Wednesday, September 23, 2015


A Pope for Paris?

Pope Francis arrived yesterday, and will spend several days in the US addressing the plight of the poor, especially children, as well as firmly and compassionately speaking about the deep connection between social justice and ecojustice. The release of his encyclical in May, “On Care for Our Common Home,” has given a powerful moral undergirding to the climate justice movement on the eve of the UN conference in Paris seeking an international treaty to mitigate climate change (as well as adapt to it, since it is already here). The world desperately needs leadership to bring nations who continue to squabble over the terms of such a treaty to work for the common good, rather than geopolitical gain, which sadly dashed the last significant attempt at such a treaty in Copenhagen in 2009. As the pope says, “Human ecology is inseparable from a notion of the common good.”

The pope's encyclical speaks clearly and forcefully about the environmental degradation caused by unbridled capitalism. It is true that large projects now require environmental impact statements. However, the pope points out that these are done after a business plan is already drawn up. The community affected by any major plan needs to be consulted from the beginning, both the human community and the other species who built our nest. It is the complete lack of such consideration that challenged me to protest the Keystone Pipeline and be arrested for non-violent resistance at the White House gates several years ago. Alberta's tarsands project, fully implemented, would remove the spruce “overburden” in an area the size of Florida, and the mines are readily visible from space. Keystone only ran an environmental impact study after they had already destroyed the sacred homeland of the Athabascan natives, and the study was made by a firm with deep oil industry connections. President Obama still has not ruled on the project.

Working for the common good is what we purportedly elect our representatives for, and that has been increasingly lacking in Congress. But just last week a brave group of Republican congressmen, led by Rep. Gibson (NY-19), introduced a resolution on environmental stewardship to the House acknowledging the climate science, that the increase in CO2 is principally caused by humans, and that Congress needs to take action to preserve the common good. They do not prescribe any particulars for such action, but want to go on record acknowledging what has become bedrock ideology for their fellow Republicans to oppose.

There is definitely a shift of mood and momentum in the air this fall. Jonathan Chait's recent article in New York magazine is bold enough to say “This Is the Year that Humans Finally Got Serious about Saving Themselves from Themselves.”  He cites an impressive number of success stories, including the accelerating build-out of solar pv's and wind power. Chait says that two interrelated revolutions are needed, one technological innovation, the other political willpower. The first has happened with astonishing speed, giving us the means to move beyond fossil fuels far more quickly than seemed possible just a few years ago. The second has predictably lagged behind, with the political party of the leading nation enchained to its fossil fuel bosses creating a global drag effect. So, again, a bow of thanks to those House Republicans. It's do or die with the Paris climate conference, and there just may be enough will to begin the second revolution, after the false start of Kyoto and the abysmal failure of Copenhagen.

But there is a glaring omission in all the purported progress, and it belongs squarely in the Pope's purview. With the arresting title, “The False Compassion of Pope Francis,” Frances Kissling challenges just how compassionate Francis is in his directive to priests to give a special jubilee pardon to women who have committed abortions in a piece in the Nation. As an admirer of the Pope, I wondered how anyone could accuse this saintly man of false compassion. But this is not a matter of the heart as much as an outmoded stance based on a moral category error. In a world where human population has outstripped our resources (now using 135 percent of the earth's annual biotic output), driving a huge number of species to extinction as we colonize their habitat, to value each and any potential human life over all else is a misplacement of moral intent. And the responsibility lies hugely with the Vatican, since it was a 1968 encyclical that forbade the use of birth control. Think of the numbers of abortions avoided if this was not canon law.

The recent furor over the videotaped remarks (heavily edited to create the false perception that her organization was selling fetal body parts) of the Planned Parenthood medical director has led to the House voting to defund this key organization in domestic population planning. If successful, this would bring the party closer to ideological purity, as it has worked tirelessly to withhold support from international family planning as part of foreign aid packages. The irony is heavy, since Planned Parenthood helps its clients prevent 350,000 pregnancies a year, thus the principal agency acting to reduce the need for abortions by poor, at-risk mothers in this country. This situation deserves obvious emphasis as folks fall over themselves to welcome the Pope.

Things can change fast. Much-maligned Iran reduced its population growth faster than any other country once the imans reversed their stance and started calling every sabbath for birth control. It is true that Iran is a modern, educated, middle-class society. In Central America, especially Mexico, soap operas have been enlisted to spread the word about the advantages to life choices of birth control, demonstrably lowering the birth rate. The job is more difficult in poorer countries where the education of women is lacking, especially Africa, which is on pace to outstrip the populations of China and India.

The twin revolutions of technological energy innovation and the will to act to drive the arc of fossil carbon towards zero are insufficient if we do not use the long-available technology to limit reproduction. We are 7 billion, headed to 9 billion or more, on a planet that can sustain 2 billion or so. With unchecked numbers, even a world dominated by renewable power would still be on the path to mass extinction, for we are fast using up the precious petri dish that sustains our exponential growth. The Pope disregards basic population dynamics at everyone's peril. He should rescind the papal bull of 1968, confirming that all of creation is sacred, that the whole web is necessary for each other, with gifts differing, citing Romans 12:3-8. If we are to survive, the era of human exceptionalism must end, and we must suffer our fellow creatures their habitat.

Even more than the stance of the Vatican, our devotion to the cult of personal freedom stands in the way of this fundamental change in behavior, restricting the freedom to choose to have a child. China's one child policy may seem autocratic, but if it had not been in place since Mao's edict, the world would be much more crowded. One of the books on my freshman summer reading list when I was admitted to college was B.F Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which was uncomfortable to read. But I entered my college years with a gut caution that there was a germ of truth in his position. This was in 1964. Now, in the apocalyptic present, it is clear that our pursuit of freedom has placed us at the threshold of a catastrophe so huge that it would destroy any possibility of dignity for the survivors. The stage is set for yet another Treaty of Paris, but unless population planning is integral to the agenda, it will be all for naught.

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