This Pope Is Very Pando

This Pope Is Very Pando

By   |  Sep. 24, 2015

I am taking this opportunity to explain how and why I take such pleasure in what the Pope is doing. Please pardon the very personal nature of my comments. I use the excuse of old age to reminisce. Some of you can reminisce with me, for others I hope that you may understand our history, and therefore our situation, a little better.

The turning point of my career came a little before the first Earth Day. The 1960s were an exciting time. College campuses were centers of reflection about what was happening in American society. They had been stirred into action by Martin Luther King’s movement of Black liberation. That peaked with congress passing Civil Rights legislation, but our profoundly foolish intervention in Vietnam, endlessly failing and expanding, threatened many students with the draft. This focused student attention, and their parents and many others often supported them in their protests. The newspapers considered these things newsworthy.

Into that mix was dropped another bomb. The word has extra meeting because the single most important writing was named “The Population Bomb;” written by a professional “ecologist,” Paul Ehrlich. One of my sons was introduced to the global ecological crisis in his church youth group and persuaded me to read this book. Like millions of others I was blown away by what was to me then a quite new idea: the world is on a course that cannot be sustained. Too many people are making too great demands on a planet with limited resources and limited ability to withstand our abuse. The book was misleading on some specifics, but its basic thesis was right. To me and to many others, it seemed that nothing could be more important for human history than to redirect humanity into a sustainable way of life.

Of course, the most urgent need was to act politically to preserve the biosphere. In the early seventies public opinion in the United States allowed it to be a world leader in protecting the environment. Some excellent legislation was enacted during the Nixon administration. It is still the only legislation that stands between us and the unlimited rape of the Earth; and today it is under serious attack.

I rejoiced in the leadership of our government in taking steps to protect the air and water and endangered species, but I saw this as just the beginning of the needed movement. I wrote a little book with the title, “Is It Too Late?” expressing the hope that there was still time to redirect the world away from self-destruction. But by the mid-seventies the national climate had changed. The best that we could do was to preserve some of the gains of the early seventies.

Millions of people remained concerned. Hundreds of NGOs have worked hard to save air and water, land and ocean, wilderness and endangered species, human communities and democratic processes, justice for minority peoples and for the majority gender — and they have had many successes. But while individual battles were being won, the war was being lost. It often seemed that we were winning skirmishes on the Titanic as it sank beneath the waves.

What happened? Why, after such a promising start, by the mid-seventies did the movement become fragmented and marginalized? Of course, the truth is always more complex than any simple statement suggests, but it is my impression that the wealthiest and most powerful among us had been taken by surprise by the intensity of the late sixties movement, but then decided that the changes for which many of us believed the situation called would damage the economy on whose growth they depended. In the terms in which they viewed the situation, they were correct. Since they so greatly influenced much of the politics and almost all the media, the global crisis disappeared from the headlines. The crucial issues became geopolitical and economic, and then gender and sexual orientation. It was made to seem evident that the goal of national policy is American global domination and the goal of economic life is economic growth. Those who wanted to save the planet had to demonstrate that their proposals did not threaten the growth paradigm or the national interest. The goal of sustainability was redefined by the first President Bush as “sustainable growth.” And many of those who did care about their common home gave their most intense commitment to what seemed to some to be completely separate issues of justice for women and sexual minorities.

A few of us attacked American imperialism and the growth paradigm directly. I will focus here on the latter, since it is more directly responsible for the increasingly unsustainable character of the global economy and much of our military power serves economic interests. We thought that economists should not be preoccupied with increasing market activity in a world in which the amount of economic activity was already unsustainable. We hoped they would shift to thinking about how the economy could be organized to meet the needs of all with sustainable practices. That is not easy, but it is sufficiently important to warrant hard work.

The first major voice within the economic guild calling for changing the goal of economic theorizing was Herman Daly. However, his proposal was not welcomed by academic economists. Indeed, they blocked any discussion of a redirection of economic theory and excommunicated Daly. Good books have been written by Daly and by other marginalized figures, and within the economic guild some of the leading scholars have recently taken more responsibility for the serious problems the world faces. But the need for rethinking economic theory radically has still to be acknowledged within the guild. Every day it becomes more urgent.

Despite occasional bright spots, the overall situation is depressing. Indeed, while our need for help from scholars and researchers has increased, the universities have tightened their systematic resistance to giving assistance to a despairing world unless someone pays them to do so. The ideal of value-free research that has dominated our most prestigious universities does not imply simply that research should be unbiased. It means that people in universities should not consider whether their research benefits or harms people. I have noted the effects of this indifference on most economists. Whether or not economic growth itself is good for people is not a topic for discussion in the university.

I find it sad that whereas some universities as late as the fifties thought of themselves as having responsibility to the wider society, this is rare today, and especially rare among the most prestigious universities. The task of universities, it is now supposed, is to serve the market and to do research on whatever customers pay for. A “value-free” world is a world given over to wealth. A world oriented to wealth will never be sustainable.

