Sunday, October 4, 2015

Notes on Laudato Si

Seek Truth.  Make Peace.  Reverence Life.  The trinity of guidelines for the Adrian Dominican Sisters, my friends and part-time employers.

First, the nouns.  Truth.  Peace.  Life.

TRUTH - has two key aspects - correspondence and totality.  Does it reflect something real?  Is what you or I say a partial truth or a whole one?  By partial truth, here is meant intentionally partial (all truths are partial in another sense).  Are we holding back some part of the truth on behalf of an agenda?

PEACE - If we begin with peace as minimally the absence of conflict and maximally that shalom we seek in Christ, then what characterizes peace's opposite across the spectrum is conflict.  Making peace can mean many things, from negotiating peace at an actual point of conflict - a parent with two quarreling children, e.g. - to seeking remedies for larger, community, cultural, social structures that reproduce conflict - structural sin.  This concern requires seeking truths beyond the intentionally partial truths.  Key point here: Structural sin - the ways in which each of us is forced to collaborate in unjust relations with people and nature - can be understood in part by the relation between scarcity and conflict.

LIFE - Not the abstraction, but the experience.  You have a life.  I am living a life.  Reverence for life is an abstraction if we begin with The Phenomenon "Life," even if framing it this way makes great politics.  But actual lives. I revere YOUR life.  You revere that unborn child's life.  She reveres that animal's life, even the lives of those things we cannot see.  All life is aware, and when we try to see into that awareness in another life, we have opened the door to compassion.  And as Brueggemann pointed out, compassion reveals the agendas in intentional partial truths.  Someone gains at the cost of another's suffering.  Compassion is a statement that the suffering of another matters - and this is a dangerous truth, as Jesus found out at Golgotha.

In paragraph 34 of the Laudato Si, Pope Francis states: 
"It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place."

In paragraph 43, he states:  "Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture."
Throughout this document, we see this alternation between the ecological and the social.  He is a Thomist and a polymath; and in that, he rejects the kind of intentional part-truthing (MacIntyre, that other Thomist, calls it "manipulative speech") that is reproduced within modern atomization and specialization, including the arbitrary and increasingly arcane divisions between academic disciplines.  Social issues and environmental ones cannot be separated from one another, because they reflect one another, and they each reveal an aspect of the same truth.

Laudato Si describes a dynamic truth traversing these conventional boundaries.  It takes for granted that social organization (this necessarily includes an analysis of power) and environmental change (for good or ill) to be inextricable from one another.  And Laudato Si identifies this epoch as "industrialism." Not capitalism or socialism, but industrialism.

Industrialism is shorthand for the trajectory of the last two centuries.  At the risk of throwing up the haze of that polarized, Cold War-ish dyad of socialism versus capitalism (a dyad embraced by socialists and capitalists alike in many cases), industrialism and capitalism - historically speaking - are synonymous.  State socialisms - sharing the same Baconian conviction with capitalists that "nature" is a "resource" to be mined - simply imitated what the capitalists had done, and substituted a bureaucratic layer for the so-called market to redistribute surpluses.  It was always a capitalist system in its physical organization, and for that reason, the big state socialisms that did this were eventually, and easily, swallowed back up into the world capitalist system.  Some of the most reptile-minded capitalists in the world are now operating in "socialist" China.

Capitalist states and their socialist imitators shared a belief in the myth of progress.  In paragraph 60, Pope Francis uses exactly this term:  "The myth of progress."  "[W]e find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change."

Industrial capitalism is what Pope Francis is critiquing here, and that is exactly why this encyclical has raised so many hackles.  Profit is its motive, power is its telos, general-purpose money is its vehicle, the nation-state is its political form, and the exploitation of peripheries by accumulating cores is its economic form, as well as its sustaining necessity.

If we shut off oil today, people in the United States would begin to go hungry within a week.  That oil and food comes from all over the world.  To ensure access to that oil, for ourselves and others, we maintain six naval battle fleets who patrol the seas to ensure that flow.

