Saturday, November 18 , 2017, 4:18 pm | Fair 65º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: The Pope and the Environment — We Should Heed Warnings

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 ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >