How many divisions has the pope?

I believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats to human civilization of our time, if not the biggest. So in that sense I’m glad that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will apparently be a strong endorsement of our responsibility to address it.

Still, I find the excitement around this encyclical to be a bit odd. There seems to be an assumption that this will somehow be a game-changer in galvanizing support for climate action. But if there’s one thing we know about American politics at least, it’s that Catholics’ political behavior is, in general, not detectably different from non-Catholics. Catholic voters as a group vote pretty much the same as the general electorate, and there is no cohesive ideological stance shared by Catholics as such. Among politicians, liberal Catholics like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi freely disregard the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, while conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan ignore its views on the environment and economic justice. Everyone’s a cafeteria Catholic, essentially.

Now, people have come up with various ways to nuance this or have deployed subtle arguments about why it’s OK to disagree with the church or the pope on some issues, while others are non-negotiable. Which, as part of an intra-Catholic debate seems totally legitimate. But it also reinforces the point that people will emphasize the parts of the church’s teaching that line up with their preexisting political commitments. Liberals will talk a lot about social justice and the environment, while conservatives will keep emphasizing gay marriage and abortion. What I don’t see a lot of evidence for is that people are going to change their mind on a big issue like climate change based on what the pope says.

Of course I could be wrong, and in this case I hope I am!

The indispensability of vegetarianism

This article at Grist observes, I think accurately, that, at least among eco-conscious foodies, “conscientious carnivorism” is in, and vegetarianism is out:

At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.

Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock star” butchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “green” chocolate bars and “sustainable” ice cream.

The piece goes on to argue, however, that vegetarianism remains indispensable, as a response both to the challenges of sustainability and the inhumane treatment of animals. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, as the article points out, the percentage of meat produced in this country that could accurately be described as “humane” is vanishingly small. Second, it’s extremely doubtful whether a model of humane, sustainable meat production is scalable enough to meet the current demand (which is growing worldwide at an alarming rate, even if meat consumption in the U.S. has declined somewhat).

I’d add that not only is genuinely humane meat a tiny niche market, it’s also extremely difficult to know if what you’re buying actually fits that description. This is because there are essentially no agreed-upon or enforceable standards for “humane” meat (or for that matter, “natural,” “free-range,” etc.). Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, these terms mean whatever the producers say they mean. The only way to be sure that the meat you’re buying actually conforms to a specific ethical or environmental standard is (a) to look for a third-party-certified label (there are some) or (b) to buy directly from a farm that you have personally visited to observe how it operates. (Significantly, almost all discussion around this focuses on how the animals are raised, but even animals raised under not-terrible conditions are typically slaughtered in just the same way that factory-farmed animals are.)

So, I agree with the author of the piece here:

To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)

Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.

That’s why, when people ask my advice (not that they often do), I simply encourage them to eat less meat. Eating less meat doesn’t require a radical lifestyle change. It’s flexible and open-ended. It’s not elitist the way conscientious carnivorism often tends to be–after all, almost everyone has access to plant-based meat alternatives. And it doesn’t lead to situations like this:

I don’t know if universal vegetarianism is a real possibility–or even a desirable one. But if we agree that our current system of meat production is both inhumane and unsustainable (and we should), then our only viable future is one of drastically reduced meat-eating. This means that vegetarianism remains one important–indeed indispensable–path into that future.

Pelagius for the rest of us?

(I tweeted a bit about this earlier, but I thought I might as well write some thoughts into a proper blog post.)

As if to confirm our most stereotypical expectations, a proposal is being put before a diocese of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta to “rehabilitate” Pelagius by reversing the Council of Carthage’s (5th century) condemnation of Pelagian teachings.

Now, I’m willing to believe that Pelagius got a raw deal in being tarred as an arch-heretic. Given the dearth of extant writings, it’s quite possible that he was unfairly targeted by the ecclesiastical powers that be. And certainly modern mainstream Christianity is–for better or worse–more doctrinally latitudinarian than the early church was.

Nevertheless, I can’t shake the impression that, possibly because of the lack of reliable primary sources, Pelagius has become a kind of cipher–a blank screen upon which modern liberal Christians like to project their idealized version of an optimistic, nature-loving, life-affirming Christianity. In other words, the opposite of everything they dislike about Augustinian Christianity (in what is usually caricatured form).

This is similar and even related to the vogue for a vaguely mystical, eco-sensitive “Celtic Christianity” that, again, often bears little resemblance to the real historical deal. Pelagius is often upheld (by J. Philip Newell, for example) as the paragon and forefather of Celtic Christian spirituality.

