Review: Thomas Berry Bio

January 17, 2020 at 11:44 am | Posted in Climate Change, Cosmology,, Environment, Spirituality,, World Religions | 1 Comment
Here’s my January 1 National Catholic Reporter review of the new biography of Thomas Berry, whose New Story of creation transformed religious environmentalism.

New biography of Thomas Berry reasserts importance of his work

‘Geologian’ fashioned an utterly compassionate vision of the universe
National Catholic Reporter, January 1, 2020.

Thomas Berry: A Biography
By Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim and Andrew Angyal
360 pages; Columbia University Press; 2019

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I was part of a community living at the Grail’s national center on an organic farm in rural southwest Ohio. A tall, thin priest used to come visit us from time to time. He seemed quite old and wobbly to me, and I worried that he might fall off the steps on his way up to the altar to celebrate the liturgy.

The priest’s name was Thomas Berry, and in recent years, I have been forced to admit that my concerns about his age and wobbliness — he was in his mid-60s at the time — were a bit off-point. And that his portrayal of the new story of the universe, shared with us in mimeographed form before he began publishing about it, was a great deal more significant.

 

The new biography of Berry [1] by Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, with Andrew Angyal, confirms big-time my revised estimation of that tall, thin priest. Berry, who in later years described himself as a “geologian” rather than as an eco-theologian, presented a vision of the universe, of all of creation, and of the Great Work we are called to within it. Such a vision was revolutionary for his time and is even more relevant to the current planetary crisis than it once was.

As detailed by the authors, Berry was born in North Carolina, to a prosperous family, and fell in love with nature at an early age. His early experiences of a numinous creation shaped his life’s work. After attending a boarding school run by the Passionist Order and a year of college, he entered the Passionists, drawn in particular to their commitment to the suffering of the world. He eventually added a fourth vow to the three made by all Passionists: dedication to the passion of the Earth.

Berry was in large part a scholar, and the scope of his knowledge is mind-boggling. After seminary, he earned a Ph.D. in European cultural history, writing a dissertation on Giambattista Vico’s universal philosophy of history. He went on to study Asian religions and cultures, learning Sanskrit and publishing books on Buddhism and the religions of India. He directed the graduate program in the history of religions at Fordham University. He also founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research [2], one of the bedrocks of religious environmentalism.

Furthermore, by the early 1970s, Berry was researching the cosmologies of native traditions, highlighting their “symbolic ways of knowing the interrelationships between bioregions … and the larger universe.” The authors argue that the impact of indigenous worldviews on Berry was so profound that he became a shaman as well as a scholar. Also enormously important for Berry’s thinking was the work of Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist and theologian of the cosmos.

Out of this extraordinary breadth of knowledge, Berry fashioned a cosmic, utterly compassionate vision of the universe. Fundamental to that vision was his conviction that a new narrative of the universe was essential to change. Only human understanding of the history of the ever-expanding universe would lead us out of our era of planetary destruction and mass extinction into a more compassionate, sustainable era. So enormous would the effort be that was required to move humanity into this new era in politics, economics, culture and religion that Berry called that effort the Great Work. Deeply hopeful, he continued throughout his life to trust that humanity would indeed take on this Great Work and move beyond planetary suicide to embrace its vital role as part of an interdependent “communion of subjects.”

 

Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry, 2008 (CNS/Caroline Webb)

The authors also show that along with his massive contributions to our comprehension of this cosmic intercommunion, Berry impacted the wider society in other significant ways. At a time when the concept of a new geologic era, marked by human impact on and damage to the planet, the Anthropocene, has taken center stage, Berry’s earlier concept of an Ecozoic Era, an evolutionary phase of mutually-enhancing relationships between the planet’s ecosystems, provided a prescient alternative.

Berry also introduced the idea of legal rights and representation for the planet itself in response to widespread violations of those rights. This notion subsequently developed into the legal field of “earth jurisprudence,” now taught in law schools and studied widely. And Berry’s characterization of the domination and exploitation of the Earth through technological mastery as the “Technozoic” alternative to the Ecozoic Era, may well have laid the foundation for Pope Francis’ critique of the “technocratic paradigm” in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.” Finally, Emmy-award winning 2011 film, “The Journey of the Universe [4]” created by Brian Swimme with Tucker and Grim was dedicated to Berry and introduced many thousands of people to his profound ecological cosmology.

