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The Pope's Environmental Message. There's Plenty That Environmentalists Might Not Want to Hear
The pope laments the state of the environment, but he also decries the naive central environmentalist belief that humans are separate from nature and the villain in a simple myth of US (humans) against True Nature.
(Amended as of 6/28 in response to a reply from Bill McKibben; see below)
There is understandably much praise from environmentalists for the pope’s Encyclical on the Environment (subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home”). The applause is for the pope’s clear statement that climate change is largely anthropogenic, serious, and demands human attention. But if classical environmentalists read the full 184-page text, they might not like a lot of what the pope has to say. He slaps one of their most treasured myths right in the mouth.
This myth is perhaps the central tenet of classical environmentalism; the belief that humans have caused, as Bill McKibben has written (in the book that made his name as an environmental thought leader), the End of Nature. Not The Alteration of Nature or The Disruption of Nature or even a plaintive lament for “The Suffering of Nature," which is how Pope Francis describes it. McKibben argues that humans have “ended nature as an independent force...” There is us evil humans, and IT, pure Nature. Villains and a hero. Nice and simple.
Another prophet of classical environmentalism, Edward Wilson, paints the dichotomy between us and Nature even more starkly. In his bestselling book The Creation, which he devotes to “the restoration of Eden,” Wilson writes of humans that, “We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization.” He defines Nature as "that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact.” As though humans, for all the unprecedented and egregious harm we certainly do to the natural world, are not also part of that natural world, that we are not a species too. Wilson’s fascinating ants are “Nature,” and plants and fish and bacteria and the biological and chemical and physical forces that make and shape and run the biosphere are “Nature,” but not the human animal. Where Homo sapiens are, Nature, as E.O. Wilson defines it, is not.
As my Jewish grandmother used to say, OY VEY!
Well Pope Francis, who certainly heaps plenty of blame on humans for the mess we have made of the natural world, is having none of this absolutist environmental "It’s Us Against Nature" piety.
Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.
When we speak of the “environment,” what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.
Nor does Pope Francis have much affection for the pragmatic market-based Ecomodernist approach of self-proclaimed "modern" environmentalists who propose that technology and human wisdom can make the future good, even great.
It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.
Indeed Francis rejects the extremism of both the market-based Eco Optimists and their faith in technology, and the doom-and-gloom greens who see everything as a simple morality tale with humans as the villain and Nature the hero, with the fate of life on Earth to be determined by a battle between humans and their technologies on the one hand and the clean, unspoiled natural world on the other.
At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution.
The pope also takes a shot at “green" businesses taking advantage of the appeal of anything "natural" (seen that on a label or two, lately?) or claiming that their way of doing business contributes to sustainability, but which are essentially just hopping on the “Save Mother Nature" bandwagon to make a buck.
In this (the economy can fix things) context, talk of sustainable growth ... absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.
(Hey Chipotle, Whole Foods, etc. Are you listening?)
In the end, the Encyclical is a familiar appeal to spiritual values of redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor,
the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.
a call for all of us to live more simply,
…to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed, and compulsion.
and no less than a radical restructuring of the entire economic and political power structure of the wealthy world.
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.
That’s pretty dramatic, and pretty much WJWS — What Jesus Would Say — but it’s probably not a practical suggestion for what will turn our future from bleak to bright. But neither, says the Encyclical, is the simplistic Wilsonian/McKibben environmentalist naivete that humans are separate from nature and all our tools and everything we do are the enemy. That sort of thinking isn’t a realistic plan for solutions either.
Amendment, and apology to Bill McKibben. In a respectful message to me on June 28, Bill notes that my language claiming that he believes "all our tools and everything we do are the enemy" is excessively critical and innaccurate. He's right. There are many technological tools he promotes as solutions for our unsustainable ways; some forms of renewable power (see Solar Power For Everyone in the New Yorker), and mass transit, as just two examples.
It is also fair to note, however, that Bill preaches concern about technology generally, usually emphasizing how technology is UNnatural and threatens our future. That is the core message of his 2004 book ENOUGH: STAYING HUMAN IN AN ENGINEERED AGE
Nonetheless, to overstate things in the name of making my case is lazy, unfair and disrespectful to someone truly committed to the greater common good. I apologize.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.