What ought to tip us off that something fishy is afoot here is that the popular version of Pelagian-Celtic Christianity is strikingly conformable to the concerns of comfortable, middle-class westerners: the affirmation of everyone’s inherent goodness, a rejection of the doctrine of original sin, a generalized eco-spirituality, and a belief in an immanent God that resembles a vague life-force more than the rather demanding God of the Bible.

A good antidote to this whole line of thinking that still takes some of the underlying concerns seriously is Paul Santmire’s Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology. Santmire, a Lutheran eco-theologian, wants to recover theological themes that can support care for the environment, but he also departs from the Matthew Fox-neo-Pelagian crowd at a couple of key points.

First, Santmire strongly affirms that eco-justice must go hand-in-hand with social justice. The slums of the globe’s vast mega-cities teem with millions of desperately poor people for whom the reality of injustice and radical evil are palpable everyday realities. From this, Santmire infers a need for a robust theology of sin and atonement:

[A]lthough Fox talks regularly about “justice-making,” he chiefly seems to be thinking about a revolution of consciousness that is going to transform the world, not unlike the idea of “Consciousness III,” proposed by Charles Reich in The Greening of America during the heyday of the 1960s. In Fox’s major works, we encounter little attention to the often stalemated, anguished struggles of the oppressed, which sometimes can last for decades, even longer, and then, with some regularity, still be lost.

The Christian masses throughout the ages have likewise lived and died with the bitter reality of struggle. Struggle against overwhelming odds has been their daily bread. This is why they have turned again and again to the figure of the crucified, and have struggled all the more desperately in this instance to make sense out of this apparently senseless but nevertheless redemptive death. (p. 22)

A neo-Pelagian gospel of personal self-improvement and consciousness-raising may resonate with a certain small strata of the global elite, but what Santmire calls the “Christian masses” are all too aware that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot save ourselves.”

Further, Santmire commends what he takes to be some of the authentic insights of Celtic Christian spirituality–but these differ rather starkly from the kind of feel-good New Agey themes often associated with that tradition. According to Santmire, the eco-sensitivity of Celtic Christians was rooted in orthodox Trinitarian and Christological affirmations, and these worked themselves out in a fairly severe spirituality that might make some contemporary devotees of “Celtic” Christianity blanch.

Santmire isn’t blind to the flaws of traditional Augustinian Christianity–but he maintains that it preserves important truths and provides resources for a more cosmic and creation-friendly vision (as evidenced by the mature Augustine’s thought, as well as that of Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, etc.). Traditional theology’s vision is of a creation (human and non-human) in bondage that can only be freed by God’s overflowing, unmerited grace. In Santmire’s view, this speaks much more profoundly and hopefully to our contemporary situation of mass poverty and ecological devastation.

Cities are for people, not cars

At least that’s the attitude some European cities are beginning to take, according to this report from the NYT. In order to create more environmentally friendly, less congested, and more livable cities, Europeans are “creating environments openly hostile to cars.”

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

The article notes the contrast with the U.S.:

“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”

U.S. cities are under less pressure to make cities car-free, partly because we haven’t signed the Kyoto Protocol, which was aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re apparently not interested in meeting Clean Air Act requirements. In other words, the U.S. urban model is much less concerned with environmental and human health.

Usually this is explained as a simple difference of cultures, where freedom-loving Americans cling to their cars while those pantywaist socialist Europeans try to force everyone onto mass transit (or, God forbid, bicycles!). However, as the article notes, Europeans were on trajectory toward a more American-style model of car ownership and use, but this has been pretty successfully reversed by determined public policy.

It’s also worth pointing out that American “car culture” is not a simple result of individualism or the benevolent workings of the free market. The balance of forms of transportation has been tilted in favor of the auto by specific public policy choices like road construction, land use regulations, and building codes. These choices (not to mention our direct and indirect subsidization of the fossil fuel industry) all make it easier for Americans to choose driving. The European experiment shows that different choices can lead to a different quality of life in cities.

Peter Singer and Christian ethics conference–audio available

I posted the other week on a conference on dialogue between Peter Singer and Christian ethics. I wanted to note that audio of the sessions is available here. I haven’t listened to any of the sessions yet, but the topics suggest that they’ll be very interesting:

–Utilitarians and Christians
–Animals and the environment
–Utilitarianism, Christian ethics, and moral theory
–Utilitarians in church?
–Responding to global poverty

If you listen to any of the presentations I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday Links

–Marvin on the Presbyterian Church’s decision to allow congregations to call non-celibate gay and lesbian pastors.