As well written and informative as the Grim, Tucker, Angyal biography of Berry is, I find one aspect of it puzzling: There is not a criticism of Berry or his work in the entire book. No mention, for example, of his economic privilege — attending a Catholic secondary boarding school in the 1930s when most U.S. Catholics were on the breadlines or in the Civilian Conservation Corps — and the connection between that privilege and his ability to spend his life studying the admittedly crucial subjects he did. And no mention either of the irony that the father of someone who dedicated much of his life to fighting planetary destruction was the owner of an oil company.

Perhaps the fact that two of the authors, Tucker and Grim, were Berry’s students and deeply influenced by him over many years explains this absence of critique. Parts of the book read almost like a memoir of their collaboration with him.

At another level, though, the gratitude and admiration the authors express for Berry’s life may well be a reflection of the cosmic, compassionate, unifying vision that underpins his entire body of work. Berry saw that everything in the cosmos is one, articulating the communion between groups, species and material entities that today are all too often seen as hostile opposites. Out of this cosmic worldview the authors constructed an interpretation of Berry’s life that is positive, hopeful and badly needed.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary in New York City. Her most recent book, with Mary O’Brien, is Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement (Apocryphile Press, 2017).]

 

 

Anointed with Oil

December 10, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Posted in American Protestantism,, Climate Change, oil. | 3 Comments
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The Wall!

October 9, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Climate Change, violence, | 3 Comments
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Here’s a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US. Given the Climate Emergency, and the Narcissist-in-Chief’s obsession with walls, Lanchester’s book is all too pertinent.

The Wall. By John Lanchester. W.W. Norton and Co. 2019. 254 pp.

In his splendid book on the cultural causes of the climate emergency, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh begins by highlighting modern fiction’s fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination.

In recent years, however, a new genre of fiction has emerged that leaves this fixation behind. Called “cli-fi”—a variation on “sci-fi” —this new genre highlights the effects of climate catastrophes on precisely those collectives Ghosh sees as previously neglected. One outstanding instance of “cli-fi” is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2014 novel New York 2140, which explores the dire implications of the flooding of Manhattan (though the date he uses is a bit optimistic!)

Now the widely-read British writer, John Lanchester, has published his own first dive into the cli-fi genre, The Wall. In this novel, Lanchester moves beyond Robinson’s engagement with the immediate effects of sea-level rise to the long-term effects of what he calls The Change—a massive catastrophe that has transformed society. The story unfolds on an island—presumably Britain, but never identified as such. The island has been spared the worst effects of the Change and has constructed a wall around itself to keep out rising waters and migrants —the Others—who are trying to escape the dreadful situations in their own countries.

The story focuses on the experience of “Joseph Kavanaugh,” who is, like all citizens of the island, required to serve for two years as a Defender of the Wall against the threat of armed invasion. Kavanaugh resembles some of our own young people, blaming older people for the situation he and others his age find themselves in. “The world hasn’t always been like this and…the people responsible for it ending up like this were our parents…them and their generation,” he states.

Kavanaugh eventually partners up with a female Defender to become Breeders—people willing to have children when the population is in serious decline due to the reluctance on the part of many to reproduce because of the Change. Ostensibly, they were to be discharged from the Defenders for doing so. Before this happens, however, a personal catastrophe befalls them that pitches them onto the other side of the Wall and makes them consider Others in a different way.

Gruesome as the narrative may sound, the book is a terrific read, especially the last hundred pages. I could hardly put it down. It was nominated for the 2019 Mann Booker Prize in 2019 though didn’t make it to the final round. As the young people around the world are taking to the streets to protest capitalist greed in the face of climate catastrophe, Lanchester’s The Wall is just what the apathetic older generation needs to read.

Political Theology of the Earth

September 11, 2019 at 10:58 am | Posted in Christian theology,, Climate Change, Environment | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth,, which appears in the September 6-19 issue of The National Catholic Reporter.

POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF THE EARTH: OUR PLANETARY EMERGENCY AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEW PUBLIC
By Catherine Keller
248 pages; Columbia University Press
$27.00

You don’t need me to tell you that we are currently facing an overwhelming array of crises around the world. Political strongmen — dictators — coming to power. Millions of refugees fleeing war and climate catastrophe. A vast array of species facing extinction. And seemingly endless religious conflicts — not to mention the plummeting of membership in institutional religion, at least in the West.

These crises seem so dire that many use the word “apocalypse” to characterize them.

Yet as constructive theologian Catherine Keller explains in her galvanizing new book, Political Theology of the Earth, apocalypse doesn’t mean what many think it means: the coming of the end times. This is not to say that Keller dismisses the crises that face us. She agrees that we are right to be apprehensive.

But drawing on studies of the Pauline epistles, Keller shows that the passage in 1 Corinthians (7:29) believed to mean “the end times” is more accurately translated “the time that remains,” or “the time is contracted.” This, then, is not chronos, regimented linear time, but kairos, “the time in which something can be done.” And for Keller, this something is “messianic contraction.”

Drawing on this understanding of the time that remains as a kairotic unfolding, Keller weaves together the three arenas of seeming apocalypse — the political, the Earth and religion — into a new schema of possible transformation.

She begins by linking the current political crisis to the modern theory of the state, rooted in the notion of the sovereign leader, whose power is justified by the state of emergency or exception. Except that the state of exception is becoming increasingly permanent. And as Nazi Catholic political scientist Carl Schmitt explained decades ago, this modern concept of the sovereign state is, at bottom, secularized theology. The omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent lawgiver. And this exceptional leader unites us against the exceptional enemy — Jews, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.

In place of the antagonism of enmity embedded in the sovereign political framework, Keller discerns a loving agonism, or struggle, at the heart of the messianic contraction that is our cosmic political reality. This means not war but painful, loving struggle across differences to bring forth a more common, democratic good.

Regarding the crises of the Earth, Keller traces links between the secular theological notion of the omnipotent sovereign and the dominion theology of creation used to justify the exploitation of the planet.

Keller’s political theology moves instead toward a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between all the human and nonhuman elements of creation. Failure to acknowledge and enact this deep interdependence places Earth and all its species on a planetary suicide trajectory. The incorporation of the science of matter itself renders Keller’s political reconfiguration of the Earth all the more compelling.

Keller replaces the disaster of divine sovereign omnipotence with a theology that acknowledges the divine unknowing at the heart of the cosmos. Such a theology is forced to acknowledge its own failures, its propagation of a hierarchical cosmos, even as it embraces the messianic emergence of possibility from the heart of struggle and despair.

Drawing on Pauline descriptions of God as the “all in all,” Keller portrays a God who is persuasive, not domineering, immanent in the world even as the world is immanent in her/him/it. Sin, then, is our failure to embrace this enfoldment of all in all, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Catherine Keller, author of "Political Theology of the Earth" (catherineekeller.com)

Catherine Keller, author of “Political Theology of the Earth” (catherineekeller.com)
Yet even as we fail in this enfoldment, the messianic contraction, the Christ who died for us, offers new possibilities for hope. Central to this theological vision is not only contemplative encounter with the silence of God at the heart of this cosmos, but our joining together in art and political action to transform it.

 

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is a development — an unfolding, we might say — of process theology. Traditional theologians tend to declare such theology heretical; I believe the doctrinal committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference condemned St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s theology in 2011 because her argument that God suffered sounded to them like process theology — never mind the Christian teaching that the human being who suffered on the cross is, in fact, God.

Yet before such theologians are too quick to declare heresy, it is important to remember that Keller enfolds the Christian mystical tradition into her version of process theology. Such an inclusion of apophatic, or negative, theology into Keller’s contemporary political theology may well be more an instance of the development of doctrine than a heresy. And given the dire effects of the Christian teaching of an omnipotent, transcendent God who accords dominion to some of his creatures over all the rest, isn’t it past time to enfold the presence of a persuasive, compassionate God into the time we have remaining?

Keller’s political theology of the Earth is breathtaking in the scope of the resources it draws upon and the depths of its analysis. Some may find this a disadvantage. I myself read the book slowly, several times, so as to absorb all its originality and nuance.

