenbeck, however, is an artist, so her strategy is quite different. To begin with, the book is illustrated with pictures of the gorgeous art that Holsenbeck has been making out of discarded trash, and now especially discarded plastic, over the years.

Furthermore, instead of primarily confronting us with the statistics that activists like Beth Terry and I favor, Holsenbeck tells wonderful, engaging stories of her year of giving up plastic, and her visits to schools in North Carolina and neighboring states where she teaches students how to make the discarded plastic they have been gathering into works of art. In the course of telling these stories, she offers tidbits of encouragement—a recipe for how to make your own yogurt, for example, or a poem about a red wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams as she recalls her wonderful experiences of composting. And underpinning it all, again and again, is Holsenbeck’s philosophy that it’s the things we can do that are important, not achieving perfection. Such a philosophy is unbelievably encouraging. Even the fact that Holsenbeck undertakes living without disposable plastics for just a year will be encouraging for some of us—though in the end, she decides she can never go back.

Of course, some of us may be ready to plunge right in, in which case, Plastic Free, with its trove of information on the evils of plastic and alternatives to it may be what just what’s needed. But if you would prefer to wade gradually into warmer water and to view a gorgeous landscape on the way, The Last Straw is definitely the book for you.

 

This review is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the January 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eco-Capitalist Schizophrenia: Alaska

May 16, 2018 at 10:44 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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So today an article in the New York Times illustrates perfectly  the argument Richard Smith makes in Green Capitalism, the book I reviewed in my last blog post. In that article, Brad Plumer explains that while it’s been almost exclusively blue states––California, New York, etc.––that are taking the lead on policies to reverse climate change, one deep-red state, Alaska, is being forced to join the efforts.

Why?

Because the effects of climate change in Alaska are simply “impossible to ignore” even in a state that went for Trump by 51%. Among the problems confronting Alaska are the melting of the solid permafrost that holds up roads, buildings and pipelines, “destabilizing the infrastructure”; many coastal and towns and cities being forced to relocate because of melting sea ice and fierce waves eroding shores;  the increasing size of wildfires  endangering homes and roads; indigenous communities that rely on walrus hunting seeing their catches plummet as sea ice disappears, and ocean acidification endangering state fisheries.

As a result of all this, Alaska, under the leadership of its Republican governor, has formed a task force to propose specific policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Sounds good, right? So what’s the problem? As Plumer notes, while doing this, the state has to grapple with certain “deep contradictions”: 85 percent of the state budget is funded by revenues from the production of oil, which is for the most part exported to the rest of the US. The governor and lieutenant governor both strongly supported  the recent decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. So even as Alaska has cut its per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 2005, you may be quite sure any state measures proposed won’t include ending the exportation of Alaskan oil, since such oil basically funds the government.

The draft state proposal on climate change calls for Alaska to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal by 2025, and suggests a carbon tax as a way to get there, But the oil and gas industries absolutely oppose a carbon tax. A representative says such a tax only makes sense if it is “global.” Good luck with that.

As Green Capitalism makes clear, no industry is going to agree to any local or regional tax, because it will decrease profits; competition from industries in areas without such a tax will run the local industry out of business.  And as the industries go out of business, citizens who are losing jobs will vote the politicians who instituted the tax out of office.

So in a certain sense, Smith agrees with the analysis of the oil and gas industry. It’s his solution to the problem that’s radically different: to save the planet––and ourselves––we have to end the profit-fixated system and take action now. Waiting for a fantasy global tax to be enacted just won’t cut it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green Capitalism

May 7, 2018 at 11:37 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 2 Comments
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The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the May issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the United States Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965.

 

Green Capitalism: The God that Failed. By Richard Smith. (UK: The World Economics Association, 2016). 172 pp. $20.98 https://www.worleconomicsassociation.org/library/green-capitalism-the-god-that-failed/

Richard Smith is an eco-socialist scholar who has worked as a sailboat-rigger and carpenter as well as a university lecturer. Green Capitalism is a collection of his articles published previously in journals. Smith spoke once at a course I was taking; he was impressive. He also has amazing hair:

In Green Capitalism, Smith argues that capitalism is the root of the environmental crisis that we are confronting because capitalism is fundamentally committed to growth, whereas the planet is fundamentally finite. If the economy keeps growing, as capitalism says it must, we will exhaust the planet.

The book’s first chapter traces the problem back to the origins of capitalist thinking at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, production was aimed at use; people made and grew what they needed, for the most part. But beginning in the 18thcentury, economists began speaking enthusiastically about the “invisible hand” that was guiding the market, the profit motive, that determined what owners would manufacture, what price to charge, what to pay workers, etc. Well-being, the common good, was no longer part of the equation. But the economists assured us that the “invisible hand” would take care of everything.

In chapter 2, Smith discusses contemporary economists who argue that “steady-state” capitalism—a capitalism that does not grow—will solve the environmental crisis. Smith shows, however, that “grow or die” is the law of capitalist survival. Without growth, for example, there’s no increase in jobs. Politicians who support changes that are crucial to planetary survival, like shutting down the coal industry or massively cutting back the production of consumer goods, get defeated in the next election; so they’re never going to support such a thing.  “Steady-state capitalism” is a fairy tale.

Chapter 3 is a critique of the thinking of “green capitalists” such as Paul Hawken and Francis Cairncross(GHG) who argue that green technology like buying electric cars, eating organic food, or passing carbon taxes is going to solve the climate crisis. The problem is that massive parts of the economy can’t be “greened” because so many of our commodities are made from fossil fuels or otherwise harm the environment. Sixty percent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) given off by automobiles are given off during the manufacturing and disposal processes, and at present, a great deal of the electricity used by electric cars is generated by coal or methane gas. The fibers in our clothes, the fertilizers in our fields, our phones, computers and televisions, all are predicated on a non-green economy. We have to change the system.

The fourth chapter expands Smith’s discussion of the jobs versus the environment conundrum introduced in chapter 2. Smith lays out the sobering links between China’s recent 8 percent economic growth and massive resource extraction there, but he does not overlook recent obscene US resource over-exploitation as well: surging home size, sales of SUVs and light trucks, flat-screen TVs and air-conditioning. Ultimately, to achieve the 90 percent GHG emissions essential to saving the planet, we have to shut down all the fossil-fuel related industries, not just reform energy production. This is so because 75 percent of GHG emissions come from industry, transportation, agriculture, and deforestation. The solution is to shift the economy from production of non-essential commodities to “caring industries”––local agriculture, universal health care, education, environmental remediation, restoring existing housing, reforestation.

Finally, in chapter 6, Smith consolidates his previous arguments into “Six Theses for Saving the Humans”:

  1. Capitalism is driving our ecological crisis.
  2. The solutions to the crisis are obvious but capitalism blinds us to them.
  3. The essential alternative is to shift to an economy that is planned globally, regionally and locally.
  4. This means people have to come together at all levels and vote on the needed changes.
  5. Such a democracy can work only if it is based on social and economic equality—food, health care, housing, education. There is already enough wealth in the world to do this
  6. These are crazy, utopian, unachievable ideas. But what is the alternative?

The trouble with Green Capitalism is that it says the same thing, over and over: capitalism is the problem. But this is also its greatest strength: by the end, we really get it: capitalism, the only economic system the Chinese communists, never mind liberal Westerners like us, live by, guarantees the destruction of the humans and most of the rest of God’s creation.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

 

Pope Francis after Five Years: His Greatest Contribution

April 17, 2018 at 11:56 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Vatican | 6 Comments
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Last night I was honored to participate in a panel in Manhattan sponsored by Dignity New York and the Women’s Ordination Conference called “Francis after Five: A Feminist Response.” I enjoyed very much the conversation with Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director  of BishopAccountability.org, Jamie Manson, NCR columnist and book review editor, Teresa Cariño, pastoral associate for young adults at St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, and our moderator, the journalist and author, Eileen Markey. Unfortunately, the program was not videoed, but here, at least, is my presentation:

 

Let’s get right down to business. I am here to argue that the single most important thing Pope Francis did in his first five years in office was to publish his second encyclical, Laudato Si”: On Care for Our Common Home in June of 2015.

Why do I say this? Because the environmental catastrophe that we are experiencing is one of the two biggest threats facing humanity today––the other being nuclear war.

In making this claim, I am not thinking only of the extreme forest fires in California this past year, or the massive storms that devastated major parts of Houston and Puerto Rico, or the increasing droughts and famines around the world, though these are terrifying enough. I am also recalling that last fall scientists at MIT, Stanford, and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in independent studies, warned that if we continue to release carbon into the environment at the current rate, by the year 2100, there will be a “biological annihilation”—a sixth mass extinction––which may well wipe out not only a huge number of other animal and plant species but the human species as well.

