*Climate Change:  The Pope’s Encyclical and the Dominion of Religion

The thinking person, Walter Benjamin had occasion to remark, appears to experience crisis at every juncture of her or his life.  How can this not be so if one were to experience the pain of someone else as one’s own?  How can this not be so when, amidst growing stockpiles of food in many countries, millions continue to suffer from malnutrition, and the lengthening shadows of poverty give lie to the pious promises and pompous proclamations by the world’s leaders over the last several decades that humanity is determined to achieve victory in its quest to eradicate poverty?  With war, violence, disease, and the myriad manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination which man’s ingenuity has wrought all around us, how might a person not be experiencing crisis?  One Foundation after another—whether it be named after Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clintons, Ford, Rockefeller, or other tycoons—has claimed to have helped “millions” of people around the world, but the crises appear to be multiplying.

There is, yet, a larger crisis that engulfs us all, even those who are sheltered from the cruel afflictions to which a good portion of humankind is still subject, especially in the global South.  Pope Francis, singularly among “world leaders”, has dared to address the “crisis” that overwhelms all others in his recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), which poignantly sets the tone for a conversation that ought to engage the entire world with its declaration at the outset that the subject of his letter is “the care for our common home”.  Over the last few years, a consensus has slowly been emerging among members of the scientific community that climate change is presently taking place at a rate which is unprecedented in comparison with the natural climate change cycles that have characterized our earth in the course of the last half a million years; moreover, as successive Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have affirmed, global warming is, to an overwhelming degree, the consequence of human activity.  IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) suggested that scientists were reasonably certain in their finding that global warming had been produced by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere owing to the massive burning of fossil fuels, the industrialized use of animal stocks, and significant changes in land use.

Source:  Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change - See more at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/category/us-congress-and-climate-change-ethics/#sthash.lxq2hc8I.dpuf

Source: Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change – See more at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/category/us-congress-and-climate-change-ethics/#sthash.lxq2hc8I.dpuf

The recently issued Fifth Assessment Report (2013) describes the environmental risks in even more unequivocal language:  “It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.  Scientists and increasingly other commentators—various practitioners of the social sciences, journalists, and policy makers—are now inclined to the view that this anthropogenic climate change is of such a magnitude that we might reasonably speak of a new geological epoch, defined by the action of humans, that the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen termed the Anthropocene.  Signs of the acute malady—among others, record temperatures in much of the global North, intense heat waves and droughts in Australia, melting glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range, cyclones of increasing ferocity, rising sea levels, massive flooding—began to proliferate over a decade ago and could no longer be ignored.  Speaking just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government would be bold enough to hazard the view that climate change poses a greater threat than does terrorism to the ability of humans to “live safely.”

The Pope has, with his eloquently and passionately argued encyclical, justly intervened in a matter which cannot and must not be left only to the jurisdiction of scientists and policy makers.  It is, in the first instance, notable that Francis speaks not so much of ‘global warming’ as of ‘climate change’, though in common usage the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Neither term was part of the global vocabulary until the late 1970s, even if the geochemist Wallace S. Broecker warned, in a 1975 piece entitled “Climate Change:  Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”, that the complacency about the warming effect of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of chemical fuels was not warranted.   The NASA scientist James E. Hansen is sometimes credited with having made the term ‘global warming’, which is much less encompassing than ‘climate change’, referring as it does only to the increase in the earth’s average surface temperature as a consequence of rising levels of greenhouse gases, acceptable to a wider public with his 1988 testimony before Congress where he asserted that scientists could “ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.”  Pope Francis is astute in directing his attention at ‘climate change’, recognizing that the environmental catastrophes which are upon us take myriad forms and have repercussions which extend to the entire question of the future of all species on this earth and the moral implications of present human conduct.  Not only is ‘climate change’ in the ordinarily understood sense of the term a palpable reality, but there has been at work for some time a change in the climate—of thought, feeling, and opinion—that has brought humankind to the brink of ecological, social, and moral devastation.