We live in a state of profound dependency on a system that is inaccessible and therefore unaccountable to us. Here's more of the truth - aiming at a more whole truth: Efficiency driven by competition and aided by machines has led to hyper-specialization; and
hyper-specialization has led to de-skilling.  On the line at the chicken factory, e.g., I do nothing but cut off wings.  At the fast food place I work, a machine tells me how to make the proper change, and it even has icons on the keys. 

Interjecting paragraph 83 here:  "The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator."

You'll never find this in a permaculture manual.  I work with the Dominicans on a permaculture project.  So it needs to be said in the fullness and inconvenience of the truth, many permaculturists (and other new agrarians) who are not Christian (perhaps even some who are) do sometimes flirt with a form of Malthusianism - making "population" the issue instead of power.  That is a very good reason for more Christians - who are not of that Malthusian bent - to engage in the practice, which in no way depends on acceptance of Malthusian premises.

Permaculture is about design.  At the basis of permaculture as praxis - and other new agrarian/re-localizing practices - is not Malthusian premise, but the conviction that the built environment channels our actions and thoughts in particular ways.  Making changes in the built environment - this is design defined - can forge changes in people's actions and thoughts.  In fact, there appears to be no solution to our captivity by structural sin - that inabilibty (because of what options are and are not available in the current environment) to escape many kinds of complicity which we recognize to our perpetual chagrin, yet have little power to refuse.

The vision that gives direction to the practice (and to new agrarian practices more generally) is one that is essentially Christian.  While liberal society is loathe to acknowledge it, the importance of charity as a virtue in our society is not the invention of modernity, it is the vestigal telos of the Risen Christ.  Marxists, too, are trying to enforce a Christian ethos while jettisoning Jesus.

There is no reason that the wondrous and dangerous ability of human beings to manipulate a de-vitalized nature can be used to pursue greed or even violence as a virtue.  In fact, in practice, this has been a main outcome of liberalism/modernity, but always confronted - knowingly or unknowingly - by the Gospels.  It is that unacknowledged Christian impulse that underwrites the real care and compassion exercised by so many non-Christians in the modern West.  The new agrarianism is driven by real care and compassion.  It is a telos that is easily shared by Christians.

Like any practice, especially design, new agrarian practices are profoundly material and embodied.  It begins with what physically and observably is, now, without any window dressing, and pays this physical place a great deal of attention.  Design means we may decide to do something with/to an actual place.  We will build our water catchment there.  An edible windbreak, right there.  Windrow compost, over there.  The house goes here, and within the house, the rocket stove right here, the composting toilet over there.  There are no radical constructivists, no sophists, on a farm.

The "there" is extremely important, because that system described so briefly above -profit is its motive, power is its telos, general-purpose money is its vehicle, the nation-state is its political form, and the exploitation of peripheries by accumulating cores is its economic form, as well as a sustaining necessity -- -- that system is fundamentally de-localized.
*Profit is its motive.*  This is enshrined in law, and nation-states are fundamentally about pursuing the interests of the business class, which seeks one thing in common - profit.  And profits decline when markets are saturated or disinterested.  So profit seeking requires constant expansion. Expansion requires more people, more "resources," and more energy, all the time.  This is encoded in policy and law as "growth," what one economist called "the ideology of the cancer cell."

*Power is its telos.*  It was our brother, priest, prophet, king - Jesus of Nazareth - who was exposed to three temptations in the wilderness:  make bread from stones, perform magic tricks before a stunned crowd, and to have military and political command of the world.  These are all temptations to power.  The ability to keep the population fed is the ability to keep them compliant.  The Roman occupiers used "bread and circuses" to domesticate Rome herself. Surviving in a death defying act, that is, the spectacle!!! is an instrument of power.  Power here means the ability to bend people or nature to one's will.  What is the relation between will and desire in the most powerful man in the world?

