A friend greeted me on the church patio last week, asking, “Did you read the encyclical?” As Episcopalians, we’re not subject to or generally in tune with the pope’s teaching documents, but this one made waves. In a stark, dramatic and damning statement, Pope Francis declared that our “postindustrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history” for its failure to care for the planet. I respectfully agree — and disagree.
The pope was right on when he called out our collective actions causing climate change. “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” he wrote. “The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.”
The pontiff blames a culture of instant gratification. We have a “disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” We likely are not the first ones to indulge in instant gratification, but this may be the first time instant gratification could be indulged for an extended period without fatal consequence.
I applaud the pope’s statement, but I question whether we’re uniquely depraved. I just reread Jared Diamond’s Collapse (you’ll know why in a later column). Diamond reviewed studies of ancient civilizations around the world, comparing them as natural experiments about why societies succeed or fail.
Diamond’s research supports the pope’s proclamation. The commonalities among the societies that eventually failed included overwhelmingly environmental factors: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management, overhunting, overfishing, the effects of introduced species on native ones, and human population growth and impact.
Diamond went on to compare the physical characteristics 81 Pacific islands from New Zealand to Easter Island. He found that factors like an island’s rainfall, temperature, elevation, volcanic factors, remoteness and size affected whether the arrival of human colonizers caused dramatic deforestation. Deforestation, in turn, was the most influential factor in explaining whether the societies succeeded or failed.
At the world’s most remote island, for example, “The reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people.”
In our generation, we need to come to terms with the environmental fragility of our earth island. Diamond encourages us, “We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples. That’s an opportunity that no past society enjoyed to such a degree.” He alludes to a way forward, suggesting that societies who ultimately have been successful embraced long-term planning and a willingness to reconsider core values when those values prove to be detrimental.
The pontiff would surely concur. “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” he wrote. “But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made.”
Our generation faces a crucial choice. To whatever societies follow us, will we be known as “the most irresponsible in history,” as Pope Francis warns? Or can we plot a course that diverges from the one we’ve been on since the Industrial Revolution? I think we still have time to tack: to sail our collective ship of state to a more sustainable future.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.