Part of what is so important about Laudato Si’ is precisely what Pope Francis says there. He states unambiguously that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in our day and calls out the consumerist, profit-driven globalized technocracy as its primary cause. He also accepts the scientific consensus that changes in the climate are largely caused by human activity and calls for replacing fossil fuels without delay.

But it’s not just what Pope Francis says about climate change that makes Laudato Si’ the pivotal action of his papacy; it’s what the document achieved, and on many levels. Consider, for example, that one day after the encyclical’s contents had been leaked to the media, the Dalai Lama stated that : “Since climate change and the global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity “ And then the head of the Anglican Communion issued a “green declaration” (also signed by the Methodist Conference); and the Lausanne Movementof global evangelical Christians said it was anticipating the encyclical and was grateful for it. The encyclical was also welcomed by the World Council of Churches and by secular world leaders Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, and the head of the World Bank.

The resources that Pope Francis drew on were also path-breaking. Of course, he quotes at some length his papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But also, underpinning his stress on the poor and people in the Global South as those most harmed by climate change, he quotes African, Asian and Latin American bishops conferences as his predecessors never did, and refers multiple times to the wisdom of indigenous people. All of this clearly embodies the integral ecology that is at the heart of the Pope’s argument in Laudato Si’. (Unfortunately, he does not quote many women at all).

But we are not here to talk about the contents of Laudato Si’; we are here to offer a feminist assessment of Pope Francis’s first five years in office. And a lot of feminist, LGBT and transgender Catholics were quite critical of the pope’s environmental encyclical.

Let me begin this part of my talk by saying that I have been a Catholic feminist since the early 1970s, when my women’s community, the Grail, offered path-breaking programs in feminist theology and spirituality at our organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati. I also attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 and served as president of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board 2000-2002. I am also author or co-author of seven books, most of them about women and the church, and of hundreds of articles and reviews. I basically oppose the church’s position on women’s ordination, and reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

As I have said before, however, even if the pope had thoughts about these questions that deviate from traditional teaching—which I doubt he has––­­­­he would have been ill-advised to express them in Laudato Si’ This is so because to have done so would have started a civil war and distracted from the issue that concerns him most: the environmental catastrophe. Consider the blow-back from right-wing commentators like Ross Douthat over the suggestion about divorced and remarried Catholics being readmitted to communion in Amoris Laetitia, a much less contentious issue than reproductive or LGBTQ rights.

Yet I want also to point out that one thing Francis says in Laudato Si’ makes a really significant change in Catholic teaching on sexuality and gender, when he states very clearly that the destruction of the environment and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion. Here, for the first time, a pope is undercutting what historical sociologist Gene Burns calls the post-Vatican II Catholic ideological hierarchy, in which sexual teaching is primary and obligatory for all, doctrine is secondary and obligatory for Catholics only, and social justice issues like climate change and war are tertiary and optional. The media paid considerably more attention when Francis reiterated this change in his recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete and Exultate, but he had, in fact, already asserted it in Laudato Si’.

I also want to suggest that feminist and LGBTQ Catholics here in the Global North need to be careful in our critique of Laudato Si’ precisely because of what Pope Francis in that document calls the environmental debt owed to the communities of the Global South who are suffering the most because of our massive over-consumption. The daily per capita emission of green-house gases by the average US resident is seventy times that of the average Kenyan.  Along these lines, a number of feminists were critical of the encyclical because they believed it did not put enough emphasis on population control as a way of remedying the climate crisis. But scientists tell us that if the poorest three billion people on earth were to disappear, greenhouse gas emissions would not go down at all because it’s the people in the Global North who are causing the problem. I fully support women’s reproductive rights, but the church’s opposition to those rights is not causing the climate crisis. We are.  And let’s be clear here: women and their children in the Global South are those who are suffering the most from the effects of climate change.

So I conclude as I began, by reminding us that the catastrophe afflicting our common home is one of the two greatest problems of our time, and that Francis’s greatest contribution as pope is to have challenged the whole world, women and men, cis and transgender, gay as well as straight, to the radical conversion needed to save God’s creation.

 

 

 

 

The Redemption of All Creation

March 28, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, constructive theology, Environment | 3 Comments
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In her new book, ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues compellingly that Christ is the redeemer of all creation, not only of human beings. What could be more timely, as the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection approaches?

Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. 256 pages. Published by Orbis Books. $28.