*General-purpose money is its vehicle.*  This is an oft-overlooked, but critical piece of the puzzle.  We think too little and too seldom about what money exactly is and what it does.  Let me quote Alf Hornborg, the Swedish human ecologist:  "General-purpose money allows people to trade tracts of rain forest for Coca-Cola."  It does this because that universal-exchange-equivalent (money) reduces every commodity to a price. Unlikes become likes with price.  A book and an all-you-can-eat shrimp and catfish buffet are not alike, but they become alike in that each is available for $20.  When the rain forest is broken down into as many commodities (things for sale) as possible, money is the solvent that dissolves those relations that made the sum of the parts a rain forest.  Money dissolves social bonds the same way, not metaphorically the same, but the same way.  Money increases velocity, and growth is really about increasing velocity, the velocity of exchange between things, and therefore between people (who have been transformed into things ['human resources' anyone?]).  Velocity and the increased scale reaquired to sustain "growth" engenders concentration of power (as well as a dangerous correlate - unpredictability).  All material appropriations are also appropriations of space and time.  I recently flew from Detroit to Houston in less than three hours.  I was not allowed to exchange chickens or jewelry boxes for the ticket.

*The nation-state is its political form.*  The first island of cross-confessional prosperity in the wake of the post-Reformation religious wars was the Dutch Republic, home to Descartes and the world's first stock market.  The feudal system was giving way before the rising power of merchants and their lawyers.  By the eighteenth century, the most powerful states were nation-states - a new political form that was technocratic (highly specialized), bureaucratically rule-based, managerial, and committed to the extraction of profit by each nation's native business class.  Profit is what nation-states ensure. That means, specifically, access to feedstocks, a supply of workers, the legal right to dispose of waste at low or no cost (called externalization), and a market of consumers big enough to soak up the product.

*The exploitation of peripheries by accumulating cores is its economic form, as well as a sustaining necessity.*  Because it is inherently expansionist ("growth”), this requires businessmen to reach beyond their borders for some or all of these as they became exhausted or unavailable in the cores. The state is the agency that not only polices the "homeland," but armed forces to claim distant lands (and their "resources") and subdue restive or resistant peoples.

Laudato Si devotes its whole second section to "The Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm."  Here is the opening paragraph:

"The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts
the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.

A Latin American Pope would have to have read Illich, who settled into Cuernavaca.  It shows here.

Illich begins Energy and Equity with this paragraph in 1973:
"It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis. This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion. It masks the contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth. It safeguards the illusion that machine power can indefinitely take the place of manpower. To resolve this contradiction and dispel this illusion, it is urgent to clarify the reality that the language of crisis obscures: high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu."
Paragraph 110 of Laudato Si:

"The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult tosee the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today."

And a difficult system to confront.  A system so pervasive now that it is scarcely under the control of even its most powerful leaders.  So again, we see how the complexity, the immense scale, and the concentration of power is never far away from some perfect storm. MacIntyre made note of the fact that bureaucratic power is largely maintained by those in power convincing the public of a fiction: that they know what they are doing.  In a globalized system, we are still governed by men (yes, still mostly men) who forget where they put things and stain their underwear from time to time.  No actual human being is up to the task of governing a great deal of anything, because no one and no body interpreted byanyone can understand the exquisite complexity, even mystery, of even the tiniest encounter between actual people.  The greater the scale, the more necessary and precarious the control.

This impasse is further complicated by any commitment to peace, when engaging in governance of any kind that requires violence as its last word, precludes some Christians (I am one of them) from exercising that kind of power at all.  This may be a moot point, however, if we acknowledge that even those in power have very little control (except over that apparatuses that allow them to pretend they are in control).  And in whichever case, most of us secretly suspect and dread that economic destabilization, social disorganization, environmental destruction, war, and the uber-catastrophe that is unfolding with climate change, have already passed through several and terrible points of no return.

Paragraph 161, Laudato Si: "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. 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, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences."

So what do we do?  This is the question that drifts up in front of us as we read the prayer at the end of the encyclical.

