Narrative Trumps Narrative: On Laudato si’

If most media outlets are to be believed, the Pontiff’s recent publication is a liberal clarion call to arms, against all the forces of conservatism, and an environmental rallying cry on par with One Straw Revolution.

I think it is very interesting to see this document filtered through the lens of American media. On the one hand, apparently the only environmentally-interested political actors must, by definition, be labeled “liberal” and not “conservative.” On the other hand, believing that climate science is actually real, and we should actually do something about it, is the “liberal” position. In other parts of the world, for example, Italy, conservative lawmakers do not posit that belief trumps reality. This is, in fact, the opposite of a traditional conservative value. Conservative values, if they ever made any sense, posited at their core a hard realism of economic and scientific reality. It is a symptom of an insane culture that “caring about the environment for future and current generations” and “Acknowledging that the scientific consensus about cman-made limate change is real” are both considered ideas that could never appear in a true conservative.

In fact, the document, itself, lays out a framework for conservatives to find the path to these sorts of ideas, again. The idea that our business and economics must be sustainable and provide the dignity of work to people in small businesses sounds like something that conservatives might, actually, say. The idea of centralized planning – a key component of modern agriculture with our complex crop subsidies and market protections – is not a net good regardless of whether the government is the one engaged in centralized planning or a corporation with a chokehold to the point of governance on the supply of necessary products, like seed. The real problems of the food chain are treated as the outgrowth of failed government intervention. And climate change? Well, admitting that reality is real is not only a recognition of God in the face of the natural world, but it is sinful to willfully and knowingly destroy god’s creation out of spite when we know better. Focusing on the family, and on traditional values, means respecting the land that will be passed down to children, and doing our part to make that world better.

These concepts all sound very conservative, to me. Heck, embryo’s keep showing up in the document as pro-life values actually mean being pro-life!

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

Or consider this…

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? 

It appears a lot. In fact, lots of conservative talking points show up. It is perfectly logical because only in an insane world do conservatives not care about the environment they are leaving to their children. The insane world is a corporate byproduct of a set of practices and levers that distill complex ideas and ideologies into buzzworthy headlines that lead to quick pagehits, and a quick distillation of the world into camps. FoxNews, for example, is so successful at creating a big tent of purist identity that they have to invent one for the other side of the political aisle to maintain their sense of focus and identity. And, to their discredit, the other side of the political spectrum is desperate enough to build page hits and monetized eyeballs that they often fall into the trap of reacting to what they see on FoxNews, and/or treating their side of the argument to the same hyper distillation that decimates nuanced discourse. In other words, the idea of media narrative has become so powerful that not even the Pope can step in to discourse without being twisted into a narrative. No one is spared. Everything and everyone must fall into one of the pre-arranged narrative arcs. It has been decided that this pope is very liberal; ergo, when he speaks and reasons to his outcomes through a very conservative ideological framework, he must still be considered a liberal, because the outcomes fit into our pre-existing narrative of what is liberal and conservative.

I found it very interesting to see many of the conclusions seemingly drawn from the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, a radical naturalist and Japanese farmer/prophet, reached through the logic and reasoning of a profoundly conservative, religious lens. Of course, most conservatives will tell you that they care about the environment. They may not demonstrate with their actions, but people don’t live in a vacuum of influences. We have to eat, get along in our society, and reach the goals we have for ourselves and others. We have competing influences that tell us different things. The environment is important, but so is the economy. And, I think the Pope’s critique of the economics of the largescale agribusiness that has taken over the world is both brilliant and depressing. On the one hand, it is brilliant to see him so clearly and with such conservative force decimate the idea that larger, American-style farms will feed the whole world, and big farms will get bigger and bigger with the destructive monocrop practices that have created deserts.

In fact, of the great threats to human civilization, climate change is probably number one. Number two is probably tied up in water usage and agriculture: desertification. One of the things that the Pope has no solution to address in his encyclical is one of the scariest that happens when the GMO industry arrives and starts selling chemicals and fertilizers. The land literally dies. The land that is farmed falls into such a ragged state that nothing grows. Desertification results. The work of Masanobu Fukuoka provides an insight into the process of desertification, and his natural farming techniques were inspirational. He was employed by the United Nations to go around the world to some of the distressed and impoverished parts of the world to try and educate farmers about ways to improve soil, instead of reducing soil fertility. His system was proven to work in Japan, at least. It is definitely not a system that is without its foibles, but it is so contrary to the modern agricultural and distribution network that it is almost impossible to imagine anything widescale happening in our current economic climate.

It’s sweltering, humid June in South Texas. The other day, I saw quinces in the store. These delicious fruits not only do not grow anywhere in the American south because of fireblight, a bacterial infection that is particularly bad where there is no hard winter to kill back the bacterias and insects that cause it. But, the fruits also do not make fruit in June in the northern hemisphere. They are a fall fruit. It was flown up from Peru to our grocery store in South Texas. It flew over the impoverished regions of South America, burning gasoline the whole way, as it rose up past the troubled regions of Mexico, and all the way up to a part of the world where the fruit would simply refuse to grow, at all. For hundreds of miles around me, you couldn’t grow a quince if you tried. The lack of quince in the store would make no difference to anyone, either. A quince is a delicate, and refined thing, generally not used daily because of the difficulty of processing and preparing it. It will not make or break our health, our nutrition. If the quinces of the world never left the villages and towns where they are grown, no one would suffer except the poor men and women who would suddenly be inundated with quinces!

This is the end of the world. We go to school, to work, to grocery stores. We are convinced that there is only one way to live, and anything else is just crazy talk by extremists. The pope is not an extremist. That’s the power of his encyclical: This is how it is possible to go through the logic and reasoning of environmentalism with conservative ideals. It isn’t based on hippy-dippy stuff, but the fundamental worth of life, the words of Christ, and the belief that our choices need to be based on what is real, not what is convenient. It is possible to escape the narrow confines of the pre-ordained media news narrative. It is possible to bring back nuanced political discourse. We all have to work together.

After you read the encyclical, and even if you don’t read the encyclical, read this book and get a grasp on desertification. Arable land is one of the most precious resources in the world, and if we turned it all over to human consumption, it would collapse because the wilderness is more important than we have ever truly known.


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