Deep Economy

The Pope's Divisions

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THE POPE'S “climate change encyclical,” Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), is actually far more than that: It is the most remarkable religious document in a generation, offering a powerful and comprehensive worldview that is consonant with the Bible and hence profoundly countercultural. You owe it to yourself to take a few hours and read it slowly and carefully; you’ll be enlightened, but mostly, if you’re like me, you’ll be reassured. Reassured that someone powerful in this world actually sees our time for what it is, and understands the crises facing our planet for what they are.

Near the beginning, for instance, the pope discusses the “rapidification” of life, the sense that “the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.”

That’s as useful a description of the last 100 years as we’re likely to get, that sense of life out of balance. It affects the poor, yes, and the pope is always most mindful of the poor—but it also affects everyone. The ever-more-technologized world we inhabit no longer makes us happier. It makes us stressed.

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Empowering the World

ONE OF THE most destabilizing facts of the last five years is this: The price of a solar panel has fallen 75 percent. The engineers have done their job, and that offers many possibilities.

We usually look at what the developed countries are doing with renewable energy, such as the fact that there were days during summer 2014 when Germany was generating three quarters of its power from solar panels (Germany!). But the most amazing miracles—and it doesn’t really stretch the word “miracle”—are happening in the poorest places, where for the very first time lights are blazing on.

Take rural Bangladesh, where fossil fuel has barely penetrated  in the 200 years of its ascendancy in the West. There’s no grid—at night it just goes dark. Until the last few years, when low-cost solar panels and innovative financing arranged by groups such as the Grameen Bank have allowed the very rapid spread of solar panels. How rapid? As many as 80,000 new connections a month, which is far more than in the United States. Fifteen million Bangladeshis live in solar-powered houses already, and the government is hoping to have the entire nation hooked up by 2020.

That means that kids can study at night. It also means that families don’t have to waste as much as 30 percent of their income on kerosene. It also means that they don’t have to breathe those kerosene fumes, and that the black soot the lamps throw off won’t be melting glaciers. It also means that everyone can charge their cell phones, which are ubiquitous in Bangladesh. In fact, places like Bangladesh leapfrogged the whole telephone pole thing and went straight to mobile; now they’re leapfrogging coal and gas and going straight to solar.

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July 2015
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Despair is Optional

AS POPE FRANCIS prepares to release his encyclical on climate change, it’s worth remembering exactly how far the conversation on religion and the environment has come in the past quarter-century.

When I wrote The End of Nature back in the late 1980s, there was very little religious environmentalism. Liberal churches believed that ecology was a subject to be addressed once you’d finished with war and poverty; conservative churches viewed it as a way station on the road to paganism. And Christians in general still reeled under the idea, propounded by Lynn White in an influential essay in Science magazine, that the Genesis call for dominion had led directly to the destruction we saw around us.

In those early days, there were a few wayfarers on this path. Thomas Berry, for instance, and even more important a pair of academics—Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim—who picked up his clues and sweated blood to assemble theologians from around the world and search every tradition for the roots of ecological thinking. Episcopal Power and Light—now Interfaith Power and Light—was an early and successful effort at congregational action; Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) was an early effort in the Jewish community that has blossomed into many flowers.

More senior figures began to join. Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of 400 million Eastern Christians, became known as the “green patriarch” for his straightforward reckoning that environmental desecration was just that, a sin. Desmond Tutu has called climate change the “human rights challenge of our time.” Now the pope. “It is [humanity] who has slapped nature in the face,” Francis said. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”

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Every Time I Look Into the Holy Book

I HAVE SOMETIMES been dismayed by the lack of speed that some churches and denominations have shown when it came to tackling environmental issues. On the question of divestment from fossil fuels, for instance, the Unitarians have been forthrightly in favor, and the United Church of Christ as well (and the Rockefellers!). But the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans are, by and large, dragging their feet as usual.

Sometimes I confess to imagining that God herself might be getting a bit impatient, too—how else to explain the name of the site for the next great fossil-fuel battle?

It will happen in Australia’s Galilee Valley, a remote basin many hours from the continent’s cities. At the moment it’s basically untouched, but plans call for it to become The Biggest Coal Mine on Earth. There is enough coal beneath its soil to provide 6 percent of the carbon that would take us past the two-degree rise in temperature scientists have given as the ultimate red line. That is to say, one valley in one nation (a nation with one-third of 1 percent of the planet’s population) can do 6 percent of the job of wrecking the planet. One valley!

One valley that happens to carry one of the most sacred names in Christendom. I remember my church high school youth group days, when Loretta Lynn exploded in song: “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man from Galilee).” It was actually a great lyric, one that went straight to the radicalism of the gospel (“Every time I look into the Holy Book I wanna tremble / when I read about the part where the carpenter cleared the temple”). In this case, the “buyers and sellers” are all billionaires—people such as Gautam Adani, on whose corporate jet Narendra Modi flew last year in his successful campaign to run India, or Gina Rinehart, the Aussie mining heiress and fourth richest woman in the world who once lauded Africans for being willing to work for two dollars a day.

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An End to the Fossil-Fuel Era?

THE MOOD ALONG Central Park West couldn’t have been sweeter: As block after block after block of scientists and students and clerics strolled by on the People’s Climate March, everyone was smiling. Serious, yes—but calm. Determined, but hopeful. It was a coming out party, and everyone was reassured to see how big and broad this movement actually was.

And everyone was relieved, I think, not to have to listen to speeches. Without politicians explaining what the day was all about, the march was able to speak for itself, with a mix of anger and inspiration exemplified by the front- line communities and Indigenous nations that filled out the first ranks of the procession.

That night, though, there were a couple of speeches worth listening to. They came further up the West Side, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where religious leaders had gathered for a series of meetings and services. At the reception following those talks, Stephen Heintz, the head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, cued up a video address from Desmond Tutu, calling for “an end to the fossil-fuel era.” Dressed in his scarlet robes, Tutu saluted activists, saying “the destruction of the Earth’s environment is the human rights challenge of our time,” and demanded that institutions around the planet end their investments in fossil-fuel companies.

That was pretty good: One of our planet’s most revered church leaders speaking truth to power. And then power spoke back. Representing the Rockefeller family, Heintz said their various charitable trusts would now divest their holdings in fossil-fuel companies, arguing that it was both financially imprudent and immoral to continue trying to make money off the planet’s destruction.

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The Problem of Big and Small

IT'S REASONABLY clear to me that the natural tendency of our society at this moment is toward smallness, localness, and intimacy. After several centuries of constantly extending our supply lines around the world so that our food and our energy and our capital came from every corner of the planet, we find it increasingly pleasing and increasingly necessary to hunker down.

Local food is the best example. Our best restaurants and our sharpest cooks are no longer concerned with copying French recipes; for a generation now it’s been all about what’s close to home. Farmers’ markets have been the fastest growing part of our food economy, and suddenly there are more breweries than there were before Prohibition. It tastes good; it feels neighborly.

Next on the agenda: local energy. All of a sudden it seems weird to be piping stuff in from Saudi Arabia, or even Texas, when there’s plenty of good sunshine to be had close to home, when the wind blows over your house more days than not. In the wake of the financial crisis, there’s even a move toward Slow Money and local banking. It’s possible to imagine how it might all fit together into something quite beautiful—a new/old world that actually kind of works, instead of the careening one we’re used to.

But there’s one small problem. Actually, one large problem—the largest we’ve ever faced. The devastation from climate change threatens to undo every one of these sweet trends (if it doesn’t rain for a month, it doesn’t matter how organic your farm is; ditto if it rains every day). And climate change, given the time that we have, can only be solved on very large scales. Say the United States—greatest of carbon sinners—somehow decided to sober up and get its house in order. Even in that dream world, you’d still need to persuade the developing world to go along.

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Time for Confession—and Action

THE NEWS IN mid-May was grim: Scientists announced that melt across the West Antarctic was proceeding much faster than before. In fact, they said that at this point the melt of the six great glaciers fronting Amundsen Bay was “unstoppable,” and that over a number of decades it would raise sea levels by 10 feet or more.