There is a nascent debate about whether or not Catholics, Christians, or people generally, have anything to gain by engaging in the forms of political practice that various "environmentalists" do.  Law and policy are exhausting forms of activism that are invariably met by few successes and many, many disappointments.  But there is a defensive argument for them that cannot be easily dismissed.  I don't know.  But what I will say is that if the second case is correct, permaculture and other forms of the new agrarianism are a hedge; and if the former is true, then re-localization is an asymmetric strategy.  In whatever case, and the encyclical actually makes some concrete suggestions at the level of haute politics and law, re-localization, by reducing dependence on a faulty economy puts people into a better bargaining position vis a vis power.

Gardens, small farms, chicken tractors, catchment ponds, composting toilets, barns, edible forests, herb spirals,  and so on, create real, observable, material changes in the built environment that alter human actions and thoughts, and that subvert many of the partial-truths of the dominant culture.  No, money does not grow.  The choice between Coke and Pepsi is not the only choice.  Selfishness is not a virtue.

New agrarian initiative creates facts on the ground.  Literally.  We have something tangible that we can point to, promote, and defend without layers of abstraction.  Re-localization is an asymmetric strategy, and I apologize for the military analogy.  What that means is we do not get pulled onto the chosen battlefields of the powerful; but that we pursue our purposes using different forms of organization and practice.  In a sense, what permaculturists and other new agrarians are doing is building nuclei in various places where the ultimate aim is to withdraw from dependency on high-velocity, money-controlled, de-localized (globalized?) systems.  The aims are to water,
rehabilitate soils, make low-impact structures, increase biodiversity, manage waste locally, restore watersheds, grow food, fiber, and fuel - and to do this with as few distant inputs as possible.

Churches, church organizations, and religious orders have already recognized that this kind of practice - re-localization with all that entails - is at a stage in history right now where it calls out as a mission.

Paragraph 144, Laudato Si:

"A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group."

That which homogenizes us under the globalized regime is precisely the interchangeability of all things through price.  Money is the very solvent that makes it possible to dissolve all bonds of community en masse... and this same dynamic propels individuals and families to run from place to place, often separating us from loved ones, in pursuit of a position, a job, some access to that one all-encompassing, totalizingly-powerful "eco-semiotic phenomenon,"  money.

Because we feel we can never have enough money.  There is less available to many than what they require, which ought to serve as a warning to the rest of us.  Without money - and without your source of money, no matter how morally compromising it may be - you can be ruined in short order.  Destitute.  That is the scarcity episteme in action.
The world that loves power has always been based on scarcity.  This is the devil in the details, when we look back at all the cases where themaccumulation of over-abundance by a few is gained by scarcity imposed on the rest.  A monetized society like ours, where almost everything trades for money, and where money is an entitlement to power, scarcity is our organizing principle.  We all have to grab that scarce money when and how we can.  Scarcity creates conflict. Re-designing locally for abundance, then, is a form of peacemaking.

Reducing our dependence on money reduces our dependence on faraway masters.  Community interdependence - the localized approach - is the key to reducing that dependency, first on the most distant inputs (re-directing money) and second, by reducing the need for money itself (growing one's own food, salvaging materials, re-purposing, preserving, beekeeping, etc. etc. etc.).

 Counteracting industrialism's de-skilled specialization will require systematic re-skilling.  The Transition Towns initiative - devoted to sustainable re-localization and community resilience - follows its public education efforts immediately with re-skilling workshops.  New agrarians
focus on re-learning of many lost skills and the acquisition of some new skills - practical skills - growing one's own food, salvaging materials, re-purposing, preserving, beekeeping, etc.

In paragraph 129 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes that "there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing."

Practice forms the practitioner.  If I am a sheep farmer, I will think and act like a sheep farmer.  If I am a gunfighter, I will think and act like a gunfighter.  If I am a make-up salesperson, I will think and act like a make-up salesperson.  The things permaculturists, re-localizers, and new agrarians do form them into the virtues of paying attention, not jumping to conclusions, learning patience, applying the precautionary principle, respecting all forms - living and unliving, living in dialogue with nature... a nature that is constantly revealing the divine.