Another approach is to consider Political Theology of the Earth a work of what Keller herself calls “theopoetics,” a becoming of something new — a dive into the profound linguistic-material entanglements that are our apocalyptic reality. A bit like the first time you read the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Just read it, and when you fail, enfold yourself into the cosmic process and read it again. That’s certainly what I’m going to do.

 

 

In Some Ways We Are All Equal

August 20, 2019 at 11:01 am | Posted in Catholicism, Climate Change, Environment, nuclear war, racism,, Vatican, women | 3 Comments
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The following is a talk I gave on a panel following the Women Church Convergence meeting outside Philadelphia in April 2019. Panel members were asked to respond to the question “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” The talk was published in July-November 2019 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and was discussed at the Grail’s International Council meeting in Tanzania in July 2019.

 

I begin my reflections on achieving equality in the Church this afternoon with a story. In 2005, my husband and I were in Siena, Italy, where we saw, in the lobby of the Servite Basilica there a statue of Blessed Joachim Piccolomini. Next to the statue was a sign that read “The head of Servite order wants very much to see Blessed Joachim, who was beatified in 1605, canonized—so if you have received a miracle through the intercession of Blessed Joachim, please contact the head of the order.”  My husband, an American Baptist minister, said. “Marian, that man was beatified 400 years ago.”

I replied, “Now you understand the speed with which the Roman Catholic Church changes.”

Given such a rate of change, it may be that things are actually speeding up. In 1963, my Grail sister, Eva Fleischner, a journalist, was denied the right, as a woman, to receive communion at a Mass during the second session of Vatican II. Even the Protestant and Orthodox observers at the Council were exclusively male until the 3rdsession.

So the fact that thirteen women, constituting 7 percent of the participants, took part in the Vatican sex abuse summit in February, a mere half-century later, while still inadequate, was downright remarkable, considering the pace of change in the Catholic Church. As was the fact that three of the nine keynote speakers—33% of them—were women, two married and one African. And the African speaker, a Catholic sister, holds a doctorate in theology; in point of fact, Christian women are the most educated women in sub-Saharan Africa. Along these same lines, it is worth noting that Pope Francis, himself the first Pope from the Global South, has done a remarkable job of increasing the number and influence of bishops from that half of the world. Though whether having more African Catholics of either gender achieve more power may or may not contribute to greater equality for LGBTQ Catholics, as our United Methodist colleagues well understand.

II

In considering how these significant if inadequate changes have been achieved, I found myself returning to the 1998 book Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military by political scientist Mary Fainsod Katzenstein. Fainsod Katzenstein argues that in order to understand progress regarding race, gender and sexual inequality between the 1960s and the 1990s, we need to grasp that in many cases, such protest is no longer so much achieved via demonstrations and protests on the outside of institutions but as a result of protest inside institutions.

But while much that Fainsod Katzenstein writes is highly informative, the important part for our purposes is the distinction she makes between feminist protest in the church and the military:  While the feminists in the military were able to turn to the courts and to Congress to make their claims for equality, Catholic women had no such legislative or judicial access; their protests were for the most part limited to discursive actions—writing and organizing workshops and conferences.

Yet interestingly enough, Fainsod Katzenstein concludes that Catholic feminist protest was more radical precisely because it did not have the intra-institutional access that feminists in the US military have. It’s not that she believes the changes in the military are insignificant, but that the more closely nested within an institution activism is, the more likely it is that it will take a moderate, interest group form and not adopt a radical political stance. Only by having voices protesting on the outside is more radical change possible.

This raises some interesting questions for those of us working for sex/gender equality in the Catholic Church.  Whether racial justice is being advanced by having a Latin American pope and increasing numbers of men of color as bishops and cardinals is another question, since these men are already inside the institution.

But for those of us working for Catholic gender equality, and especially for the ordination of women, the question has to be asked: would the incorporation of women into the Church as priests risk modifying the radicalness of our demands? Might ordained women fail, for example, to protest the Church’s anti-LGBT teachings so as to maintain their status as priests? For that matter, might even the structure of a group like Roman Catholic Women Priests reinforce the inequality between laypeople and the ordained in the Church? I say this as someone whose keynote talk at the 30thAnniversary WOC conference in 2005 was not afterwards posted on the WOC webpage when the other keynote, by an RCWP bishop, was posted (though WOC quickly fixed that when I complained).

