By Paul M. Lewis

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”

It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.

The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.

But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.

Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?

Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age. But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.


By Paul

I don’t mean to mislead you by the title. I’m not feeling antsy in the sense that I’m restless, or eager to move on to something new and different.  I’m not fidgety, or edgy, or restive, or jittery, but I am ill-at-ease.  And in this case, it’s all about ants!

I guess I ought to be used to it by now. It’s a reoccurring problem here in Southern California.  Every August, during those dreaded dog-days of summer, we have to deal with ant attacks.  They often start in the bathroom, but in the end they invariably migrate out into the kitchen, which is where they really want to be.  Sometimes they make a stop along the way in the pantry, too, but as often as not they pass completely by that larder of plenty, and head straight for what they’re really after, namely, water!  Yes, it’s water that draws them, even when I, for one, cannot see any water standing around.  Sometimes it’s enough that you’ve left a damp sponge on the rim of the sink, and they’re at it, like flies on honey.  As a matter of fact, I think I’ll drop that tired old cliché entirely from my vocabulary from this moment forward, and instead substitute the far more apt, and more immediately useful, phrase: “like ants to water!” 

The cause of it all is the heat.  And not only the heat, but the dryness.  These past couple of weeks have seen temperatures rise to the upper 80’s, and even into the low 90’s, with no particular cooling trend in the offing in anything like the immediate future.  And of course, no rain, ever.  Not that this is something unexpected here in California at this time of year, nor – it would seem – for many in other parts of the country, where they have been suffering far more than we.  But even the Romans had to deal with something similar every year, which in fact is where we get the name dog-days, as you may already know.  They associated these miserable, oppressive, sultry days of boiling, broiling, stifling heat with the so-called Dog Star, Sirius.  It’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which itself means Greater Dog.  And for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it appears most prominently from July to early September, making all living things on this part of the planet as wretchedly uncomfortable as possible. 

Still, I’m not yet ready to attempt the principal cure of the Romans, which they tried repeatedly with, one has to think, unfailing lack of success, namely, the sacrifice of a brown dog to mollify and appease the sparkling magnificence of the dreaded Dog Star.  Truth be told, I don’t even really like killing the ants.  And there’s the rub, or at least part of it.  I look at these creatures, tiny as they are, and I think that each one is an almost incredibly perfect being in its own right.  It amazes me that these minuscule insects are so astonishingly well made, each with its own kind of life force that generates movement and intention (of a sort anyway, maybe more chemical in this case, rather than volitional, as we might think of it), but with a head and eyes and six legs that allow it to cover every conceivable kind of terrain, including up walls and across ceilings, with antennae waving which they use to communicate mysterious messages to others of their kind, far removed from all human understanding.

In addition, on a somewhat different, though I hope related note, I happen to have been reading recently about the Jain religion of India.  I have learned, for example, that Mahavira, the last in the line of the great Jain gurus (a contemporary of the Lord Buddha, by the way), taught utter non-violence toward every creature on the planet.  It goes without saying, of course, that not only do observant Jains refrain from eating animals, nor do they wear animal products of any kind, but the most serious among their practicing monks walk about with gauze draped over the mouth and the nose, so as avoid any inadvertent breathing in of insect or other life forms.  They can also be seen walking slowly along with small, soft brooms in their hands, gently brushing the path in front of them, lest unsuspecting, though nonetheless deadly, trampling feet may bring an untimely end to the life of a tiny creature in their way.  They do not even eat fruit which has to be cut from trees, but wait instead for it to fall to the ground, rather than taking knife to a living branch.  The ultimate goal of such ne plus ultra non-violence, just as with the Buddhists, is the complete annihilation of the ego, and thus the cessation of the cycle of endless births and deaths and rebirths, so as to avoid the pain (and the potential destruction) involved with being born yet one more time in yet one more body.  For to be in a body, almost by definition, is to murder other living beings. 

Thus, I stand before you here today, accused, judged, condemned.  Un-Jain-like, indeed un-Buddha-like in the extreme, I am a killer.  I have destroyed hundreds, perhaps thousands of ants, living creatures with rights of their own, merely in the last three days.  How far is that, I ask myself, from walking along with a broom, sweeping the path in front of me, lest I inadvertently step on one of these, the least of God’s creatures?  I am not even a very good vegetarian, truth be told.  I used to be better, when I was at least “ovo-lacto,” that is, when I ate only eggs and milk products for protein.  These days, however, I kill fish, as well (or at least I participate in the killing by buying it).  Some odd doctor or other convinced me years ago that I was eating too many eggs and too much cheese, and thus contributing to higher levels of cholesterol in my body, which itself then contributed to at least two heart attacks.  So, I decided to sacrifice fish – brown dog like? – on the altar of what I call my health.  Just as I have made the decision to kill ants, as many as possible, in the name of living in a home free of the intrusion of creatures constantly creeping about over sponges and glasses and whatever other dish or implement we may have inadvertently been left about on the counter near the sink. 

And so, I admit to you my imperfections, and I accept that, if the Jains and the Buddhists and the Hindus are right, I will have to reincarnate yet once again, having sadly failed at that one killing allowed even to the greatest of the sages, that is, of the ego itself.  For now though, it seems that I must muddle along in my murderous ways.  I will do it, though, as much as I am able to, without anger, without malice, and with whatever honoring in my heart I can muster for the perfection of other living beings, all the while taking heart from the words of the Lord Krishna himself to Arjuna, his reluctant warrior of a disciple, in that great book of war and killing, the Bhagavad Gita:

Thou grievest where no grief should be!  Thou speakest words lacking in wisdom, for the wise in heart mourn not for those that live, nor those that die.  Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these ever was not, nor ever will not be, forever and forever afterwards…Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!  Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never; never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!  Birthless and deathless and changeless the spirit forever; and Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it may seem!