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Your Attention, Please

If it’s hard to get people’s attention about God and religion, it may be even harder to get them to read about protecting the environment.

And protection is needed more than ever, according to news reports. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which for 25 years has been gathering data on climate trends from more than 400 scientists around the world, says on average, 2014 was the hottest year ever — in the ocean, as well as on land.

National Public Radio quotes Deke Arndt, a climate scientist with the agency and an author of the 2014 report, as saying it’s the lower atmosphere that’s warming, not the upper atmosphere….

No Coincidence

“That’s not a coincidence,” he says. “The changes that we see in the lower part of the atmosphere are driven by a change in the composition of the atmosphere,” Arndt says. “If an external forcing — such as the sun or some orbital phenomenon — would be driving the warming, we would see a warming across the board in most of the atmosphere. And we don’t.”

The conclusion: The cause is human activity.

Still, Americans place less importance on environmental issues than they did in 1971, a year after Earth Day was established, according to a poll by the Huffington Post. A recent Gallup Poll found similar results. The poll “… puts climate change, along with the quality of the environment, near the bottom of a list of 15 issues Americans rated in Gallup’s March 6-9 survey.”

So, apart from an initial blast of publicity, I’m not optimistic that Pope Francis’ recent message “On Care for Our Common Home” is going to get much attention from most people. Maybe it’s at least partially because many people believe that, like nuclear disarmament and big money in politics, it’s just too big and intransigent a problem.

The pope recognizes that it’s an uphill battle, but he’s seeking a dialogue nonetheless, urging his readers to abandon the notion that the issues are unclear or that we’re powerless to change.

Manic Individualism

“At the heart of the document is an idea very dear to him,” writes Austen Ivereigh, a Pope Francis biographer, in the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s his own analysis of what has gone wrong with modernity….” That includes overreliance on technology, which suggests “we can manipulate reality; we can exploit the world. It’s a manic individualism which comes from having lost our connection with God, with each other and with the Earth.”

This may give the impression that the document is a “downer,” that it’s pessimistic and critical. That’s not the pope’s style. The document’s official title is Laudato Si, the first line in Italian of a canticle by St. Francis that joyfully praises God and all his creation.

And the encyclical isn’t just addressed to Catholics, or even believers. In June, anticipating the encyclical’s release, the pope said it is addressed to all because all have “the responsibility toward the common home that God has entrusted to all.”

As should be expected, however, the Pope expressed it in religious terms.

“The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion,” he writes. Some “…committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent.”

If we actually had this sort of conversion, what would be the practical results for Americans? Here are five possible results.

  1. We would hold politicians’ feet to the fire on the subject of the environment, insisting that they take the subject seriously. We would vote for and promote for office people who want to protect “our common home,” and make it known to family and friends that we favor protecting it.
  2. We would preserve and protect water, using tap water instead of bottled water whenever possible. We would not waste water on lawns, especially in times of water shortages. We wouldn’t pollute streams and watersheds with debris, pesticides or herbicides.
  3. We wouldn’t waste, especially food. We wouldn’t buy more than we need and we would learn to eat leftovers. And we would give our used “stuff” away, not throw it away.
  4. We would widen our temperature comfort zone to save on energy consumption. We would not turn on, or turn up, air conditioners and furnaces out of habit, but only out of need.
  5. We would cut down on the use of plastic, including cups and bags. We would make sure they didn’t fill our parks, streams and oceans, or our landfills.

“We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible,” writes Pope Francis. “It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment.”


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