273 Laudato Si’: Creation Care

For more than a century, the Roman Catholic Church was led by a succession of saintly, scholarly pontiffs whose encyclicals provided insight and guidance for both Catholics and concerned Christians everywhere.  So the recent encyclical of the Pope Francis, Laudato Si’:  On Care for Our Common Home (Rome:  Libreria Editrice Vaticana, c. 2015) merits respectful scrutiny.  Unfortunately, when compared with the works of his immediate predecessors (Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II), the current Pope’s work provides little more than unremarkable ethical precepts all too effortlessly  conjoined with easily disputed alarmist assertions regarding the state of the world.  Still more:  Laudato Si’ is seriously impaled on the horns of the dilemma—alternating between biocentric and anthropocentric concerns, between the naturalistic assumptions of modern environmentalism and the theistic perspectives of classic Christianity.    

The book’s title comes from the oft-celebrated song of St Francis of Assisi:  “Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore—Praise be to you, my Lord.”  It’s a joyous thanksgiving hymn that easily resonates within the heart of all believers in the God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth.  With St Francis we rejoice in the beauty of “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”  Joining the Pope, most of us believe St Francis can serve as the “patron saint” of ecologists and stand as “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically (Kindle #80).  

Now our “Sister, Mother Earth,” says Pope Francis, cries out in protest at the wounds we’ve inflicted upon her, looking “more and more like an immense pile of filth” (#161) resulting from the “throwaway culture” and “rampant individualism” effected by the technological revolution (which he repeatedly and stridently critiques).  He’s deeply alarmed:  “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.  We may well be leaving to coming generations of debris, desolation and filth” (#1205).  So we must act decisively to reduce pollution.  He believes that a “solid scientific consensus” requires us to assent to the hazards of “carbon dioxide pollution” and the reality of man-caused global warming.  Equally alarming:  thousands of species have been eliminated, the Pope says, threatening the “biodiversity” that should flourish on our “green planet.”  Equally alarming, amidst all this ecological devastation, human beings and society are suffering as growing economic inequalities reduce the quality of life for millions.  

Reading the various items of concern listed by Francis (whose citations often refer to papers produced by various bishops’ conferences rather than bona fide scientific treatises), the shallowness of his diagnosis becomes evident—it routinely appears in Sierra Club newsletters and New York Times editorials.  Consequently there is, for example, no hint of any awareness of how significantly the industrial revolution has increased life expectancy and reduced the actual poverty endured by the world’s peoples!  Nor is there any indication Pope Francis appreciates how significantly the energy derived from fossil fuels has improved the daily lives of earth’s residents!  That devastating famines have largely disappeared as a result of the Green Revolution (hybrid plants and fertilizers increasing the earth’s fertility due to the genius of Norman Borlaug) goes unnoticed.  So in one section he champions the radical reduction of carbon dioxide (requiring the radical curtailment of energy production) while in a later section he urges us to feed the poor (something that can take place only through promoting the Green Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels to provide the energy needed to do so!).  In sum:  inasmuch as prudence—the first of the cardinal virtues—requires an accurate, truthful understanding of what is, much of this encyclical is imprudent.  

When we turn to the “gospel of creation,” however, Pope Francis treads on firmer ground, since he relies on the wisdom of his more-gifted predecessors (Benedict XVI and John Paul II) as well as Scripture and the theological richness of Church tradition.  To recognize that God made a good world and entrusted us with the task of husbanding it is neither novel nor unimportant—it is the basic environmental conviction of all devout theists.  Usurping God’s rightful place in the cosmos by pretending humans can be “lords and masters” of creation clearly violates the divine order.  As God’s creatures, we ought to live harmoniously with (sharing communion with) all creatures great and small.  This is the Pope’s praiseworthy “integral ecology,” though it is rendered problematic when fleshed out in dubious Green clichés, i.e. “everything is interconnected,” and requires us to embrace the sacredness of  “sustainability,” “intergenerational solidarity,” and “simplicity of life.”      