Beginning, as Francis does, with the claim that “climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” it is not surprising, and is indeed heartening, that his letter is attentive to the grave and pervasive inequalities between countries.  “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” the encyclical states, and Francis adds that “in different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”  Francis recommends that the developed countries “help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”  Not many have dared to suggest that equality cannot be gained only be attempting to raise the standard of living in the countries that comprise the global South; those who are rich, wherever they may be, will surely have to curtain their extraordinary levels of consumption.  (This reprises a debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi in India—but we leave that aside for the present.)  The Pope goes on to offer an indictment of the shallow market-based solutions proffered by the economists—when, one might ask, were the economists not shallow—and suggests with considerable astuteness that “carbon credits” are to rejected as they “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”  It is these remarks which prompted Jeb Bush, a Presidential “hopeful” as they are characterized in the US, to tell his adoring audience somewhere on Main Street in Anytown, America, that “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”  The enlightened soul that he is, Jeb doubtless gets his economic philosophy from George W., the light on the hill that has been shining on baby brother since he came into this world and blinding him ever since.

Source:  CDC, Atlanta

Source: CDC, Atlanta

Francis rightly rejects the view that the question of climate change must be left only to environmentalists, economists, and policy makers.  As I have argued at some length in a recent article, “Climate Change:  Insights from Hinduism”, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (June 2015)—and I shall in the remaining part of this blog be drawing entirely upon my article, which is a contribution to a roundtable discussion on climate change and religion—students of religion must be particularly sensitive to what climate change portends for the future of humankind and all of creation.  In a world beset by extraordinary calamities, it is difficult for most people to turn their attention to something called climate change.  But it is not only those who are devastated by war, sexual violence, grave civil unrest, disease, a deadly virus, or a natural calamity such as an earthquake who see themselves as without the luxury to ruminate over the afflictions engendered by climate change.  Suffering is in the here and now; the privations that are effects of climate change, such as they are understood, happen—or are likely to happen—elsewhere, at a remote distance, and to others.  No doubt some people are aware that melting glaciers and rising temperatures have already wrought havoc, but nevertheless those who issue warnings about the calamitous consequences of climate change are unable to derive much emotional or spiritual purchase from arguments that invoke the future of our children, grandchildren, and generations to come when they speak solely or predominantly in the language of science.

More so than other practitioners of other disciplines and areas of inquiry, students of religion ought to consider the question of climate change their special provenance.  In many respects, religious studies scholars are especially equipped to address the social, cultural, and ethical implications of climate change.  First, the notion of an afterlife, howsoever it may be interpreted, occupies a critical space in every religion:  the religious sensibility is one that insists not only on the imperative of ethical conduct in the present, but also on the persistence of good outcomes of such conduct in the long run.  Religion helps us to think of different registers of temporality and it holds up the future as a mode and space of being that is of at least as much critical importance as the present; similarly, the ecological awareness that proponents of climate change seek to elicit in every person rests in part on the idea that proper custodianship of the earth will yield rich dividends for those who are to follow us.

Secondly, there is another idiom of temporality in which the student of religion, or more particularly of Hinduism, can hope to render understandable an argument about the reality of climate change.  As the scholar of religion, Harold Coward, reminds us, “it took all of human history up to the early 1800s for the earth’s population to reach one billion.  It took 130 years to add the second billion, 30 years to add the third, 15 years to add the fourth, and 12 years to add the fifth.”  A like argument may be advanced apropos of climate change:  the first several decades of the industrial revolution led to greater accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the preceding tens of thousands of years, and it is quite likely that the last two decades—which have seen not only increased levels of consumption in most of the major economies, but exponential growth in China and a substantial increase of the middle class in India, Brazil, and elsewhere—have contributed as much to global warming as the preceding century.  However, what is equally germane is that a phrase such as “all of human history up to the early 1800s” evokes gargantuan periods of time—a notion that is remote to ordinary human experience but rather more readily available to the practitioners of Hinduism, who have long been habituated to the idea of the Yugas, or the four ages—Satya Yuga, spanning 1,728,000 years; Treta Yuga, lasting 1,296,000 years; Dwapara Yuga, spanning 864,000 years; and Kali Yuga, which is half the duration of the Dwapara Yuga and a quarter of the Satya Yuga—through which human history is said to have passed.  The point here is that even if the scientific evidence for climate change is compelling, there is a different sensibility at work in the suggestion that the very idea of climate change also commands us to think of strikingly varying temporalities—both of the eons of time that have passed and the eons of time well into the future.  Hinduism’s mytho-geological conception of time immensely facilitates such leaps of imagination.