In January, Scientific American shared some disturbing news: researchers had determined that between 1990 and 2015, concern about the environment and climate change had declined among U.S. Christians. * Since the study didn’t distinguish between denominations, and since Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical was published in 2015, you may find yourself hoping, as I did, that U.S. Catholics don’t share this declining concern.

Unfortunately, certain powerful theological paradigms going back well before the Reformation make such a distinction unlikely. In her splendid new book, Creation and the Cross, theologian Elizabeth Johnson takes on one of them:  the notion that salvation is an exclusively human matter, having nothing to do with the rest of creation. “What would it mean,” she asks, “to rediscover the biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation?”

Johnson traces this dualism between redemption and creation back to the work of the eleventh-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, and, in particular, to his “satisfaction theory” of salvation, as formulated in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Anselm’s answer to the question, Johnson explains, is that Jesus had to become human and die on the cross to pay back what was due to God for human sin.  This theory, we learn, has played a pivotal role in Christian theology and practice ever since. But Anselm’s satisfaction theory is an interpretation of the cross, not its only possible meaning. And like all interpretations, it is shaped by the social context from which it emerged, in this case, feudalism, where local rulers required subjects to make satisfaction—to pay—for breaking the law.

In contrast, Johnson proposes an accompaniment theology of salvation, in which Jesus’ brutal death “enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God” with all those who suffer, including the poor, species that undergo extinction, and all the rest of creation. She traces this redemption back to the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible, the Holy One of Israel who promises liberation to the Israelites in Egypt and later in Babylon. But this redemption is not some trade-off, as the satisfaction theory implies, but a redemption poured out by a God whose compassion for us is that of a mother for her child, a redemption that causes streams to flow in dry land and wilderness to bloom.

And it is this liberating and merciful God who sends Jesus, not to pay for our sins, but to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free. But Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom constituted a serious challenge to the Romans who ruled Israel during his lifetime. The cheering crowds who greeted him, especially during his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his confrontation with the money changers in the Temple, constituted such a threat to the unjust power of empire that the rulers crucified Jesus in order to silence him. Yet instead of death silencing him, the resurrection made Jesus present to the disciples in an entirely new way, enabling them to take the liberating message of the compassionate God to the ends of the earth and to all of creation. And through the early church’s recorded memories of the crucified and risen Christ, this understanding of the cross as an expression of the compassion and mercy of God spread throughout the world.

The culmination of this accompaniment theology is something Johnson calls “deep incarnation.”  The creator God Jesus Christ is, she explains, the God of all flesh, with flesh not signifying only sin, as the dualism between spirit and matter suggests, but the finitude and death suffered by all creation, including God’s own son. But with the resurrection, this “flesh was called to life again in transformed glory.” And, as St. Paul writes, the hope promised to all in this transformation “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

Creation and the Cross concludes with a call to us all to a conversion, in our actions as well as our beliefs, to love of the Creator/Redeemer of the whole world and the entire cosmos. Within this conversion, mistreatment of the earth is as much a sin as mistreatment of other humans. In order to repent we must understand ourselves as members of the whole “community of creation,” whose suffering is our suffering. The cross, then, is the icon of God’s compassionate love for everyone and everything.

For all Johnson’s disagreement with Anselm’s satisfaction theory, she does show her appreciation for another aspect of Cur Deus Homo, and to such an extent that she actually imitates it: the question and answer format Anselm uses to make his theology accessible. Of course, no book is perfect, and in the case of Creation and the Cross, Johnson’s interlocutor, “Clara,” sounds, from time to time, suspiciously like a theology professor. That limitation notwithstanding, the Q&A format, combined with Johnson’s gift for clarity and strategic summarizing, makes this book an ideal tool for helping us all expand our understanding of redemption to include all of God’s beloved creation.

In a review of this length, it is not possible to do justice to the range of biblical and theological sources Johnson draws upon to lay out her deep incarnation theology. The depth and accessibility of such material throughout the book makes Creation and the Cross an ideal resource for RCIA participants seeking to achieve an understanding of the faith. But really, given the feeble concern so many US Christians feel for God’s creation even in the face of increasing numbers of massive fires, extreme weather events, droughts and flooded cities, Creation and the Cross is a book we all need to read, and we need to read it soon.

 

This review appeared in the March 22-April 5 2018 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

War Causes Climate Change

January 2, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Posted in Climate Change, war and violence, world water crisis | 4 Comments

The following is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the winter 2018 issue of Kerux, the newsletter of the New York chapter of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement.

