"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Green Catholicism? An Examination, Part 1

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell:
the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

"...in summer 2007 the Arctic lost in a single week an area of ice almost twice the size of Britain." - John Simon, "The Moment of Truth - An Introduction", Monthly Review, July - August, 2008

The depth of the crisis is indicated by the response of Pope Benedict XVI. "In fact, environmentalism has emerged as perhaps the most distinctive new feature of Benedict XVI’s social teaching. Benedict touched upon the environment seven times during his July 12-21 trip to Australia, more often than he mentioned sexual abuse, the right to life, relativism, or any other social or cultural concern." - John L. Simon, "Catholic Environmentalism: Green teachings, initiatives take hold among Catholics worldwide", NCR, Aug. 8, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI has made the bond between human and natural ecology explicit in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace 2007, "In his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote: 'Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God's gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed(6).' By responding to this charge, entrusted to them by the Creator, men and women can join in bringing about a world of peace. Alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a 'human' ecology, which in turn demands a 'social' ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence, and vice versa. It becomes more and more evident that there is an inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men. Both of these presuppose peace with God. The poem-prayer of Saint Francis, known as 'the Canticle of Brother Sun;, is a wonderful and ever timely example of this multifaceted ecology of peace."

The growing momentum of Catholic organizations toward ecological action cannot be doubted. But will voluntary efforts, no matter how sincere, be able to significantly impact the rapidly escalating crisis? First we need to uncover the true dimensions of that crisis.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the leading U.S. climatologist, wrote the following in an article on June 24, 2008 after his testimony to Congress on global warming, "Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer. More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well under way, it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely within a century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees, and no stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive. ... The tipping point for life on the planet will occur when so many interdependent species are lost that ecosystems collapse. The shocking conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million), and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Shocking corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation." - James Hansen, "Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming", Huffington Post, June 24, 2008

The conclusion is inescapable: This ecological crisis could soon result in the deaths and dislocations of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings and the actions of our transnational corporations are directly responsible for it. What is equally inescapable is that depending on voluntary self-restraint cannot possibly meet the necessary goals for carbon reduction in the ten years we have left before the tipping point is reached and change becomes irreversible. In fact, we must ask "Can we make the necessary changes if the economic system that now rules the globe continues?"

Clearly, a crisis that has been caused by the massive economic forces brought into play by transnational corporations cannot be solved by planting trees. A systemic crisis requires a systemic response. The most widely promoted scheme for solving the crisis are market-based carbon abatement schemes. The underlying attitude is that only the power of markets can wield sufficient economic force to effectively impact the climate crisis.

James Hansen points to the culprits: "CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and 'succeed' in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials." - James Hansen, "Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming", Huffington Post, June 24, 2008

Mr. Hansen blames these CEOs as if they were uniquely guilty, but they can no more break out of their economic preconceptions than can Mr. Hansen. Like them, he believes that the market will eventually correct this dire situation. These CEOs are simply acting as agents responsible to their stockholders, which is their legal obligation under the current economic system. That duty is to maximize the share value of the company. Share value can only be maximized by gaining the highest possible rate of return on the products they sell, which are based on fossil fuels. The more they promote the wide-spread usage of these fuels, the higher the rate of return to their companies. The less they have to pay for carbon abatement programs, the more will accrue to their bottom line. Therefore, their advantage will be achieved by pressuring governments to provide carbon credits for free or moving production to countries which do. Given the current economic crisis, pressurable countries will be lining up gladly to provide credits to transnational patrons.

And this is precisely what happened when the scheme was tried in the European Union, "When the European Union (EU) first established its emissions trading system, large numbers of carbon credits were handed out free to established emitters. When the oversupply of credits became obvious, prices collapsed. The right to pollute was now super-cheap, and all incentive to invest in cutting emissions vanished." - Renfry Clarke, "Can Markets Stop Climate Change?" GLR, Aug. 9, 2008

The "bottom line" that dooms all such plans is the necessity of continued, rapid growth in production and profits by transnational corporations. Our economic system cannot be sustained without such growth, so no plan can be acceptable unless it factors in such growth as part of its underlying premise. The carbon credit trading scheme is popular with governments for precisely this reason and unworkable for that same reason. There can be no solution unless we are able to subordinate profit to the values of human and planetary survival in a systemic way. Only an economic philosophy far different than the one which produced the crisis can address this moment of truth for the earth and human civilization.

The Economics of Climate Change, a massive study issued in 2007 commissioned by the UK Treasury Office provides the answer to why we cannot sustain growth and address the climate crisis at the same time. Hansen and his colleagues argue that carbon levels should be kept to 350ppm or below, but the study is "...very explicit that such a radical mitigation of the problem should not be attempted. The costs to the world economy of ensuring that atmospheric CO2 stabilized at present levels or below would be prohibitive, destabilizing capitalism itself. 'Paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts,' we are told, 'are unlikely to be economically viable.' If global greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2010 the annual emissions reduction rate necessary to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm, the Stern Review suggests, would be 7 percent, with emissions dropping by about 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. This is viewed as economically insupportable."

Such views are increasingly mainstream. James Speth served as chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Carter, founded the World Resources Institute, co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a senior adviser in President Clinton’s transition team, and administered the United Nations Development Programme from 1993 to 1999. In his most recent book, Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008), he paints the issue starkly, "Capitalism as we know it today," he writes, "is incapable of sustaining the environment."

Our failure is a failure to see outside the system that has produced our economic "success." We wish desperately to cling to what is destroying our world and ourselves. Will a Christian with true vision arise to speak of the God of life who can extract us from the lies in which we are embedded?

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