Thirdly, whatever the inclination of adherents of each religion to prize their own faith as the correct and wholly distinct path to emancipation, the religious-minded generally recognize that every religion affirms the oneness of humankind.  Arguments that draw attention to the precariousness of human existence, an existence rendered all the more fragile by widespread, devastating, and often unpredictable changes in nature that can be explicitly traced to human activity, are likewise predicated on the idea that climate change provides yet another affirmation of the oneness of existence.  The common maladies that afflict the poor, the marginalized, and the disempowered, mainly in the global South and certain pockets of the affluent North, are after all not our maladies, even if activists, social workers, and idealists choose to alleviate their suffering and occasionally even partake in it as the most meaningful gesture of solidarity.  Yet what does the recognition of climate change entail if not precisely the notion that there are certain forms of suffering that are indivisible, that the problems of one might well be the problems of all?  If religion may be defined as an attempt to teach us how we can share in the suffering of others, can it not be said that awareness of climate change leads to the same outcome?

In a sequel to this piece, I shall take up the question of the insights that Hinduism has to contribute to our understanding of climate change.  Though Pope Francis did not draw upon any Hindu texts, his encyclical displays the same ecumenism that he would like to see characterized in human relations and in the dialogue between nations rich and poor.  He draws, quite expectedly, upon the Bible, the teachings of St. Francis, the insights of  Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his two most recent papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI; but also upon the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, and such international conventions as the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development (2002).  Home is where one begins from; after the journeying of the last two hundred years, Francis’s letter seeks to ground humans so that they may once again become sensitive to the earth, sky, air, water and the dust to which everything returns.

*Port-au-Prince & Lisbon, Pat Robertson & the Enlightenment Philosophers: Haiti’s Earthquake I

On 1 November 1755, a massive earthquake struck the city of Lisbon.  It is thought to have been 9.0 on the Richter scale:  whatever the precise measurement, its magnitude may be judged by the fact that the earthquake nearly leveled Lisbon, and caused widespread damage elsewhere in Portugal, and even in Spain and Morocco.  Together with the tsunami that came in its wake, the earthquake, by modern estimates, is thought to have wiped out about a fifth or sixth of Lisbon’s population of 200,000.  According to some sources, nearly every church of any consequence in Lisbon was destroyed.  That, in a country intensely Catholic, was alone calculated to leave an ineradicable impression on its inhabitants.

Though the destruction was extraordinarily widespread, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 has entered the annals of history for reasons other than as an illustration of nature’s furious unpredictability.  The earthquake would provoke a wide-ranging discussion among many of the greatest minds of the day; indeed, even into the twentieth century, the Lisbon earthquake would be summoned to point to both the inscrutability of God’s ways and the uses of seismology.  One of the regnant ideas of those days had been best adumbrated by the philosopher Leibniz, who adhered to the view that whatever happens happens for the best, or, in slightly more elegant language, God’s ways could be justified to men if one recognized that one lived in the best of all worlds.  Among the most eminent men of the day who felt the tremors of the quake in Paris was Voltaire.  In his novel Candide (1759), the eponymous hero, who at first vividly subscribes to the view that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, in time comes to reject this optimism.  The Lisbon earthquake is enough to cure him of this theodicy, just as it sufficed to make Voltaire reject the optimism of Leibniz.