–Libraries are part of the social safety net.

–“I hated vegans too, but now I am one.”

–On anti-Semites and philo-Semites.

–Mark Bittman asks, “Why bother with meat?”

–Jesus and eco-theology.

–Jeremy discusses Herbert McCabe and Gerhard Forde on the Atonement.

–Your commute is killing you.

–Rowan Williams’ Ascension Day sermon: “The friends of Jesus are called … to offer themselves as signs of God in the world.”

–Grist’s “great places” series continues with two posts on the industrial food system and its alternatives.

–Keith Ward on his recent book More than Matter?

–Russell Arben Fox on the Left in America.

–The Cheers challenge. My wife and I have already been rewatching the entire series. We’re on season 6 now, which replaces Shelley Long’s Diane with Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, although the earlier seasons are probably the best ones.

–Ozzy’s first two solo albums, which are generally considered classics, have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment. Here’s a review.

Friday links

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Moby-Dick.

–Amy-Jill Levine: “A Critique of Recent Christian Statements on Israel

–From Jeremy at Don’t Be Hasty: Why the church can’t take the place of the welfare state.

–A discussion of “summer spirituality” with Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

–A review of Keith Ward’s recent book More than Matter?

Lady Gaga: “Iron Maiden changed my life.”

–Grist’s David Roberts has been writing a series on “great places” as a reorienting focus for progressive politics: see the first installments here, here, and here. Also see this reflection from Ned Resnikoff.

–Four different demo versions of Metallica’s early tune “Hit the Lights” (with some, ahem, interesting vocal experimentation by a young James Hetfield).

Peter Singer, utilitarianism, Christianity, and climate change

Here’s an interesting post from Mark Vernon, an English journalist and author (and former priest in the Church of England), reporting on a recent conference at Oxford University on the engagement of Christian ethics with the thought of Peter Singer. According to Vernon, Singer discussed problems that his brand of utilitarianism (“preference utilitarianism”–the view that the right action is the one which satisfies the most preferences) has in coming to grips with the problem of climate change.

Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: “I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries.”

Second, preference utilitarianism also runs into problems because climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one. What this adds up to is that preference utilitarianism can provide good arguments not to worry about climate change, as well as arguments to do so.

Christian ethics, Vernon suggest, may be more of a help here because, at least in most forms, it believes that the right and the good go beyond the satisfaction of preferences. For a Christian, the protection of creation can be seen as good in itself, without trying to calculate the balance of preference-satisfaction that would be involved. Or, to borrow the terminology of Andrew Linzey, we might say that God has rights in God’s creation–rights to the respectful treatment of that creation. Christian ethics generally doesn’t take preferences or desires that we happen to have as necessarily deserving fulfillment–those desires are all-too-often warped by self-seeking and self-preoccupation. The Christian moral life is as much about reshaping our desires as satisfying them.

Friday Links

–With the death of bin Laden, the U.S. has accomplished the aims that justified the war in Afghanistan. Time to leave.

–An interview with “eco-economist” Herman Daly: Rethinking growth.

–A primer on Christian nonviolence.

–The collapse of the “progressive Christian” big tent?

–The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow non-celibate gay and lesbians to serve as clergy. Support for the change came from some surprising places. And see this article from theologian Eugene Robinson on how same-sex couples can image the faithfulness of God.

–Catholic theologians and other teachers take Speaker of the House John Boehner to task on the GOP’s budget priorities. More here.

–Theologian Roger Olson on how “inerrancy” became a litmus test for evangelicalism.

–The Obama administration is trying to figure out how to continue the war in Libya without congressional authorization.

–An interview with historian Adam Hoschchild on the World War I pacifist movement.

–Lord Vader announces the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Friday links

–On Christianity, the Holocaust, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

–Recent posts on what’s apparently now being referred to as the “new universalism” from James K.A. Smith, Halden Doerge, and David Congdon.

–Does having a monarchy lead to greater equality?

–Redeeming the “L word.”

–Appreciating both N.T. Wright’s and Marcus Borg’s views of the Resurrection.

–Why liberals should embrace classical (small-r) republicanism.

–Love and service are more fundamental than “rigorous theology.”

–Was the Civil War a “tragedy“? (More here and here.)

–Hiding the truth about factory farms.

–Kate Middleton for the win.

ADDED LATER: What’s going on with the Canadian election?