Thoughts on Topics from Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Me at the 2015 ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat (photo by John Beckett)
Me at the 2015 ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat (photo by John Beckett)

Yesterday, after a super-long work week, I had the chance to read the Encyclical issued by Pope Francis. Yes, I spent the time to read the nearly 190 page document – minus the notes, bibliography and title page. After that, I spent some time reading other opinions on what the Pope had written. In the end, I found the entire ordeal a little taxing, but interesting enough to write some of my own thoughts.

Now, there are folks – even within the Pagan blogosphere – that write far better on the topic than I will. Furthermore, they will discuss in-depth what the Pope had written, and what precisely he had said. I am going to deviate from that script – again, simply because others will write far more intelligently and eloquently than I will. Instead, I will touch on some of the concepts put forth by the Encyclical and how I think in those areas. Specifically, I am going to touch on consumerism, over-population, the digital age, and climate change itself. Each one could merit a long rantish post, so I will try to keep things short and sweet, Just remember, these are my own observations on the topics. Of the four, the digital age is probably the closest to my own wheel-house, but I am by no means an expert on any of the four.

Over-population

Lets start here, because the topic tends to dove-tail – in my opinion – from this point. In any environment there’s a balance that has to be maintained for things to be “right”. For instance, an over-population of deer will destroy the ecosystem through over-feeding. The destruction of the environment by that over-feeding puts the well being of other animals that rely on that same environment for shelter and food, into jeopardy as well. What happened to make this change?  Mountain Lions and other predators were hunted to near extinction. The same thing occurs when human beings over-populate an area.

I hate to pick on cities, but let’s take a look at my own metro area – Dallas/Fort Worth. If I turned the power off tomorrow, destroyed the ability to move freight by car, plane or rail from other areas, and forced the inhabitants to rely on crops and livestock they produce themselves — its likely they would die of starvation in very large numbers. And that’s after the inevitable munching on pets, and cannibalism that would happen. Let’s face it, people will do what is necessary to survive, even measures that are unthinkable at this moment. Once this happens, the population would eventually stabilize at a point where the environment was capable of supporting the survivors. Eventually, the population would grow, farming and livestock growth methods would get better through trial and error. The growth would be small, but it would be there.

Now, before you run out to buy a crossbow and prepare for the zombie alpaca-lips (misspelling intentional), let’s take a short measure of stock, shall we?? None of that is about to occur, the point is that we live in such large numbers in various areas which overtaxes the resources of that area to the point of not being able to sustain the inhabitants whatsoever. We then rely on the transportation capacity of our nation to bring food supplies in to make up for that issue. That’s just a matter of simple supply-and-demand economics. We do need to figure out a manner in which to keep our population at a level of sustainability…I’m merely unsure of how to accomplish this. In the last century, we had two major world conflicts that drove population numbers down. I’m not suggesting that this is the way to go about controlling the population – just pointing out two events that contributed to a lower population. Hopefully, there are some smarter people out there that can come up with an idea of how to manage this in a manner that doesn’t come down to a Heinlein-ish theory, such as his idea that federal service allows you citizenship which can help in an application towards becoming a parent. A bit draconian for my taste…

In case you were wondering, the Pope glossed over the concept of population issues in the Encyclical.

Rampant Consumerism

Ok, I am one to talk here. I own a massive computer system that cost me a very large amount of money to purchase. However, my intention is for this computer to last a very, very long time. But my purchase is a symptom of consumerism. And we humans do this to a very, very large degree. We purchase items that we want and/or covet, simply because our neighbors or friends have that item. We don’t have a major use for it – just a desire to have one too. And we buy the item, along with all the wrapping and packaging that goes with it. Which gets removed and discarded wherever. Typically, it goes into the garbage bin. Or if we are a little more conscious of what we do – into the recycling bin if its plastic or cardboard or aluminum. Every Tuesday, I set my garbage out on the curb. Typically, one garbage bag and a nearly full recycling bin. I can see seven houses down the street from my front door. The amount of waste that goes out is nearly nine times that which I put out — for each house. Only two of my neighbors have more than the two people that live here. Its understandable that they would generate a bit more waste than I do. But I sincerely doubt that any of my neighbors are aware of how wasteful their spending habits are. I really doubt that they take into consideration the packaging of the products that they purchase at the grocery store before they buy them. I used to not pay attention either. Now, I look for packaging that can be recycled, as a primary factor towards my purchase. Furthermore, I do my best to purchase items that are fresh, rather than pre-packaged. The fresh items get placed into a small plastic bag, which goes into my recycling bin when I unpack the groceries at home.

In truth, I agonized over the packaging that Apple put into my Mac Pro, and my two Thunderbolt monitors. The cardboard and plastic was at a minimum, while the styrofoam supports was a touch over the top. I understand where the need to package for protection was necessary, but cardboard struts could have been utilized to a similar effect. But the packaging with styrofoam “seems” to be safer to the consumer – and thus gets utilized. I only have one option with this stuff — to the garbage bin. Which then goes to the small mountain of trash that resides a few miles from my house. The Denton county landfill. Where items are sent to degrade over many years.

Climate Change Debate

Imbolc Retreat 2015 - photo by Amanda Godwin
Imbolc Retreat 2015 – photo by Amanda Godwin

That type of population does not even take into account the amount of pollutants we put into the air through the usage of our fossil fuel engines. And that’s only a small part of the pollution problem of the environment, but it is a contributing factor to the issue of climate change. Texas has already seen some majorly crazy weather in just this calendar year. We had a very heavy snowfall in the beginning of the year.  Followed by a very unseasonable warm spat of weather right around the beginning of February which made for a nice time at the ADF Imbolc Retreat. This was followed by another very cold weather pattern, which was followed by the torrential flooding we have been going through for almost a month now. Typical weather pattern?  Possibly. In fact, I would say “yes” it was. Except that it was made more extreme in its nature through the damage that we humans have done to our ecosphere over many decades of pollution.

Climate Change deniers will speak out against the concept time and time again. They even produce scientists that will say that the data does not support the conclusion. Of course, this is to balance out against the growing number of Climatologists and Meteorologists that have already started to discern a pattern of immense change. And to be clear, this is merely the Earth trying to balance the Ecosphere back to where it should be. The patterns and shifts in weather that we currently are experiencing would have happened eventually, in response to previous man-made issues that have effected the Ecosphere. But the continued abuse of our environment, and the continued disregard of the environment as something that we are a part of (instead choosing to view the environment as something for our exclusive use) is what is bringing more severe changes as the Earth attempts to achieve balance.

It continue to bring up the point:  is there enough time to make the changes that we need in order to keep the Earth as an Ecosphere where we can survive? I sincerely doubt that there is enough time to debate whether its happening right now or not…and a bit foolish to do so, since its here already.

The Worth of the Digital Age

Binary WorldIn my opinion, this is perhaps the most controversial topic within the Encyclical, and likely to be the most over-looked. But in a simple way, the Pope has pointed out something that older internet users have all started to notice. The internet has become something it was never meant to be – the checkout line at the grocery store. The original purposes of the internet was to “share information” between researchers. Sometime around the mid 1990s, it moved into the commercial vein it has become. Sometime around ten years later, its become the digital information cesspool it is today. We utilize it to sift through information exchanges to see how our family is doing, start digital debates and flamewars on Facebook feeds, keep up with how Bruce Jenner’s sex change operation is going (like its really ANY of our business), and ease the manner in which we feed our consumerism. Oh, we do use it for information exchange (blogs, podcasts, news reports, news feeds, etc etc), but that increasingly takes a backseat to other pursuits. On Facebook, we post our memes (I do that too), we cite our inflammatory commentary from our seats in our homes – comfortable in the knowledge that we can be rude and inflammatory to others, behind the anonymity of our digital location. We utilize the digital publishing paradigm to steal intellectual property from authors, musicians, movie companies…and declare the “rightness” of the action over the “high cost” of the product. Here’s a different thought:  if the cost is too high, don’t buy it. That’s called the “marketplace” – if a consumer deems a product to be priced too high, then the demand will be driven lower, which will force the producer of the product to drive prices down to find a match with demand. Stealing product from a producer does nothing but make everything difficult for everyone – consumer and producer alike.