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The scientific depth and environmental expertise Pope Francis patently lacks is ably evident in Alan Carlin’s Environmentalism Gone Mad:  How a Sierra Club Activist and Senior EPA Analyst Discovered a Radical Green Energy Fantasy (Mount Vernon, WA:  Stairway Press, c. 2015).  Though the title suggests a colorful manifesto written for a popular audience, this is actually a fact-filled, rigorously documented, rather demanding treatise written to address readers already cognizant of the issues addressed.  Carlin earned a degree in physics from the California Technological University and a PhD in developmental economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then spent four decades in the Environmental Protection Agency.  So he fully understands his subject.  Indeed, some of the book’s most interesting sections tell his life story and provide insights into his convictions and engagements.  

His commitment to conservation was early evident in his Sierra Club endeavors in Los Angeles (where he headed the largest club in the nation and did battle with David Brower and radicals within the national organization 40 years ago) as well as his many years providing scientific analyses for the EPA.  Unfortunately, during the Obama administration Brower-style radicals gained power within the EPA, imposing global warming dogmas in much the same fashion as the USSR promoted “Lysenko’s biological theories” (#5660).  This led Carlin to resign his position in 2010 to do further research and analysis.  Ultimately he wrote this book “to explain why I changed from my lifelong support of the environmental movement to extreme skepticism concerning their current primary objective of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide” (Kindle #113).  “In the years since I initially embraced what is now called the  US environmental movement it has changed considerably in several ways.  The most obvious change is that it has gone from being primarily concerned about wilderness and other wild lands preservation to primarily restricting fossil fuel energy production and energy use” (# 5677).  This results from the fact “that environmental policy has been hijacked by radicals intent on imposing their ideology by government fiat on the rest of us” and they “are being supported by many Western European countries and the Obama Administration” (#151).  

These radicals disdain the “cost benefit analysis” Carlin values and seem to care little for the high prices ordinary people (especially in developing nations) will necessarily pay as their carbon-reducing policies are implemented.  “I had spent my career trying to promote economic development, environmental protection, good science and economics, and rational analysis of multidisciplinary problems which I regarded as mutually supportive in the larger sense,” he says, but his position now elicits scorn rather than respect.  Disinterested in scholarly research, the radicals began to use the power of the EPA to promote their own agendas (often in defiance of Congress’s clear intent in various environmental laws), repeatedly attaining their goals by selectively pushing cases through a sympathetic judicial system.  

Carlin follows the scientific method and grew disillusioned with its abandonment by alarmist environmentalists and politicians.  To him “there is a correct answer to a scientific question, although it may take some time and considerable effort to discover what it is.  And it is never ‘settled’ or based on ‘consensus’” (#132).  He wonders “if [John] Kerry, [Al] Gore, or [President] Obama have ever taken a course in science or understand what the scientific method is.  The more pessimistic possibility is that they know but think that most of the rest of the population do not and will not figure it out” #2727).  Himself committed to studying empirical data (insisting, for example, on the use of satellite as well as ground-based data for earth’s temperatures), which lend little credence to the alarmist projections of “climate change” based on computer models, he has settled into the “skeptic” camp regarding the issue.  “By late 2008,” Carlin says, to him “it was quite evident that GWD [Global Warming Doctrine] was simply that, a doctrine, in a desperate search for scientific credibility since it could not satisfy the scientific method” (#1707).  

Importantly, he insists:  “Inspection of satellite temperature data available since 1979 strongly suggests that global temperatures are not primarily influenced by gradually increasing CO2 levels but rather are associated with periodic major ocean oscillations, particularly the 3-5 year El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the 60 year Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) found in the largest ocean, the Pacific” (#4494).  In addition to oceanic oscillations, Carlin believes solar or solar magnetic activity, more than anything else, ultimately dictates climate change—as it has been doing so for millions of years.  “By combining the variations  in the number of sunspots, one of the longer-running databases based on actual human observations, with ocean oscillations as explanatory variables, Dan Pangburn has managed to reproduce global temperatures with amazing accuracy since 1850 and with less certainty (due to less accurate temperature records) since 1700” (#5334).  

