At the beginning of the year, the ADN provided space for me to discuss in a commentary the thoughts of Pope Francis as expressed in his “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home.” This important document is Pope Francis’ second encyclical, published in 2015. Its wisdom remains significant for everyone of every (or no) faith. Our circumstances have changed since a year ago, but it continues to point our way forward. We should attend very carefully to it.
The thesis of this encyclical letter is both simple and radical in the best sense: that the connection between economic justice, social justice and environmental justice is intimate; indeed, they are inseparable; and that it is deeply immoral to violate any of the three. In fact, to violate one is to violate all.
I think we are accustomed to separating issues into fragments. For example, the pursuit of environmental protection is often seen as the concern of one interest group; alleviating poverty as another; the pursuit of economic improvement as another. Yet Pope Francis understands that they are all part of the same problem. They cannot be separated in reality, only in the context of a fragmented politics.
President-elect Joe Biden has laid out a program that complements the Pope’s thinking. This fills me with hope. On the other hand, I am aware that strong forces will try to thwart Biden’s proposals, and the politics of hate will resume after he takes office. Just as millions of people are now damaged by disease, so is our body politic diseased.
It is a truism that truth is associated with goodness and falsehood with evil. But as I have aged I have come to understand that the linkage is indeed greater: that all goodness stems from truth, that all evil stems from falsehood. Our body politic is now saturated with falsehood, and politicians in positions of leadership have refused to lead their constituents in this regard. The recent cascade of lies about presidential election results is only one example of many. Just as our leaders have refused to lead, so have many private citizens either refused to make the effort to discern falsehood from truth, or actively search the internet for the falsehoods they want.
Our congressional delegation could use this transition of presidential power to make a better future. The immediate obstacle will be their opposition to Biden’s environmental concerns. It is likely that Biden will find a way to prevent oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Many Alaskans and our congressional delegation will claim that this is a crushing tragedy, and will then declare that he is anti-Alaska, and will bitterly oppose him on all subsequent issues. Yet the truth is that Alaska’s current woes were not caused by not drilling in ANWR and will not be corrected by drilling in ANWR. Alaska’s politicians have managed to put us in our current position in spite of Alaska’s numerous large oil fields that have been pumping oil for decades. If our politicians are squabbling about the size of our Permanent Fund dividend checks while subsidizing oil companies and preventing personal taxation, then our real problems lie within our political management and outside the oil fields. For decades, many Alaskans — particularly politicians — have supposed that drilling in the Refuge will have the magical ability to correct our problems, but our problems lie elsewhere and will persist whether the Refuge is drilled or not as long as political mismanagement is the norm.
Pope Francis wants us to care about the poor, but our politicians care about the rich, such as the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which will get even richer if the Refuge is drilled. The politicians do not care about the Gwich’in, people of the caribou, who are poor and will likely become nutritionally and spiritually poorer with drilling. Why favor the Inupiat over the Gwich’in, who oppose drilling in ANWR? Because of a very un-Francis-like preference for material wealth over environmental protections, and an indifference to economic hardship. The North Slope Borough Inupiat do not suffer economic hardship; the Gwich’in do, yet the Inupiat are favored by the politicians.
I focus on this narrow issue because it will be the first wedge between Alaskans’ congressional delegation and the Biden administration. But I want them to work together in the future in accordance with Pope Francis’ wisdom. Their differences seem irreconcilable, even bitterly hostile. Yet how are we going to be able to step forward with the environmental protections that we desperately need, particularly with global warming? Expanding oil and gas extraction is a step backwards; limiting it is a step forwards, and every small step matters. My appeal is that our congressional delegation take the larger view.
Pope Francis is well named. Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) had an illustrious career, and is perhaps remembered best for his comprehensive love of nature and humans. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, he “considered all nature as the mirror of God, and as so many steps to God.” In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared him to be the patron saint of ecology.
Pope Francis refers to his namesake Saint Francis when he writes, “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” This catches the sense of the encyclical. Both the world we inhabit and the people who inhabit it have a value beyond their material presence. My view is that they both have intrinsic value beyond their utility. Francis wants us to stop treating our world and our people as means to extrinsic ends and to start treating them as ends in themselves. We can do this if we are willing sincerely to undergo a transformative experience.
Though “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home” is a Roman Catholic document, its reach transcends faiths and nations. It may be appropriate to point out here that the president-elect and all three of our powerful Alaskans in Washington are practicing Roman Catholics (I am not). Pope Francis is the only person I know of who has the global reach to do good; Biden may also, if he gets help from Congress. May our congressional delegation start to think nationally and globally and morally, not just locally and materially.
We know what Pope Francis thinks about the urgency we must feel to correct global warming. The Creation is at stake. The atmosphere that envelopes our Earth is a mere seventy miles thick, which is less than the distance from Anchorage to Chickaloon, or Soldotna to Homer. That’s the only atmosphere we have or ever will have.
Clarence Crawford is a retired teacher and a retired wilderness guide. His book is “Sunlight North: The Wisdom of the Arctic Wilderness.” He occasionally is shocked to realize that he has lived in Alaska for half a century.
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