In mentioning this, I do not mean to suggest that I am opposed to the ordination of women, but only to note that everything is complicated. And potentially hazardous.

The one area in which we have, of course, been able to use legal means to change the patriarchal Catholic Church is bringing criminal charges and other suits concerning clergy sex abuse. Now let me mention that I am not in favor of sex abuse by members of clergy or any other group. But I will suggest, in a few minutes, that even this issue, or at least the preoccupation of liberal Catholics with this issue, may be serving to repress equality in unexpected ways.

 

III

This leads me to the two arenas in which we, as Catholics, whether female, LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, and/or poor are already equal.

The first of these is the arena of nuclear war. In 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the nuclear Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953, at the height of the Cold War. And they have kept it there since then. Actually, it surprises me that they have not moved it even closer, since, over those two years the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, announced withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and made no progress toward resolving the urgent North Korean crisis. Meanwhile, nuclear nations continue “nuclear modernization” programs while Russia and the United States have moved closer to the use of nuclear weapons.

The second arena in which we are all equal is that in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the IPCC—announced that we have only twelve years until we will no longer be able to limit many of the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Now in a certain sense, it’s inaccurate for me to say that we are all equal in the face of catastrophic climate effects, because the people of the Global South, the vast majority of them people of color, are already those worst affected by climate change.

Yet climate change is going to devastate us all, not only because of the potentially one billion climate refugees who will be fleeing their native lands by 2050, but also because major US cities will be underwater and droughts and extreme weather events will be even more frequent than they already are.

IV

So what does all this have to do with equality in the Catholic Church, the topic of our panel? To clarify that, let me tell you that during the week after the IPCC report, I received ten notifications from liberal Catholic groups about clergy sex abuse. And an issue of the National Catholic Reporter some weeks later had five articles about sex abuse and nothing about climate change in the entire issue.

It seems that some—perhaps many?—of us consider clergy sex abuse a far more significant and immediate problem than climate catastrophe, or for that matter, nuclear war. A Pax Christi member said to me recently that she would rather starve to death from the famine caused by a nuclear winter than suffer her entire life from the damage that accompanies sex abuse. Seriously.

Now there are some liberal Catholics, like Nancy Lorence, a leader of Call to Action NY, who are fighting on both fronts. But I suspect such two-pronged efforts are rare.

Even for those more preoccupied with gender equality in the church than with sex abuse, I wonder if some of our actions take sufficiently into account the looming threat of climate catastrophe. Take for example the recent demand by Catholics for Human Rights that the Vatican’s status as a permanent observer at the United Nations be revoked.

Now I have spent most of my adult life fighting for women’s equality in the Catholic Church and opposing the Church’s monarchical governance structure. But in March, 2018, I heard the internationally recognized Bengali-secular writer Amitav Ghosh —who is definitely not a conservative Catholic– conclude a talk at Union Theological Seminary about his galvanizing book on climate change, The Great Derangement, by asserting that Laudato Si’ is a far more radical document than the Paris Climate Accord. So the Vatican is actually to the left of the fundamentally capitalist United Nations on climate change. Maybe the Vatican presence there isn’t all bad!

Let me put this another way: if we get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and/or, if we root out clergy sex abuse, it isn’t going to matter at all if the planet is swallowed up in nuclear war or civilization comes to an end because of climate change.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear. I am not saying that we should stop working for racial and women’s equality in the Catholic Church or fighting against clergy sex abuse and cover-ups.

What I am saying is that if that is all we do, we are as guilty of grievous sin as the institutional church is for gender and racial inequalities and sex abuse.

To grasp the challenge facing us, we need to draw on the logical concept “Necessary but not sufficient.” It is necessary that we work for equality in the Catholic Church, but such work is by no means sufficient.

To be ethical, to be good Christians in 2019, we must also organize and fight against climate change and nuclear war. And this means organizing and entering into coalitions with other groups, religious and non-religious, who are fighting these two great threats. Exclusive preoccupation with the reform of the Catholic Church is simply unacceptable in these times. We must commit ourselves to saving God’s creation as well as saving the Catholic Church.