What seems likely to come in the future (in the light of work done by Pangburn and other meticulous researchers) is global cooling due to “diminishing sunspots” and related oceanic  cycles, following “the pattern of temperatures over the last 3,000 years.  All these convince me that the major climate risk we face is much colder temperatures in the next few centuries and millennia in northern latitudes” (# 5392).  That another ice age might be coming should give us pause!  The minor warming that has occurred in recent decades has in fact made life better for us—as it did in the Roman and Medieval warming periods.  But another ice age would devastate vast regions of the Northern Hemisphere!  Maintaining the planet’s warmth (including increased use of fossil fuels) ought to be our mission!  

This is one of those books I recommend people know about rather than attempt to read!  Carlin’s personal experiences and perspectives make it persuasive.  He obviously knows what he discusses and takes care to demonstrate the bases for his beliefs.  The scientific material, set forth in abundant detail, is properly documented, up-to-date and trustworthy.  The arguments set forth are cogent and convincing.  Anyone seriously concerned about “climate change” and public policy will greatly benefit from an exposure to this treatise.  But, unfortunately, this book is almost numbingly repetitive and unorganized, desperately needing an expert’s editorial hand to reduce its length and sharpen its focus.  

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Reared on the High Plains, I’ve always loved the West’s wide-open spaces.  One of the earliest songs I remember hearing on the radio in Dodge City, Kansas (no doubt sung by Gene Autry and the “Sons of the Pioneers”), was “Home, Home on the Range.” And after all these years I still share that early longing for “a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play, where never is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”  So I recently read with interest Dan Dagget’s Beyond the Rangeland Conflict:  Toward a West that Works (Flagstaff, AZ:  The Grand Canyon Trust, c. 1995).  

As a journalist strongly committed to environmentalism, Dagget served “as conservation chair of the Northern Arizona Sierra Club group and as a writer for a number of environmental journals, including the Earth First! Journal.”  The Sierra Club once ranked him as one of the 100 top grass-roots activist in the nation.  He glibly chanted the mantra “nature knows best,” insisting she be allowed to follow her inner wisdom.  He also viewed ranchers—particularly those grazing cattle on public lands—as harmful intruders who should be removed in order to allow Mother Earth to heal herself from the wounds of civilization.  He “repeated—too many times to count—the statistics that make up the indictment against western ranchers:  that domestic grazers are responsible for destroying up to 90 percent of some western states’ riparian areas that are, in turn, vital to up to 80 percent of the region’s indigenous species; that livestock are the reason 59 percent of our public rangelands are in poor condition; that the belches of livestock contribute to global warming; their excrement fouls our campgrounds and pollutes our streams, and bits of their bodies clog our arteries” ( p. 7).   

In time, however, a powerful truth overwhelmed him:  the lands wisely used by good ranchers flourished better than those left alone!   As he surveyed the West, talked with the people who live on the land, and studied the issue, he concluded that “much of the western range is in worse shape than even some of the most alarming assessments would have us believe,” with “denuded and eroding” mountains and deserts, dying streams and endangered wildlife (p. 1).  But, contrary to environmentalist rhetoric and federal policy, these problems flowed from the widely-held notion that ecosystems left alone thrive but suffer under the hand of man.  In truth, grazing animals generally improve the health of the land and enable it to promote the biodiversity real environmentalists (including many ranchers) desire.  Thus:  “The main objective of this book is to chronicle the success stories of these ranchers, and, as much as possible, the management teams with whom they work to increase biodiversity, revive riparian areas and watersheds, and restore the vitality of grasslands and savannas.”  Dagget hopes “to encourage more environmentalists to work with ranchers and find their reward on the land, rather than in the hearing room or the courtroom” (p. 11).  

To prove his case, Dagget shows, through personal vignettes and stories as well as gorgeous pictures (often showing, side-by-side flourishing grazed land compared with degraded left-alone preserves), how ranchers in various areas are rightly caring for the land.  He visits ranches in New Mexico, Arizona,  Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, arguing that similar approaches throughout the arid West could restore vast regions to the health they enjoyed centuries ago (when Indians set fires to control the grasslands and wild animals did what cattle can now do). 