The situation in other sectors has not been as bad as in higher education, but it is not encouraging. I am a Christian theologian; so I hope you will excuse my using religious institutions as examples. Religious communities are not value-free. I am glad to say that whereas Christianity as a whole shares responsibility for our collective failure to attend sufficiently or appropriately to the Earth over recent centuries, after 1970 most of the mainstream churches quickly expressed their regret and sought to amend their ways. There are many excellent statements also from Hindus and Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists, Jews and Muslims. All of us have basic teachings that call for concern for our environment, and none of us has traditional teachings that support the subordination of everything else to economic growth.

However, over a forty year period, it would be hard to find a major religious body that has given to saving the Earth the priority it deserves. The tendency has been to add environmental issues to the long list of tasks that confront us. In this sense we have continued to be guilty of irresponsibility and failure. We have too often felt virtuous by improving the treatment of the workers on the Titanic, while the ship is sinking.

My concern is also that people of good will have been expending their efforts on important matters but giving one another little support. This reflects the general fragmentation of society. This in turn reflects the fragmentation of thought. People have tended to think that each issue can be addressed on its own at a practical level and that there is no need to change our basic habits of thought. This continuance of received patterns of thought along with the fragmentation of practice is evident in the academic and bureaucratic worlds, but it spills over into the world of nongovernmental organizations as well. We have had hundreds of excellent leaders of various excellent movements, but they lead only on particular practical issues. That means we have had no leader of an inclusive movement, and therefore no serious critique of the basic ideas that have led us into self-destructive policies.

Just as a small group of academic ecologists awakened us to the unsustainability of our global behavior in the late 1960s, in the past decade a small group of climate scientists has awakened us to a previously neglected part of the crisis. This has given us a fresh chance to take seriously our unity. A change of climate obviously and immediately affects everyone. The projected consequences of this change alone are unimaginably horrible. We seem to have a window of opportunity to renew the broad unity that existed briefly in the early seventies.

I am part of a group, partly academic, that has pursued what we call “process-relational” thinking. Our favorite philosopher is a mathematical physicist, Alfred North Whitehead, whose synthetic vision does not fit into contemporary philosophy departments that deal only with analysis. He thought in terms of integrating analysis with synthesis. He gives us a world view much better related to new developments in physics than the one that contemporary thought has inherited, unreflectively, from Descartes in the 17th century and Kant in the 18th.

I believe that most modern thinkers have accepted ideas about the world that mislead and damage. They have encouraged us to think of things as separated individuals. In academia we suppose that each academic discipline can learn more and more about a particular aspect or range of things, and that the wider truth can be found by adding the knowledge gained in one discipline to that gained in other disciplines. In the economy, we are told, there are only self-interested individuals, but that if they all behave rationally, economic activity will increase. I think that more and more people now know that these assumptions don’t work out in practice, and that when they do, they do as much harm as good. It is now clear that one cannot view the quantum world that way either, but even earlier, field theory should have ended the idea that physics supports this kind of individualism.

This past June, 4-7, we held a conference in Claremont in which we tried to seize the new opportunity introduced by awareness of climate change. Bill McKibben keynoted the conference. But we undertook to show that it was in the common interest of all people of good will, with all the diverse foci of our thought and activity, to recognize our interdependence with one another, the interdependence of the entities in the world in which we find ourselves, and our interdependence with all those things. We called our conference “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” We wanted, we needed, a symbol, an image, a metaphor.

Eugene Shirley led us in our quest, and we found what we wanted. We learned that what is probably the largest and oldest organism in the world is an aspen grove in southern Utah, whose name is Pando. When we look at the grove, we get the impression of many individual trees, and in one sense that is what we see. But these trees have a common root system. They are organically connected.

There is a definite connection between the organic relationship of all the trees and the survival of the grove for perhaps 80,000 years, through all kinds of climatic changes. The whole organism can aid each of its parts and all of the parts support the whole organism. We can prize and cherish each tree in its difference from all the others, but we know that its apparent separateness is an illusion.

This long survival does not mean that Pando is secure. It currently faces the greatest threat to its life. As you will guess, the danger comes from us humans who do not think holistically or integrally when we interfere. The greatest threat results from our having killed the wolves which once preyed on the deer. Now the deer population grows unchecked except by the food supply. While the new shoots sent up by the root system are quite young, the deer can eat them. Now that the deer are pressing the carrying capacity of the region, few new shoots survive to become trees. This has gone on for several decades. When the present trees die a natural death from old age, there will be no younger ones to take their place. Our action on the basis of fragmented thinking threatens the future of Pando as it threatens the future of our own species. We invited all conference participants to think of themselves as “Pandomaniacs” committed to give up the fragmented thinking that threatens the organic world. We invite you to join us too.