 

The Unthinkable

June 6, 2019 at 9:37 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Here’s my review of Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh’s splendid book on climate change, The Great Derangement. The review appeared in a recent of issue of the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the US.

 

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Paper .164 pp.. $15.00.

Back in 2016, I went up to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan to hear the internationally recognized writer, Amitav Ghosh, speak about his new book. I was so impressed by his talk, I bought a copy. Now I’m going to tell you about it.

Ghosh is a Bengali-born writer, best known for his fiction, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. But as we learn in the opening pages of The Great Derangement, his father’s family was driven from Bangladesh to India by a massive flood, and he himself barely avoided serious harm when the first cyclone in recorded meteorological history hit Delhi in 1978. Since then, of course, many other climate-related disasters have followed. Yet these threatening events have been for the most part concealed from public awareness. This concealment is what Ghosh calls “the great derangement,” and his book explores the causes of that dangerous condition.

Ghosh divides The Great Derangementinto three parts.  In the first, “Stories,” he argues that modern fiction has been incapable of addressing climate change even as greenhouse gas emissions and climate transformations have grown steadily worse. At the heart of fiction’s failure to enable us to recognize the crisis facing us is its fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination. Unlike ancient epics such as the story of Noah in Genesis, or Gilgamesh, modern writing that highlights the agency of nonhumans –whether storms or ghosts or zombies—has been dismissed as inferior. The partitioning of the earth into distinct divisions, whether nation-states or measurable commodities like gallons of gas, likewise underpins the ostensible divisions between the human and the non-human that blind us to the planetary feedback loop. But dire human impact on the Earth itself—the Anthropocene*—is a new, non-human critical voice forcing us to reconsider those partitions.

In the “History” section of The Great Derangement Ghosh argues that it wasn’t primarily the Western invention of fossil fuel technologies like the coal-powered steam engine or oil-powered vehicles that drove the Anthropocene. Asian peoples had already discovered coal and oil and had begun using them long before the invention of the steam engine. What drove the Anthropocene was imperial, military power, by which, in particular, the British empire was able to force Asian nations like India to switch from the development of fossil fuel industries to the production of food and raw materials essential to the industrialization of the West. Ironically, this imperial blockage of fossil fuel development in the East may actually have slowed down the Anthropocene.

Finally, in “Politics,” Ghosh asks what kind of human relations and governance are needed for us to move beyond “the great derangement.” As in the previous two sections, he is quite critical of modernity, arguing, for example, that the ideas of “history” as human agency, abstracted from the non-human world, and freedom as transcending material restraint, is fundamental to the crisis of Anthropocene. Based on this critique of the individualism of the modern era, Ghosh argues that individual actions will not solve the great derangement. Nor, he suggests, will newly forming climate change activist groups, since it takes too long for such groups to organize across boundaries and build up the necessary power.

Instead, Ghosh believes that the involvement of religious groups is one of the most promising developments in the crucial effort to incorporate the reality of the Anthropocene into the governance of the human/nonhuman world. This is so because religious groups are already organized and many of them possess a language of collective solidarity lacking in modern culture. To illustrate this argument, Ghosh compares Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’with the UN Paris Climate Accord, issued that same year. While the Paris Accord is shot through with corporate (capitalist) terminology, veiled militarism, and dense incomprehensible prose, the encyclical is lucidly written and direct in style, critiquing the modern “technocratic paradigm” and even the Christian teaching of “Man’s Dominion over Nature.” Ultimately, Laudato Si’ links together social and environmental justice in an integral ecology that the partitioning language of the Climate Accord makes virtually unimaginable.

In reading The Great Derangement, I was struck by the significant overlaps between Ghosh’s vision and the “web of life” argument made by the distinguished Marxist eco-theorist, Jason W. Moore. (Carol Barton spoke at the last US Grail General Assembly about Moore’s book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things).  Each sees the binary between nature and society, the human and the non-human, as fundamental to the current planetary crisis. Moore would object to Ghosh’s emphasis on imperial power rather than capitalism as the cause of the Anthropocene; Moore would instead argue that they are enfolded into one another. But the efforts of each writer to create a language to heal the modern fissure is striking.