So many young people have abandoned faith and substituted a vaguely anodyne, slightly therapeutic, minimally-moral deism.  It's not feel-good patter or therapy or line-item belief that will call young people back into the church. Young people do not want to be entertained.  There is such a surfeit of entertainment now, they could care less.  Everyone eventually becomes bored with entertainment once a certain threshold is crossed, and then we all yearn for more, some kind of meaning.  Young people, like any of us who have n ot given up altogether, want to be transformed. That's why churches are losing kids, but kids are lining up to join the Marine Corps.  They want camaraderie, challenges, hard work that is not alienated, mastery over new skills, a sense of deep belonging.  Transformation!  Hauerwas once asked, Can churches do it as well as the military?

Young Christians, especially, are the ones who are already integrating these re-localization practices with their faith.  Imagine teams of Christian people, whatever ages, who made their mission - in a sense that recalls the monastary without having to replicate it - to re-localize, to rehabilitate land, to experiment with urban agriculture, and so on.  Working apostles who labor in sunshine and snow, who establish themselves in larger communities as exemplars, who become as close as infantry platoons. They have their faith in the state and war; and we have ours in the Reign of God and peace.  We have more to offer.

Paragraph 150:  "Given the interrelationship between living space and human behaviour, those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance."

I've said a good deal now about these practices and the encyclical while I held my tongue about gender.
When the Pope writes that human beings have done this and that, and those thises and thats have not turned out well in the case of the environment, he has omitted the interesting gendered background. Through this entire epoch of industrialism, just as in past epochs, men held most of the power and were seen by themselves, with few exceptions, to be entitled to that power, as males.  This is not to get women off the hook, so to speak, but to point out the glaring absence of how powerful men, self-consciously as men, have shaped the reality, symbols, and imagination of power.  The Enlightenment (such a self-congratulatory name) was a masculine enterprise, self-consciously so.  "Progress" was a masculine enterprise, self-consciously so.  Not only was our history twisted and turned into its present shape by males, many of them were warlike males.  Their power, even today, includes the power to shape out imaginations. Their way of knowing is etched onto our minds, because control over the means of production for a society is control over the production of "knowledge."

So when the church separates itself from the world dominators, as it has on the environment here in Laudato Si, it is limited in the depth to which it can explore these issues, because it continues to implicate itself in the exclusion of women, continues to let bodies comprised exclusively of men define women, and therefore the perspectives of women remain invisible.  For the leader of the church to say that a poisonous masculinism is exhibited through history in the characters of Jean Bodin, Francis Bacon, Napolean Bonaparte, Woodrow Wilson, or Donald Trump (add your own names here) would too easily open the church as institution to an interrogation on the topic of gender.
I hope these concerns are taken into account by women religious and their allies, and buy churches who are or one day will support new agrarian missions, especially among young people.  Because the young people today who master this practice while the majority can still find ways to evade change, these same young people, when they are not quite as young, will have been the pioneers.  They will be the go-to people when vast numbers of people need to adopt these new/old practices not out of choice or moral conviction, but necessity.  I am convinced that young people like this will be positioned to have a great deal of influence on people and events a few years down the road.  That said, I would support a kind of preferential option for young women now.  I hope that when and if these practice takes on a missional character, that women will be recruited very aggressively.  It may not be the way thecharism was carried out in the past, and it may not be done by women who have taken the traditional vows.  But they'll still be holy women, just holy in some new ways.

There is much more to be said about this remarkable encyclical, but for now I have said more than enough.  Thoughts?


  1. I think I better read it. Seems like there's more to it than meets the casual eye.

  2. made me cry! thank you thank you thank you! have been trying to verbalize this exact premise without having the words only the heart to my Baptist Preacher father who won't talk to me till i get a job & stop service to the poor & the land. you spoke my heart brother! hugggzzz