By John Lawrence
The Pope is visiting the US this week to make the case that we should take climate change seriously and start doing something about it. He is really making the case that we should change our paradigm from one of individual self-fulfillment to one of “we’re all in this together,” from individual salvation to collective salvation of our earthly home. This has far-reaching implications. We need to be concerned about what’s happening to the earth as a whole, to humanity as a whole, and not just to our own family, town, state, country.
The Pope doesn’t mince words. Far from being the conservative head of a 2000 year old bureaucracy, he is using his moral megaphone and authority to speak out on the major problems of our day – global warming and capitalism – and the two are interrelated. You can’t have the entire sum of people on the planet involved with saving the planet from runaway climate change without getting involved with the collective plight of all those people in their daily lives. The Pope is putting the emphasis and focus on the plight of the poor, which is really what Jesus was all about. Finally.
How many look at the refugee crisis and compare it to Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan? The phrase “Good Samaritan” means someone who helps a stranger, whether he or she be an “illegal immigrant,” a refugee or whatever. We are all in this together; we are all human beings. We put the plight of the poor, the defenseless, the destitute before the worship of money. Capitalism turns that ethic around. Wall Street and its minions worship money.
Is Capitalism the Dung of the Devil? The Pope Says So
The Pope, himself, has labeled capitalism the “dung of the devil” since doing things naturally the capitalist way results in exploitation of the environment with a consequent worsening of the climate change situation. That’s how profits are made. So the Pope is calling on us to stop being capitalists, to stop exploiting the environment for personal, selfish gain.
The Pope blames “unbridled capitalism” for ruining the earth and immiserating the poor. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners said, “How we decide the morality, the integrity, the righteousness of an economy is not how the wealthiest do but how the poorest do.” That is even more radical than communism or socialism.
The Pope has written, “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, a market that does not take into account the fundamental rights of the poor and underprivileged.” The capitalist economy is for the “best and the brightest,” the entrepreneurs, the college graduates, those who start with nothing and make a billion dollars.
And devil take the hindermost, meaning those who aren’t the best and the brightest, but the Pope, as did Jesus before him, speaks for them, those who are left behind by capitalism: the homeless, the mentally ill, those who cannot cope, those who aren’t the sharpest blades in the drawer, in other words – the hindermost. Capitalism promotes the ethic of valuing the richest and the smartest, who are perfectly capable of fending for themselves. Is it any wonder that there is runaway wealth creation at the top of the social spectrum? A good thing? I don’t think so.
Right wing pundits want us to admire and emulate the rich. They want us to be in favor of policies that promote the rich. We too can be rich some day if only we are willing to work hard. We can all aspire to be Donald Trump and fly around in a helicopter with our name emblazoned on the side. The Pope takes the opposite tack. We should be in favor of policies that help the poor and middle: the 99%.
As I wrote previously:
… the Pope’s words are very important because he wields enormous moral authority. Would that the leading moral authorities from the world’s other major religions had the gumption to stand up and add their voices in the fight against climate change.
The Pope blames human greed for exploitation of the environment and an economic system that is geared to profit making rather than to rational development of natural resources which would benefit all mankind rather than just those at the top. The Pope’s 184 page encyclical is a radical statement: a condemnation of business as usual and a call for a restructuring our political and economic priorities.
To Save the Planet We Must Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground
To be absolutely clear, we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and convert to renewables as quickly as possible, not in a leisurely fashion. But this mindset obviously has not sunk in yet as corporations and countries seek to exploit the latest opportunity which has been provided by climate change itself: drilling for oil in the Arctic region at the top of the world.
Global warming has proceeded twice as fast there as anywhere else with the result that the ice cap is melting, the Northwest passage is opening and drilling opportunities are presenting themselves. In addition shipping companies are lusting after the opportunity to shave miles off of shipping routes. Has anyone stopped to think about what an Exxon Valdez magnitude oil spill would mean in that pristine environment?
Whole communities in the Arctic are going to have to leave their traditional way of life and move elsewhere or be wiped out. The town of Kivalina, Alaska may cease to exist because the sea ice is melting making it too dangerous to hunt the whales which are their traditional source of food. In addition waves now wash across their town because there is no barrier protecting them any more. “Global warming has caused us so much problems,” said Joseph Swan, Sr., a Kivalina elder. “The ice does not freeze like it used to. It used to be like 10 to 8 feet thick, way out in the ocean.”
Meanwhile, corporations and countries are forging ahead to exploit Arctic resources seemingly totally oblivious to the need to leave the fossil fuels and the profits in the ground. The planet still holds vast reserves of fossil fuel that could be extracted economically. However, according to a new analysis, a third of the world’s oil, half of its gas, and 80 percent of its coal reserves, worth trillions of dollars, must remain unused if we are to have a good chance of avoiding potentially devastating climate change.
That means that a whole lot of people are going to have to squelch their primal urge to get rich and realize the capitalist and American dream of creating wealth for themselves. Leaving the exploitable profits behind is the anti-capitalist mindset that needs to be adopted if humanity is to survive. The lust for profit has characterized capitalist mentalities from time immemorial. Just one example: the “conquering” of the New World in the Age of Exploration in the 16th century. The explorers were after gold and other resources, and they didn’t hesitate to kill indigenous people to get them.
How Do We Change the Capitalist Mentality When That is Essentially the American Dream?
So how to change that mentality and get people to cooperate and distribute the earth’s resources more equitably, instead of seeking to gain selfishly, in order to save the planet and humanity as a whole? Will the US government’s “slow as you go” reductions, which seek to reduce carbon emissions from US power plants, targeting a 32 percent drop from 2005 levels by 2030, be sufficient? Will the “cap and trade” approach which lets corporations continue to pollute if they pay other corporations for “credits” work? Will selfish capitalistic appeals to selfish interests work?
