Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Our Overheated World and Caring for Our Common Home

Summer starts today. More precisely, summer will start here in Knoxville, TN, at 11:54 a.m. The summer solstice makes this the longest day of the year. Here in Knoxville, there will be 4 hours and 53 minutes more daylight than on the Winter solstice in December.

The arrival of summer is certainly welcomed by many. I have never been one of them. For me, summer has always been the least attractive season, perhaps because I grew up in a humid coastal city before air-conditioning was common in homes. Probably the summers I most enjoyed were when I was in less humid places - like my summer studying in Guadalajara in 1988 and my summer studying in Jerusalem in 1993 and my sabbatical summer in the United Kingdom in 2005. 

Now I live in en even hotter and very humid place, where thankfully everything is air-conditioned and I spend as little time as possible outdoors. It is one of the ironies of our crazy contemporary culture that summer and places with longer summers have become increasingly popular, precisely as a consequence of air-conditioning, the whole point of which is to make it not feel like summer. That is at best bizarre, but more importantly is itself another contributor to our changing climate. If nothing else, summer's annually increasing heat from Alaska to Texas and the storms and other threats that brings ought to prompt increased attention to the challenge of our changing climate

Speaking of our changing climate, the Bishops of California - a state that has long been on the cutting edge of cultural change and social development, and which because of its unique geography is very obviously suffering from immediate effects of climate change - have just recently issued a Pastoral God Calls Us All to Care for Our Common Home. Its title is an obvious reference to Pope Francis' great encyclical Laudato Si', issued four years ago.

While, of course, California has its own distinct geography and history, it has constantly led the way for the rest of the country in so many ways - both for better and for worse, So, I think we may fittingly see this Pastoral as a model for our entire country to consider - and for our individual states and particular local communities, all of which will have to deal with some, if not all, of California's climate issues.

Notably the Pastoral proceeds on a positive note, highlighting the blessings and benefits generations of Americans have historically found in California's rich natural beauty. Accordingly, it invites us "to reflect together on ways we can more faithfully and effectively care for creation as a hymn of thanksgiving for our common home." At the same time, the Pastoral also acknowledges how historically "many have exploited California's riches for personal gain, creating injustices that have degraded the environment and harmed its residents, especially the indigenous and the poor." This emphasis on the effects of our degraded environment on the poor reflects Laudato Si' and points the way to "a Catholic perspective on environmentalism," which "is expressed by concern for creatures and land, but also for where people live, work, play, and pray" and recognizes the impact of land-use decisions' "crucial role in environmental justice - the integration of social justice and environmental protection - and in public health."

As a Pastoral produced by a Bishops' Conference ought above all to be, this is a deeply Catholic document. As such it recalls basic Catholic notions - for example, the importance of the classical virtue of prudence. "In the Catholic tradition, prudence is the practice of moral wisdom to take political action in light of anticipated events, especially those indicated by reason and science." "Prudent climate adaptation requires the balancing of multiple social goals, even while conditions are changing."

It is also a profoundly political document, in the proper sense of "political," in that it focuses us on the common good and challenges us to common, shared action. "Wile individual actions are helpful, shared action for the common good is morally required of us."

Thanks to the polarization that has increasingly infected Churches no less than society and the widespread contemporary scandal of unholy alliances between religion and reactionary politics, the road from aspiration to action is increasingly a challenging one - both within religious communities and institutions and, a fortiori, at the properly political level. Many things have gone wrong in America but surely one of the most consequential has been the widespread loss of faith in the primacy of political action, i.e., shared action for the common good. I am reminded of something the late Tony Judt said in an exchange with his son, which appeared in The New York Times in June 2010:

"I don't think the challenge is to convince Americans about pollution or even climate change. Nor is it just a matter of getting them to make sacrifices for the future. The challenge is to convince them once again of how much they could do if they came together.

(Photo: June from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is widely considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

No comments:

Post a Comment