“The ranchers and conservationists who populate these pages,” says Wendell Berry in his promotional blurb, “have quit fighting over the contested landscapes and have begun restoring them.  It would be hard to overestimate the importance of their stories.  I read this book eagerly, recognizing it as something I have been waiting for, and it gave me hope.” 

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A decade after publishing Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, Dan Dagget wrote a sequel titled  Gardeners of Eden:  Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature (Santa Barbara, CA:  The Thatcher Charitable Trust, c. 2005).  He continues to take issue with those radical environmentalists who portray human beings as parasites or cancers on the land because he now thinks we play a crucial role in maintaining its health.  He’s “fascinated with the idea of ‘life making the conditions for life available to life,’ especially where it involves humans.  One could say the purpose of this book is to establish that humans actually can be a part of this sort of relationship with nature and to make us better able to recognize the instances in which we are” (p. 79).  Historical studies show that man played an essential role that is being reduced by both technological developments (leaving less people in rural America) and environmental ideologies (prizing “wilderness” spaces devoid of human habitation).  This book proposes ways to reintroduce “humans into the environment in the same way that we might reintroduce an endangered subspecies of caribou or flycatcher or cactus” (p. 6).  

Following the pattern established in Beyond the Rangeland Conflict, Dagget records his journeys throughout the West’s ranching country, interviewing the people (the Gardeners of Eden) and photographing the lands that are flourishing under their restorative care.  The evidence shows—in dramatic, pictorial ways—how well the land fares when managed by conscientious ranchers.  We now know that for many centuries millions of buffalo, deer, and antelope grazed the land, pulverizing and manuring the soil as they followed their migration patterns.  We also know that millennia before 1492 American Indians routinely burned swaths of the land every other year, thereby controlling growth and enriching the soil.  (Were such fires used today, the catastrophic fires periodically devastating vast sections of the West would be minimized!)  

As Charles Mann says:  “‘Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison,’” using fire to control “‘underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game’” (p. 27).  Today’s ranchers are learning to duplicate these aboriginal wise-use methods, often helping native grasses and vegetation replace invasive species (e.g. sagebrush, salt cedar, thistles, junipers) that often flourish under the “Leave-It-Alone” approach and generally degrade the land.  Yet despite their success—and despite the efforts of Dagget and others to share their strategies—few policy-makers and bureaucrats note the fact that carefully-grazed land is far more healthy than wilderness left to its own devices.  

Instead, various governmental agencies are spending billions of dollars, allegedly protecting the land by “leaving it alone” while it degrades at an alarming rate.  Imprisoned by the Green ideology that “nature knows best,” federal policy-architects have “brought us to the absurdity that the actual condition of a piece of land is irrelevant to determining if it is healthy or not” (p. 18).  It is now clear to Dagget that “the Leave-It-Alone assumption is woven into our very concepts of nature (especially evident in urbanites), of what nature is and how we are related to it.  It is nothing more than our culture’s story of the creation of nature—the story of the Garden of Eden—adopted as policy.  The Garden of Eden story is the establishment, within our culture, of the assumption that humans are separate from nature, that we are not a part of it, and that we are not animals but something different.  Lots of people who consider themselves to be irreligious or even antireligious subscribe to this piece of religious dogma” (p. 22).  

What’s needed, Dagget says in his final chapter, is a “new environmentalism” attainable by “becoming native again.”  The Leave-It-Alone policies imposed by the preservationists now leading environmentalist groups and federal agencies have clearly failed both the land and its residents.  As the evidence now demonstrates, we need a new approach that truly restores the land and increases its productivity.  For example, ranchers in North Dakota practicing “holistic grazing” now “experience an average return on their money of 16 percent.  Practitioners of other approaches, mostly seasonal grazing, report a 2 percent gain” (p. 142).  By becoming native again and recovering the wise-use policies that made the West what it was centuries ago, this wonderful region could regain its vibrancy.  

Dagget’s books embrace both a sound environmental ethic and a high regard for human enterprise.  Would that his wise words and images could shape the convictions and policies of our nation. 

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