Naomi Klein doesn’t think so. The author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, and one of the Pope’s advisers, despite being a secular feminist, thinks that we have to change our selfish, capitalistic mentality if the earth is to remain habitable for human beings. Pope Francis agrees. The Dalai Lama agrees.
Who doesn’t agree? Capitalists and Republicans who want to maintain the “traditional way of American life.” We should all aspire to get as rich as Donald Trump. You see America is based on capitalistic exploitation. It’s traditional. If you changed that, America wouldn’t be America anymore.
So what do we need in order for Americans to listen and take this thing seriously? An American Pope? Someone in the position of authority to say we need to cooperate to save the West from burning up and consuming more and more financial resources just to fight fires? How much money will go to recover from Hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy? Do we need to convert the trillion dollars spent annually on the military-industrial complex to fighting fires?
This is money that needs to go to the prevention of these climate disasters in the first place which means money that needs to go to converting to renewables post haste, not by 2030 or 2050. At the rate that climate disasters and extreme weather are manifesting themselves, major disasters requiring major amounts of money will be happening by 2030. Climate change refugees will be migrating from all over the world. The current European refugee crisis is just a harbinger of things to come. Wars will be fought over resources.
Who’s going to pay for fighting wildfires – private corporations? The fossil fuel industry? I don’t think so. All of us pay through taxes. Would you rather pay taxes to fight fires and house refugees or would you rather pay taxes to convert to renewables and leave fossil fuels in the ground? Of course there’s another way to generate the money to convert to renewables at a faster rate.
It’s the way Abraham Lincoln used to fight the Civil War, build the transcontinental railroad and construct the land grant colleges. He printed greenbacks, the 19th century version of quantitative easing that bypassed Wall Street and benefited all of America not just the rich.
Today the government could just print the money with a few keystrokes on a computer, and, instead of giving it to Wall Street banks as it has done with its quantitative easing policy, it could just use it to create jobs converting to renewable energy at a faster rate. All dollars are fiat money meaning they aren’t backed by gold or anything else. It’s just that the current US policy of printing fiat money gives that money to the rich. It could just as well print fiat money and give it to the poor and middle instead: quantitative easing for the 99% instead of for the 1%.
Greenbacks could be printed again and used to put people to work converting our power plants to renewable solar on a massive scale. Subsidies could be given to get fossil fuel burning cars off the road and get people into electric vehicles in the same way that Obama initiated the “cash for clunkers” program.
Well, now, every gas burning internal combustion engine is a clunker that needs to come off the road. The government could make this happen if people were subsidized to the necessary extent. Electric vehicle production plants would be humming putting people back to work making good wages.
Caring More for the Earth and One Another Than Caring for Money
In The Leap Manifesto: A Call for Caring for the Earth and One Another Naomi Klein and others say:
We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the opportunities of this transition are designed to eliminate racial and gender inequality. Caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sectors. Many more people could have higher wage jobs with fewer work hours, leaving us ample time to enjoy our loved ones and flourish in our communities.
Sound good? Bernie Sanders is calling for much the same thing. Of course, this whole Ronald Reagan, Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches American dream of starting with nothing and becoming a billionaire will have to be seen for the sham that it is. None of these high-tech billionaires, not Elon Musk, not Richard Branson, not Bill Gates, not Irwin Jacobs are going to come up with a technological solution that is magically going to “fix” the environment while keeping capitalism in place. Capitalism was never benign. And technology can be part of the solution, but it can’t solve the inhumane basis of capitalism because it is part and parcel of it.
And what Bernie is talking about: if medicare-for-all, free community college, a financial transaction tax, raising taxes on the rich to where they were under the Republican Eisenhauer administration, if these measures are socialism, then count me in.
Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru in order to steal its gold from the Incan empire. He captured the Incan chief, Atahuelpa, and demanded a ranson of a roomful of gold. After taking the gold, he killed Atahuelpa anyway. This is the legacy of capitalism. Regarding money more than human lives. The veritable worship of money for money’s sake. This is the Wall Street mentality. Who cares about the earth? Sissies, that’s who. Real men are conquistadors. They conquer. All is fair in love and war. I guess that means that rape is fair because that happens in love and war.
Last year, 2014, was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880 underscoring warnings about the risks of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and undermining claims by climate change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped.
Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except near Antarctica providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.
But don’t look over here. Keep you eyes on the antics of Donald Trump who wants to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Note to Trump: with regard to immigration, you haven’t seen anything yet. You could follow Hungary and build a wall, but what is the world going to do with all the refugees otherwise known as illegal immigrants – put them in concentration camps? Climate change refugees are already on the move. This is only the beginning. All the capitalists and billionaires in the world cannot solve this problem within the constraints of capitalism and American fundamentalism.
Some hopeful signs: in July 2015 anti-fossil fuel protests swept Vermont and Maine. The actions, along with others across the United States and Canada, were staged in remembrance of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster on July 6, 2013, when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town.
“Fossil fuels are harmful and violent to communities along every point of production, from extraction to combustion,” said Meaghan LaSala, a member of SEEDs for Justice in Maine. “We’re here to say that we’re not going to let the oil be transported by train along Lake Champlain any longer.”
I will close with a quote from my collaborator, Frank Thomas, whose erudition on this subject is nonpareil:
“The risks to Mother Earth are simply too great to gamble on a “life as usual” acceptance of a potentially massive ecological and human extermination event – especially knowing the speed and scale of the CO2 and CH4 pollution trend line we are now on. Placing all bets and blame on cycles and natural variability for the obvious human disproportionate disturbance of nature’s environmental balance on the only planet known to harbor human life … is a bet we should all pass on for the sake of our children’s children and their children’s children.”