This is another way of saying: Given dominion over the earth, we’ve failed. We’ve taken one after another of the planet’s great physical features and wrecked them. The Arctic? Summer sea ice is reduced by 80 percent, and it’s an every-year affair now to boat through the Northwest Passage, impassably choked by ice until this millennium began. The seven seas? Thirty percent more acidic than they were in the past—and the acidity could double or triple by the end of the century. The Antarctic? It’s not just warming rapidly, but its wind patterns have been changed by the ozone hole in ways that amplify the heating. Storms are stormier, droughts are deeper, fires last longer, rain falls harder.

And all because it was a little easier and a little cheaper not to change off fossil fuels. When scientists sounded the alarm about all this in the late 1980s, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 350 parts per million—or what we now consider the upper bound of safety. If we’d heeded their fervent warnings, we’d have moved with great speed to convert to solar and wind power. We’d have parked our SUVs. We’d have insulated every home in the world. It would have cost money and it would have been inconvenient; on the other hand, it could have bred solidarity in much the same way that preparing for World War II transformed the U.S.

But we couldn’t be bothered. We ignored the first commandant that we’d been given: to exercise sensible, sane stewardship over this planet that God had found so good. We stood by as our addiction to fossil fuel ran Genesis in reverse.

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The Fateful Year Ahead

BAN KI MOON has summoned the world's leaders to New York in September to talk about the climate—and in the process he's also summoned all of us who care about the planet's future. We'll be there in record numbers, for the largest demonstrations about global warming yet—and there will be, I think, an unavoidable edge of anger. Because calling these guys "leaders," at least on this issue, is by now a joke.

Take President Barack Obama, for instance. He ran for office promising, in almost biblical terms, that during his administration "the rise of the oceans would begin to slow." Installed in office, he summoned environmentalists to the White House where his staff informed them that he wouldn't be talking about climate change: "Green jobs" tested better in focus groups.

And President Obama was true to his word. He hardly ever talked about climate change: He summoned no political muscle to back attempts at a climate bill in the Senate, and he watched as the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed, the biggest foreign policy failure in many years. 

When Obama run for president in 2012, he made it through the whole campaign—during the hottest year in U.S. history—without even mentioning global warming. And while he delayed half of the Keystone pipeline, he "expedited" approval of the southern section, boasting that his administration had built enough new pipelines to wrap around the equator. He has modest decreases in carbon emissions to herald—and massive increases in oil and gas drilling. On his watch the United States will pass Russia and Saudi Arabia as a hydrocarbon source.

Much the same is true of China's premier and Russia's president and many other world leaders. They're not leading, they're failing.

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Obama's Energy Fail

I'D ALWAYS HOPED that the president’s “all of the above” energy strategy was a mere campaign slogan, a way to avoid riling anyone up as he ran for re-election. But he’s made pretty clear that it’s actually his guiding light.

“The all-of-the-above energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working,” he crowed in his State of the Union address. And indeed it is, if the goal is to drill, baby, drill. In Obama’s time in office, U.S. oil production has increased 50 percent; analysts estimate that by the time he’s gone in 2016, we’ll have literally doubled the amount of oil we produce in this country. The curve for natural gas production has been almost as steep, and though we’re burning less coal in our own power plants the amount we export has hit record highs.

In political terms, Barack Obama holds us environmentalists at bay with pretty words on climate change, but when it comes time to drill he’s the go-to guy. As he told a crowd of cheering oilmen in Oklahoma during the last campaign, “over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”

Eighteen of the nation’s biggest environmental groups sent the president a letter earlier this year asking him to back off the all-of-the-above rhetoric, and to change his policies. The only reply came from one of his counselors, who fired back a peevish letter saying he was “surprised” that they would dare challenge the president, since he’d done more than his predecessors to fight climate change. But being better than George Bush is not the point—to do anything about global warming you need to meet the bar that physics sets. And that means leaving coal and gas and oil in the ground.

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