 
Over the past year, in the face of multiple “once in five-hundred year” storms, massive forest fires, droughts, and famines, many of us who were previously not that interested in environmental issues are being forced to give climate change a second thought. But what do you do if your passion is for peace?

Back in 2010, when I addressed the annual assembly of Pax Christi Metro New York, I took a shot at demonstrating the connections between climate change, especially the world water crisis, and war. I detailed, for example, the links between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declining groundwater supplies there as well as the connections between drought in the Sudan region and the 2003-2010 war in Darfur.

But the causal relationship between climate change and war doesn’t run in just one direction. Not only does climate change cause wars; wars, and the military-industrial complex that underpins wars, are a, and some would argue, the cause of climate change (which, in turn causes more wars, ad infinitum). My aim in this article is to lay out this second phase of the vicious cycle, the one I didn’t address in 2010.*
The current impact of US militarism on the climate is staggering. The US Air Force, for example, is the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world. The B-52 Stratocruiser uses 500 gallons of jet fuel per minute; ten minutes of flight uses as much fuel as the average driver does in a year. And CO2 emissions from jet fuel are as much as triple the amount given off by diesel or oil.

Then there’s the massive “upstream emissions” of greenhouse gases generated in the manufacture of military equipment, vehicles, weapons, munitions and infrastructure in the endless wars the US fights to maintain control over oil reserves in the Middle East. And this causal link between war and climate change, especially greenhouse gas emissions, grew steadily throughout the twentieth century. In World War II, a US soldier used 1 gallon of gas a day; in Vietnam, 9 gallons; in the Second Gulf War, 15 gallons.

But the (mis)use of fuel is only one part of the story. The immediate environmental consequences of warfare are also appalling. Already in the 1820s, the Napoleonic wars destroyed so much forest cover that they contributed to the cooling of the planet, while in World War I Great Britain felled nearly half of its commercial woodland for military use, and more than 8 million acres of European topsoil were destroyed in battles, tanks, trucks, bombs, etc., –the equivalent of 40,000 years of erosion.

Equally staggering is the tactical strategic role of environmental destruction in modern warfare. Eighty-five percent of the munitions used in the Vietnam War was aimed at the environment sheltering the Vietcong, not at the Vietcong themselves. The US also sprayed 70 million liters of defoliants like Agent Orange onto Vietnamese forests contaminating 40% of arable land and 23% of its forest cover. Napalm use killed vegetation as well as people. And lest we think that we were the only ones burning people and the planet with napalm, be aware that the French used it in Algeria and the British in Kenya in the 1950s.
In addition to the harm done to the environment (and human beings) by war, there is a direct and onerous link between military inventions and technological advances and the arrival of what scientists call the Anthropocene, the new, human-induced geological epoch. Consider, for example, nylon, invented by DuPont during World War II to replace Japanese silk for parachutes and bullet-proof vests. After the war, huge nylon nets, combined with sonar technologies created to identify underwater submarines, made massive but unsustainable increases in world seafood catches possible. These led to the plummeting of seafood stocks today.

Similarly, tank factories began after the war to produce vehicles like clear-cutters and bull-dozers that were used in mining, mountain-top removal, clearing forests and fields, and the destruction of topsoil. In the Atoms for Peace program after World War II, the US conducted 70 million explosions trying to identify civilian uses of the nuclear weapons invented in World War II—building highways over mountains, for example– while the Soviet Union did 128 explosions, though in each case the projects were eventually abandoned. Think of the environmental harm done by these “experiments.”
And then there’s the radioactive waste generated by the nuclear power stations that US nuclear weapons research generated, which may well be stored in a waste facility near you and your children and grandchildren in years to come. And then there’s the incalculable environmental damage at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

So why does all this matter? It matters because there’s a trend here in the United States towards what’s called “green capitalism.” That’s when people claim that they are fighting climate change by eating organic or buying hybrid cars. Don’t get me wrong here; those are good things to do. But as long as the United States is a hyper-militaristic war machine, colluding with other such machines, climate change isn’t going away. And when you turn out in the streets to oppose US militarism, or call your representatives to oppose the bloated US military budget, or donate to Pax Christi, you aren’t just working to save people from the violence of war. You are working to save God’s creation.

*Material in this article is drawn from Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene (New York, NY: Verso Books, 2015), 122-147, and H. Patricia Hynes, “The Military Assault on Global Climate,” Truthout, Sept. 8, 2011. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/3181:the-military-assault-on-global-climate Accessed December 6, 2017.

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