Just eleven days after the conference, the Pope issued Laudato Si’, the long-awaited climate encyclical. As did our conference, the Pope used the climate crisis to mobilize attention and action about the whole global crisis. Indeed, he did much more. He recognized that big ideas are of crucial importance. He saw that thinking of ourselves and other things as separate and self-contained is the root cause of our self-destructive behavior. He called for a change of basic thinking. The Pope noted that human lives are all interconnected. He noted that the rest of nature is interconnected. And he noted that human lives and the rest of the world are interconnected. He saw that we cannot deal adequately with the problems of poverty and oppression of human beings without also dealing with the problems of climate change and the massive extinction of species. Nor can we make progress on environmental issues if we fail to concern ourselves with those humans who are too often and too easily ignored. What we had called for as “ecological civilization” the Pope called for as “integral ecology.”

I am sure he does not know it, but Pope Francis is a member of the Pando community! And I dare to believe that he would not object to our awarding him the name, Pando. The Pope calls us to go to the roots of our thinking, that is, to think radically. And the roots he finds, like those of Pando, bind us all together. In any case, whether he accepts the label or not, we pandomaniacs are eager to follow him. For us the Pope is Pando.

Francis is uniquely situated to be the leader our movement needs. To be a world leader one requires a platform from which one can speak and cannot be silenced by those who do not want the world to hear. The papacy is unrivalled in this regard. It has global authority only when it is occupied by a person of apparent authenticity. And that authority is well used only when that person has extraordinary insight and wisdom. In addition, for that authority to become actual leadership, the occupant of the chair needs a high order of political skill. The coming together of all these gifts in Pope Francis in a time of truly desperate crisis feels providential.

We from the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, who had organized the conference I have mentioned, recognized immediately when we read the encyclical that the world’s last best chance for a tolerable future had been handed to us. If we follow the Pope to the roots of the problem we will find ourselves united in a common cause. United, we have a chance to implement the changes so urgently needed. The chance is real, but the odds are not good. It is not a time to stand aside and let Pope Francis do his thing. He can lead only if millions from all over the globe recognize his leadership and follow.

To express our support and our suggestions, some of us who had just finished the conference of which I spoke, decided to produce a book to express our support and to offer our proposals. We wanted to have it available for his visit. The title is “For Our Common Home.” It includes contributions by people working in many fields and writing from many perspectives. It has expressions of the indigenous and African perspectives and from Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox perspectives as well. It has proposals about education, agriculture, management, technology, economics, and world order.

It contains criticisms as well. Some are by Catholics who are disappointed that there are no changes in Catholic teaching on such topics as women, LGBT issues, birth control, and animals. My special criticism as a non-Catholic is that the Pope trivializes the issue of population, which I believe to be of utmost importance as we work for a sustainable society. But none of his critics in our group wishes to oppose his leadership across the broad spectrum covered by the encyclical. Unless all of us who care for the health of our planet home put our shoulders to the wheel the forces that would sink us ever deeper in the mire will win again. Let us now rethink this world in terms of the interconnectedness and value of all things – so that we may yet save some of it.

For now let’s focus on what is required to keep the Titanic afloat. To achieve an integral ecology in a diminished bio-system, how shall we educate our children? What economic system shall we adopt? How shall we raise our food? How shall we organize political life and international relations? What technologies shall we employ? Which resources will we use at what rate?

I rejoice that 170 presidents of Catholic universities have pledged that their institutions will work on the Pope’s agenda. Perhaps the universities of other religious communities will join. Perhaps even some of the great private universities will decide that, after all, saving the habitability of the planet is not beneath their dignity. This would mean that huge scholarly and intellectual resources, thus far withheld from serious involvement in the struggle could be thrown into it. And is it too far-fetched even to hope that some of our public universities would decide to serve the public in its hour of greatest need? Perhaps, just perhaps!

Meanwhile, how do we persuade our political and economic leaders to change their priorities drastically? At the international level, instead of competing with one another as enemies, how can we persuade ourselves that we are fellow dwellers in a shared home that is about to sink? Is it possible that the American government might decide that keeping our planetary home habitable is more important than subordinating the whole world to the interests of the Western financial institutions?

Questions of this kind are immensely important. But for our gathering on September 25 at USC, another question presses itself on us more immediately. If we are to move toward an integral ecology that can survive the time of troubles we have already entered, what shall we do now in Los Angeles? Our state legislature has adopted at least some of our governor’s vision. Can we build on that and carry it further toward the governor’s hopes. Can we even take the lead? We need vision, but we also need skillful political leadership. It will take a great deal of both to lure Los Angeles into becoming a beacon of light and a model for other cities. May the spirit that has inspired Pope Francis inspire us as well!

John B. Cobb, Jr. is founding chairperson of Pando Populus and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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