Review: Walking God's Earth, Part III

The last two days, I have been looking at David Cloutier’s new book, Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith. The first two parts of this review are here and here.

The chapters in which Cloutier looks to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures for a more satisfying theology of the environment are probably the best two chapters in the book. But, I have heard from some authors – presumably alerted by their publishers – that if a review is too thorough, people may not think they have to actually buy the book and read it. So, I will only say this on these most important and fruitful chapters: Cloutier displays his theological gifts in looking within the tradition for the answers to our current ecological crisis. This is how Catholic theology can and must develop. He does not rely on external theories, although he brings in a great deal of scientific data, but delves into the tradition, into the heart of the Scriptures and permits the reader to see things that might have been missed before. God is always teaching us something new, but what He has to teach us was there from the beginning.

The second half of the book looks at what we, as Catholics, are called upon to do. Having established the theory, Cloutier asks us to examine our praxis. “Catholicism is not just a set of beliefs we hold in our heads. It is, as the early church described it, ‘the way.’” And, he makes the point that those of us in the wealthy nations have a special responsibility to find “the way” because we account for a larger part of the environmental damage currently being caused. “Many environmental problems are global and so require global solutions,” he writes. “[H]owever, these are blocked when those in the wealthy countries selfishly cling to their rights to continue to degrade the environment.”

Cloutier states that he will not offer a “to-do” list. He wants us to attend to patterns of thought and action that have negative consequences for the environment, in part because only a change in such patterns will have the desired effect. But, focusing on patterns has an additional benefit: It is so easy to see our individual discreet acts is little more than trying to empty the ocean with one spoonful of water at a time. “I’m focusing on patterns because it helps us avoid possible despair when we see that nearly all the important environmental issues we face involve large, often global, structures. These can make us feel powerless. Pope John Paul II called them ‘structures of sin’ in that they give ‘the impression of creating, in persons and institutions, an obstacle which is difficult to overcome’ in seeking the common good (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 36).” Cloutier rightly insists that “It is the responsibility of Catholics to resist these structures,” he writes. “If we are able to name and resist structures of sin, God will help us do the impossible. But to change them, we must be able to see the alternate patterns of life that we need to embrace, in the place right where we are.” Cloutier also recognizes that focusing on patterns allows us to get past the “single explanation solutions” that we crave but which, like a craving for ice cream before bedtime, can be satisfied, but not without cost to our waistline.

To look at how we can change our patterns to more environmentally responsible ones, Cloutier looks at how we obtain and use food and fuel. He walks us through the way we get food to our tables, and identifies hidden problems, problems that seemed like great successes at the time they were introduced. “Let’s appreciate how unusual this pattern is in the sweep of human history. For most of that time, food and fuel sources almost had to be local, apart from what could be transported by water,” he notes. “Many people basically fed themselves; any other goods they might have made themselves, or at least they knew who made them. Let us not romanticize this picture…Crop failures in one place could mean devastating famine, as in the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. Most people in society needed to spend most of their time simply raising food.” He notes that as late as 1910, a third of the country’s workforce was engaged in agriculture. Today, farmers are less than one percent of the U.S. population. Similarly, with obtaining and consumption of fuel, the changes have been sudden and extreme. “In the past, almost everyone’s ‘carbon footprint’ was the size of a person today living in the least developed countries – around 40 times less than our current average in the United States. Not 40 percent less, 40 times less – one American burns through what forty people do in poor countries.”

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Our habits of consumption have become so ingrained, in such a short amount of time, that not only the earth has been harmed, but we have acquiesced in harming our children. “In 1990, every single state had an obesity rate of under 20 percent, and the majority were under 15 percent,” Cloutier notes. “The states gradually changed color [on a CDC chart that racks obesity] over time, and by 2010, the last state (Colorado) finally went over 20 percent, with a near-majority of states creeping past 30 percent.” Additionally, studies indicate that we Americans waste fully a quarter of the food we produce and yet “we still generate a food surplus that can be exported cheaply to poor countries, feeding the world but undermining their local farms.” I read those statistics and was reminded of a letter author John Steinbeck wrote to Adlai Stevenson in 1959, in which he wrote, “if I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, and sick.”

Cloutier observes that increasing food and fuel production is not a bad thing. As noted earlier, the problems are those of scale and speed. He compares our consumption patters to that of a drunk who, having imbibed two drinks feels great and therefore concludes that if he has ten drinks, he will feel all the better. It is drunken logic. Additionally, our modern economy has created “proxies” so that we do not even see the processes and patterns that are causing havoc: We do not see the decision, made in a board room, to use more fertilizer in a given acreage, even though it risks ruining the streams and creating “dead zones” in our estuaries. N.B. The “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River is now the size of the state of New Jersey.  “[P]eople don’t directly choose to exhaust the earth; they let others do so on their behalf. It is not difficult to get people to respond to environmental problems in their backyards; it is far more difficult to manage problems that we can’t (or won’t) see.” Cloutier walks through the nitrogen cycle and the natural carbon cycle to explore how what were perceived as breakthroughs – the invention of synthetic fertilizers and of the automobile – have huge unintended consequences, and now, as their use is habitual and ingrained, it is difficult to re-imagine a world without them.

The culprit that must be confronted is an attitude of mind that is wreaking havoc on the sustainability of marriages as well as the earth: “Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value, we are no longer able to judge correctly. Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!” Cloutier states. “This is no trivial matter: as noted earlier, many estimates suggest a quarter or more of the food we produce with excess fertilization and other unsustainable methods is wasted….Almost everyone can begin examining their choices and taking steps immediately to reduce usage.”

Changing to sustainable methods of food and fuel production will not be easy. But, it is now the only alternative to continued exploitation of the environment. Cloutier, who clearly likes frequenting local farmers’ markets, and notes the additional community-building benefits they bring, is not asking anyone to become a hermit. We are Catholics, not Amish. But, unless we are willing to confront consumerist attitudes, which never bring real, dare we say, sustainable joy, we are dooming ourselves and our earth. It has long been obvious that we should not eating strawberries in the middle of winter, and not only because they taste like plastic. And, echoing Pope Benedict, Cloutier insists that the Church itself should lead by example, adopting sustainable fuel technologies whenever possible. Pope Francis has not been shy in criticizing modern consumer culture. But, the rubber will hit the road for each of us in the next few weeks: Can the Christian community, here in the U.S. forcefully resist the consumerization of the Incarnation? Will Catholic parents teach their children that such consumerization of Christmas is morally obscene and theologically upside-down?

Cloutier goes on to examine the relationship of the country and the city, of work and play, and the global economy, and how each of us and all of us can begin to reverse the damage our habits continue to create. This book is a great primer in advance of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, expected next year. We know that Millennials are acutely attuned to environmental issues, so this book also has value in evangelizing the youth. Most importantly, it is an invitation to examine our own behavior, and our own conscience, and seek conversion to patterns of life that do not destroy. Sin and redemption are at play in this book as much as in any of the great Catholic classics. The fact that it is both readable and erudite is a bonus. As our nation and world confronts the ecological crisis, it is more than a little surprising to some and exhilarating to me, to realize, with Cloutier’s help, that the answers lie in our own theological traditions.

 

 

 


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