There are good parts to the Digital Age as well. We have speedier communications, which helps to make the world a smaller place. We can get news almost immediately from the time it happens. We can stop relying on trees to make products such as books (Yes, I do miss the feel of a good book in my hand over that of an iPad or Kindle) or album and compact-disc packaging. But we have to utilize such things as this before it makes any kind of sizable impact.

Final Thought

I sincerely doubt that the Pope’s statement will make that much of an impact anywhere in the world. I am already reading articles of people stating that Catholics are dismissing the Pope out of hand. Of course, even those articles have to be taken as a bit suspect – since the idea of digital media news can be manipulated in ways to mask the truth. Oddly enough, I find myself ending my own thoughts here not on climate change, consumerism, the merits of the digital age, or over-population. Rather, I am left with a bit of sadness that all four of these areas are met not with skeptical curiosity by most, but dismissed out of hand in the same manner in which Right-wing Conservatives and Left-wing Liberals treat the other’s perspective. As sad as my final thought is – its apparent that before we can even address the ideas of how to save our Ecosphere from ourselves, we have to dig through the muck of aggrandized propaganda to find the real merit of those ideas.

Celebrating Planet EarthOne manner of getting past that and finding the real truth is working across spiritual lines, which means that the air needs to be cleared of the propaganda. This is done quite well in the book “Celebrating Planet Earth” from Moon Books. I wrote a review of this book recently, and I would suggest that it is discussions such as this that will be the real measure of paving the way forward. As I stated before…there are people out there who are a lot more eloquent and concise on this topic within the Pagan blogosphere…and in the Pagan book-world as well.

The Pagan Community Statement on the Environment – A Few Thoughts

So, we’ve all seen the petition:  “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. I have watched many, many folks not only sign it, but then send out messages imploring others to sign the petition as well. And yet, to this moment, I have resisted signing the petition. I have continually found myself in the grips of an argument as to “why”. So this morning, after receiving a few more “invitations”, I thought it may be time to explore that path of thought a little more.

The Introduction

Perhaps the first thing to do is to look at the statement itself. Its quite lengthy, so the best option would be for you to hop on over to the website hosting it. Instead of attempting the longer task of going through the declaration step-by-step, I thought it would be better if I tackled what I considered to be the prime pieces for my own understanding and consideration of the overall statement. This does not mean that I think something that calls out to you is insignificant, merely that it was not something that I – as an individual – found compelling for my own understanding. I cannot speak for what is in your mind, or what calling is on your heart — if I could, then I would be you, and not me.

The opening statement, in my mind, is perhaps the most crucial towards how many folks will identify with the overall statement. After all, we may all identify within the scope of Paganism, but we are definitely not all the same. Some individuals approach their beliefs from a perspective where politics bleeds over into everything that they do. Some others, myself included, may choose the opposite part of that: keeping the political waters and the spiritual waters separate as much as possible. I have come across folks who disagree with my stance, which for me is perfectly fine. I follow this Path because it gives me the freedom to dance before my ancestors in a manner of my own choosing. But, like I usually do – I digress from my topic.

Paganism is a family of spiritual paths rooted in ancestral religions throughout the world and predating recorded history. As explained by the Pagan Federation, Paganism includes polytheistic and pantheistic nature-worshipping religions, and often includes deities of all genders, ancestor veneration, and celebrations in tune with our Earth. A full discussion of the many varieties of Paganism is beyond the scope of this statement, but we, the signatories, value life and the natural world as sacred. Thus, Pagan thought leads us to live in harmony with the rhythms of our great Earth.

This is the opening statement that is a declaration of identity for the under-signed. I guess I am slightly disappointed that there is no language for non-Pagans, but then this is a “Pagan Community” statement, so my disappointment is a minor, minor one. But the statement does note that this is not a time or place to have the wide-ranging, and free-wheeling discussion of what typifies a “Pagan” — and for that simple notation, I am extremely grateful to read.