One of the other supreme figures of the age who attempted to make some sense of the earthquake was Immanuel Kant, whose interest in this would be captured by Walter Benjamin in a radio talk prepared for school-children 150 years later:  “No one was more fascinated by these remarkable events than the great German philosopher Kant . . .  At the time of the earthquake he was a young man of twenty-four, who had never left his hometown of Konigsberg – and who would never do so in the future.  But he eagerly collected all the reports of the earthquake that he could find, and the slim book that he wrote about it probably represents the beginning of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”  In the typical fashion of the day, Kant’s slim volume bore the longish title, History and Natural Description of the most Remarkable Incidents of the Earthquake that Shook a Large Part of the Earth at the End of the Year 1755.

Kant’s avid interest in the earthquake was not confined to a scientific assessment of the natural circumstances that had led to the calamity.  “Whatever is, is right”, Alexander Pope had famously declared in his Essay on Man (1733), and his affirmation of Leibniz’s theodicy had many supporters who rather agreed with Leibniz’s reasoning that though the presence of evil could not be denied, evil itself existed for the sake of a greater good.  As Rousseau and Voltaire, whose repudiation of theodicy in Candide was prefigured in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1756), tangled over the ‘meaning’ of the earthquake, Kant would step into the debate later with a distinct philosophical articulation of the idea of the sublime.  When the imagination reaches its limits, Kant argued, pain is experienced; but this pain may be compensated for with the pleasure produced by the mind.  The “beautiful” was not to be equated with the “sublime”:  if the former belongs to the realm of “Understanding”, the latter belongs to “Reason”.  A sublime event was not to be comprehended through the understanding, indeed the enormity of the sublime – “we call that sublime which is absolutely great”, he wrote in the Critique of Judgment – passed all understanding and demonstrated the inadequacy of one’s imagination.  And, yet, the supersensible powers, through which one comprehends an event as whole, and which inform both nature and thought, bring one to a realization of the sublime.

When we consider the philosophical level of public discourse that the Lisbon earthquake could engender, the depths to which public discourse has sunk in our times becomes all the more transparent.  Pat Robertson has been known over the years for his outrageous announcements, and one should not be utterly surprised that he should, on the present occasion of the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, have displayed the same dim-wittedness and callousness for which he has nearly an unsurpassed reputation (barring, perhaps, only the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck).  As he put it in a televangelical broadcast, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”  America deplored Haiti’s independence in 1804, refusing to recognize the country until 1862, and it appears that even today there are some Americans such as Robertson who evidently believe that some people are born to serve others.  Colonialism, we know, continues to have its defenders; but Robertson’s remarks disguise many more profound anxieties, none as acute as the fact that the only genuine revolution, gone astray for reasons that I shall attempt to comprehend in subsequent blogs, in the Western hemisphere took place in Haiti rather than in what would become the US.

Insanely stupid as Robertson’s remarks are, they nonetheless point the way to a debate that cannot be resolved under the sign of secularism.  In a very different time, equally removed from the energetic debates of the Enlightenment and the mental vacuity of a Robertson, Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore would have a lively public exchange over the equally devastating Bihar Earthquake of 1934.  Gandhi described the earthquake as God’s chastisement of upper-caste Hindus for their oppression of Harijans; Tagore, revered almost as much as the Mahatma, expressed shock that Gandhi would adhere to a view which was openly dismissive of scientific reasoning and likely to encourage the Indian masses in their superstitious thinking.  The intricacies of that exchange aside, Gandhi was firmly persuaded that communication with the masses could not succeed in the language of secularism – even if he was, in his own fashion, resolutely wedded to the idea that the Indian state perforce had to be secular, scrupulously fair to the adherents of all religions.  Moreover, the secular imagination cannot, Gandhi would have argued, countenance the idea that natural events may have their counterpart in the life of the soul.  Perhaps, in howsoever unpleasant a way, Robertson’s remarks suggest that we do not live only under the sign of secularism.