The important distinction between the two books, however, is that because Ghosh is primarily a writer—a novelist—he formulates his remedy for the great derangement in a language that transcends the linguistic partitioning that characterizes the work of theorists like Moore.  Thus, when Ghosh tells us that “to think like a forest…is to think in images,” and that the Anthropocene itself is “thinking through us,” he is envisioning something that can really make a difference.

 

*The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, human-caused climate change.

Storming the Wall

May 11, 2019 at 10:47 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Environment, guns, US History, | 1 Comment

You may be beginning to think that all I do is review books, and you would be close to right. Here’s my review of Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall, which appeared in April in the US Grail‘s monthly publication, Gumbo.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017. Paperback. 240 pp. $11.86. (First chapter available on-line.)

Given the US government shutdown several months ago over money for a wall along the US Mexican border, and Donald Trump’s increased demand for such a wall in his next budget, we might be tempted to conclude that building one such wall is a very big deal.

The truth is, as Todd Miller explains in Storming the Wall, the US government, and governments around the world, have been building many walls, and spending stupendous amounts of money for border enforcement and protection, for some time now. When he came into office, Trump had at his disposal 60,000 Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, making it the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country at the time, and the 2017 border and immigration enforcement budget was $20 billion. And this doesn’t take into account the collaborative arrangements between local law enforcement agencies with ICE and CPB that deputize local police officers as immigration agents all over the country. In addition, since 2003, the US has added over 650 miles of walls and barriers along the US Mexico divide and has poured billions into advanced technology to enforce the border. And the US is by no means the only wall builder and border enforcer: there are now at least 70 border walls around the globe.

At the heart of this intensification of border militarization and refugee exclusion is the climate crisis. Some experts go so far as to predict that there will be a billion climate refugees by the year 2050.  And even now, many of the refugees pouring across borders are at bottom climate refugees, since the violence in the countries they are fleeing is often provoked by environmental crisis—the 2006 to 2010 drought in Syria, for example, is a major cause of the conflict  there, though it is rarely mentioned as such, while the rise of Boko Haram is directly linked to water scarcity in Nigeria. Yet the international community is so ill prepared for this growing crisis that climate refugees have absolutely no human rights status in international law, as, for example, war refugees do.

In Storming the Wall, Miller does an excellent job of laying out the parameters of the growing militarization of borders around the world in light of the climate crisis. But his argument is by no means limited to facts and figures. Rather, he empowers his argument with stories of families torn apart by border militarism. One of the most galvanizing is that of the assassination of an environmental protestor in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But, Miller warns us, we as citizens of powerful northern nations ought not to assume that we are immune from such climate refugee exclusion: authorities set up checkpoints along the California border to keep out US citizens fleeing the US Dustbowl crisis in the 1930s because they were assumed to be lazy vagrants, unable to support themselves. Remind you of anything?

Ultimately, Miller forces readers to face up to the fact that governments—particularly the US government under Trump as well as his predecessors—have chosen to “adapt” to the impacts of climate change through militarized counter-terrorism actions rather than by taking steps to reverse climate change. Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate accord even as he demands more border security is only one example of this form of “adaptation.”

Storming the Wall is a not entirely without hope, however. Miller concludes it with a chapter documenting the ways in which grassroots groups around the world are coming together and demanding change— “storming the walls” that governments are putting up instead of taking the strong measures needed to reverse the climate catastrophe. From that point of view, we can say that the young people on strike with Greta Thunberg around the world and in the Sunrise Movement are “storming the wall.” We need to get out there and join them.

 

But Who Will Govern the Climate?

March 10, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. By Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright. New York: Verso Books. 2018. 118 pp. $26.95 (includes free eBook). https://www.versobooks.com/books/2545-climate-leviathan

I begin this review with a warning: Climate Leviathanis a fairly nerdy book. The authors are brilliant political scientists and the argument they make draws on a wide range of challenging scholarship. Yet that argument is really important, so I’m going to discuss it with you.

That’s what book reviews are for, right?