On Towards the Statement Itself

The rest of the statement is broken into other parts: “Nature is Sacred”, “We Are a Part of the Web of Life”, “How We Are Damaging the Ecosystem”, and “What We Can Do”. The first two sections, “Nature is Sacred”, and “We Are a Part of the Web of Life” are fairly straight-forward declarations of how many Pagans, including myself see the environment around them. As an animist, I wish there was an addition how everything has life – sometimes in manners we cannot readily perceive. But that’s merely my own manner of Spirituality stepping forward.

The next two sections are where things might get problematic. After all, not everyone will subscribe to the idea of how we are damaging the ecosystem around us. But one particular sentence mended all those fences and erased all my doubts.

Our global systems of exploitation are not easily dismantled.

That one small, seemingly insignificant statement says a lot. With the advancement of the internet – not just as a means of conveying information from point-to-point, but also as a means of providing access into local economies that we have only had access to through physical travel – our local, regional, and national economies are tied together. Any changes made to any level of these economies will have ripple effects throughout the infrastructure, and those effects can have astounding, unforeseen consequences to people in ways we might not understand just yet. So, we have to tread carefully here. We have to be responsible with how we go about working the solution.

What is the Solution?

I am not sure what solutions are to be implemented. I’m not an Economist, or even a Biologist. But I do know where I would like to see changes. It comes in the next-to-last paragraph of the statement.

Fundamentally, we believe that a change in spirit is required, one that fosters a new relationship between humanity and other species and Earth as a whole.

Currently, in a global economy that views the planet and other species of plant and animal as fungible resources – there is very little value placed on things that does not have a monetary descriptive driving it. Painting with a broad brush here, we do not see the beauty in a natural view in the mountains or the forests for what it is. Rather we see how many tourist dollars can be made bringing people from other areas to see it. And those tourists miss the spiritual aspects of what they are seeing, focusing instead on the experience of “having been there” instead. Our planet is a place to see, not a place to experience.

So how do we bridge that gap? How can we change the spirit of those individuals that are driven through living in a pre-packaged, fast-food, disposable life? As dumb as it sounds, the movie “Field of Dreams” has the ultimate answer. Yes,

…build it and they will come.

Or put in another manner: show them how reverence for our environment, celebrating how we are part of our environment, finding ways to live as a part of our environment — this is where we can make the difference. There will be the naysayers. There will be those who attempt to be derisive with names like: “tree-huggers”, “dirty hippies”, “people out of touch with a modern age”. But instead of arguing with them, instead of engaging in a war of words – let’s step to the forefront, and just be ourselves. In my personal estimation, that’s more than enough. Its what I strive to do in my everyday life.

American Eagles Gold Mine Near Cripple Creek, CO
American Eagles Gold Mine Near Cripple Creek, CO

Yes, I am a Pagan, and proud to be so. Every moment of my day is spent trying to live my life the best way I know how. Trying to connect better with my environment. Doing the best I can to connect with the Gods – and to connect with my ancestors. Greeting the Sun each morning with delight, and finding beauty among the living entities everywhere around me — even here in suburban America. My actions aren’t going to change opinions overnight. Nor will anyone else’s. But I am not going to be deterred by that. This is where I draw a line in the dirt…and refuse to be what a pre-packaged, fast-food, non-spiritual world wants me to be: a cog in their machine.

Have I signed the statement with my own name?  As of ten seconds, yes I have. My consternation came more from a perspective that has always been a part of my personal makeup:  I don’t like to be told what to do. Its a leftover from growing up in Catholic schools with strict, regimented rules. But I have spent the time to investigate the Community Statement. And for me, the statement fits into what I believe. I’m not going to beat you over the head and tell you that you HAVE to sign it. But I will say, head over to the website, and read it for yourself. If its something you feel strongly enough to attach your name to it. Please do so. But don’t feel like you HAVE to sign anything. After all, you have your own mind…use it.

–Thomas Van Hook, signatory 4,988