Sunday, June 10, 2018

Caring for our Common Home and Salvaging Ourselves

In October 1582, Pope Gregory XIII's bull Inter Gravissimas introduced the Gregorian Calendar, the civil calendar in use now throughout the entire world. Back in 1582, however, the Protestant countries of Europe initially rejected the new calendar. The British empire (which then included what would soon become the United States) only adopted it in 1752. Today, of course, it would be almost unthinkable for a Pope to undertake such a seemingly secular initiative. Yet, for all the abundance of international institutions that have been created over the course of the last century, still no such institution has the credibility or authority the papacy once claimed in public affairs. 

De facto, it has been the United States, as the pre-eminent power in the post-World War II period, that has largely led international institutions and facilitated international norms of cooperation. At least that was the case until recently. The current US Administration's destructive approach to international order was on display again at the G-7 Summit in Quebec, but has been wreaking havoc for some time now, starting with the US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, originally singed onto by 196 countries. Into this new vacuum created by the US abandonment of its leadership role, the Holy See seems to have stepped in, convoking a Vatican conference of executives of energy-related businesses on Energy Transition and Care for our Common Home.

In his address at the conclusion of the conference yesterday, Pope Francis, noting that many in the world still lack access even to electricity, challenged his hearers "to find ways of ensuring the immense supply of energy required to meet the needs of all, while at the same time developing means of using natural resources that avoid creating environmental imbalances resulting in deterioration and pollution gravely harmful to our human family, both now and in the future."

That, of course has been the dilemma regarding our natural environment ever since society's consciousness began to be raised regarding environmental problems some 50 years ago.  It is, obviously, impossible to revert to some pre-industrial way of life. There are not far too many people on the planet for human life to be sustained in such a way. Nor would most of us be willing (or even able) to survive in a pre-industrial life-style. Rather, the challenge - and the dilemma - has always been the salvage what is best and salvageable from our modern way of life in a way that mitigates the immense damage our way of life has done to our world, to what Pope Francis fondly calls our common home. Specifically, the immediate contemporary challenge - "a challenge of epochal proportions," Pope Francis has called it - is "to transition to a greater use of energy sources that are highly efficient while producing low levels of pollution."

When I was briefly part of a group researching the global resource crisis as a grad student at Princeton in the mid-1970s, it was apparent that the necessary technological solutions in the form of alternative energy sources had to be complemented by a change in values. As Pope Francis said yesterday: "Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!"

Undoubtedly real progress is being made on the technological front, but what of the equally needed progress in values? Saving human life one earth from the environmental destruction our immoral approach to technological progress now threatens is - or obviously ought to be - among our pre-eminent ethical and political imperatives. Still, self-referential, short-term considerations continue to muddle moral reflection on these matters.

Thus the Holy Father warned the executives: "Political decisions, social responsibility on the part of the business community and criteria governing investments - all these must be guided by the pursuit of the long-term common good and concrete solidarity between generations. There should be no room for opportunistic and cynical  efforts to gain small partial results in the short run, while shifting equally significant costs and damages to future generations." Quoting his own recent environmental encyclical Laudato Si' 53, the Pope repeated: "The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable if striking out on new paths in meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations."

Obviously, this lack of leadership is a cultural and pre-eminently political problem. It is ultimately a moral problem, which results in contemporary democratic society's inability to form true citizens whoa re morally able and willing to call forth morally mature leaders at all levels of governments and society.

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