The basic problem Mann and Wainright address in Climate Leviathan is that despite repeated unambiguous warnings from scientists about the dire effects of global warming and multiple meetings between world leaders on the topic, nations have failed to make any headway at mitigating—lessening—greenhouse gas emissions. Because of these failures we are now doomed to exceed the limit of two degrees Celsius, resulting in massive harmful outcomes—sea level rise, droughts, massive fires, extreme weather events. So where does this leave us?

While technocrats advocate physical adaptations to climate change—spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to block out the sun, building tidal walls, etc., Mann and Wainright explain that an effective response to the climate crisis is necessarily political in nature. We have to come to political agreement on a way to enforce change. They draw on Leviathan, the 1652 work of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argues that without a sovereign power to make and enforce laws, anarchy and violence are inevitable. Leviathan, that sovereign power, is also entitled to declare a “state of exception” in the face of a crisis and then suspend laws and take absolute control. Hobbes’s 20thcentury followers believed that Enlightenment notions of individual freedom led to the chaos of world wars and Nazism. And certainly, the citizens of many nations around the world continue to believe in the sovereign power of their particular nation-state, even as “free” trade agreements and international financial bodies determine more and more of the world’s future.

The climate crisis calls the supposed autonomy of sovereign nation states into question, however, for the simple reason that the environmental behaviors of the citizens of nations and their corporations flow inevitably beyond national borders. Consider the effects of the greenhouse gases from the U.S. and Europe on nations in the Global South. Consider that experts are predicting that there could be as many as a billion climate refugees pouring across national borders by 2050. And then consider the “sovereign” states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and elsewhere that will literally no longer exist by the end of the century because of sea level rise.

In the face of the border-bursting realities of the environmental crisis, Mann and Wainright speculate that one of four new transnational political structures will emerge, replacing the modern capitalist framework of individual sovereign nation-states. The first, the one they find most likely, is Climate Leviathan, a global capitalist system empowered to take drastic action; such a system already exists, at least in embryo, as embodied in in the United Nations COP meetings and the Paris Climate accord. These gatherings are not yet sovereign—with hegemonic power—but they point toward an international sovereignty long predicted.

The second climate sovereign is what the authors call Climate Mao, an anti-capitalist authoritarian socialist entity acting to address climate breakdown, probably through revolutionary developments in Asia where climate change effects will be dire. This is not the present Chinese state, the authors remind us, since it is a major part of the capitalist system, but an entity more like the earlier version under Chairman Mao.

The third sovereign response to climate change Mann and Wainright call Climate Behemoth, a reactionary capitalist populism made up of fossil fuel corporations, middle class reactionaries and enraged working-class people who reject the work of international forums like the 2015 Paris accord in favor of anarchy. The politics of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsinaro and others embody this third option. Climate Behemoth may seem conceivable in the short run, but in the long run, it means disaster.

The fourth Leviathan proposed by Mann and Wainright is Climate X, a bottoms-up people driven power predicated on “equality, democracy and solidarity” and modeled on socialist and indigenous movements that will lead us to live “differently, radically differently.” In some ways, this fourth political sovereign is the least conceivable of the four, perhaps because we the people must come together and determine the specificities of it.

So why should any of this matter to us? For several reasons. First of all, it forces us to realize that the emerging environmental catastrophe is inevitably political. Personal actions are important—giving up meat or disposable plastics—but the environmental crisis is going to have serious collective repercussions, so we have to act politically. Contact your representatives, make phone calls, turn out for demonstrations.

For me, another takeaway from Climate Leviathan is not to be naïve about the current political structures. The 2015 Paris climate accord may have given us hope, as do other international meetings and documents. But they all fall within Climate Leviathan, which is based in the capitalist system that has caused the current crisis because of its demand for endless growth.

Finally, we need to be aware that several of these political models may already be coming together to take control of the future. Trump’s apparent Climate Behemoth, for example, calling for border walls to protect us from the dangers of Latin American migrants, actually reinforces the capitalist Leviathan that has been growing steadily under previous presidencies. The US is steadily expanding its military/security state to exclude climate refugees and imprison US indigenous “terrorists” to protect the fossil fuel industry and the capitalist society that created the climate crisis in the first place. We need to be very, very careful of this Leviathan.

 

This review appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication off the Grail in the US.

 

Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 2 Comments
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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 | 2 Comments
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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.

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