WHAT’S disturbing about Pope Francis’s most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” is that all the environmental brokenness he talks about in a sick world can’t just be left to others to fix. Certainly, there’s a huge role that national governments and world organizations must play. But Francis brings it to a more personal level when he proposes a change of lifestyle to help save the planet and those that populate it.
I may wish on a notional level to help stop the melting icebergs or help save the wild monkey-eating eagles from extinction, and I may be willing to sign a change.org petition to rescue old acacia trees from being felled to make way for yet more highways, but when they tell me that helping to mitigate global warming means I need to change my lifestyle, I balk. I don’t necessarily wish to be involved on that level, where I am satisfied with my manner of living, my personal comfort compulsions, and my penchant for chicharon, crispy pata, Bordeaux, single malt scotch, and my regime of apps on my tablet. I don’t want anyone telling me I have to change.
Yet Francis repeats over and over again the same message that emerged from Avatar: Everything is connected. Environmental issues are connected to social issues, the passion for saving trees to the plight of the families squatting under a bridge, the concern of stopping the destruction of biodiversity to the lack of concern for human trafficking and the death of thousands from global warming. Even to the manner in which I acknowledge, worship or ignore a Creator God. There’s a connect (or disconnect?) when I say, Praise God – Laudato Si! – for Brother Sun and Sister Moon and hardly notice the refugees drowning in rickety boats to get to Europe and the internally displaced families in Maguindanao fleeing the military activity.
Change my lifestyle? The assertion is that my lifestyle, intimately related to the shared lifestyle of others in my family, my barangay, my global village, and now the ailing earth, is significant. That lifestyle feeds into the obsessive consumerism of millions that fuels the unbridled “technocracy” that overwhelms the natural limits of the earth, abuses it, and ignores its sickness and death throes. Healing this earth demands a lifestyle change on the personal and social levels.
But that necessarily involves unusual reflection on the quality of my deteriorating life, which, if improved humanly, could amount to a meaningful lifestyle change in a connected world. Deciding to recover my own alienation from myself connects to others deciding to do the same.
How goes it with my life, and what are the standards against which I judge the quality of life? My lifestyle may boast much style at great cost, but little life. Why the workaholism? All the stress, all the late hours, all the need to please the gods of work, all the lost holidays and opportunities to stop and catch one’s breath, in order to please the wife I no longer have energy to love and to capitulate to the demands of the children I no longer have time to talk to. All the stress in an age of “rapidification” to acquire the myriad things we need to consume in the family to make everyone happy – the house, the gated community, the private clubs, the car, the second car, the clothes, the gadgets – justifying my need to work more, and to indulge myself more.
We are, after all, identified with, admired and envied for what we privately own, for what we lavishly consume: for the posh house, the manicured gardens and the lushly developed green spaces, that are designed exclusively precisely to exclude those who have less, the incompetent, the unsuccessful, the unwashed, the uneducated, the uncouth. This lifestyle leaves its divisive mark on the contours of the environment. That such elite enclaves exist is the mark of progress that regrets the persistence of the hovels of the urban poor that offend our sense of order and beauty.
“In some places, rural and urban alike,” Francis says, “the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In other, ‘ecological’ neighborhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquility. Frequently we find beautiful and carefully manicured garden spaces in so-called ‘safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live” (45).
All is connected. My lifestyle defines my subdivision. My subdivision divides my space against the spaces of squalor and deprivation. I am connected to them because my consumption defines their non-consumption, my overeating their hunger, my welfare their misery. The generosity of my space conditions the niggardliness of their space. But my lifestyle obstructs my awareness of this connectedness. The gadgets I now so deftly use kill my communication not only with these “disposable” of society, but also tend to make those dear to me dispensable.
Lifestyle. It used to be part of our lifestyle for the family to gather together on Sundays, go to church, then enjoy together a family meal. Where have the family conversations gone when the TVs, the radio, the computer games and the omnipresent cellphones drown out the human voices and laughter? There was a time when games like mahjong, scrabble or monopoly brought members of the family together in fun; today, the addictive digital games suck a human being into a digital device in increasing human isolation. I remember when phone calls from pay phones away from home were to connect a child with a mother or a husband with a wife. But the new smart phones tend to tyrannize one’s attention, erase the presence of the human being next to you, keep your work load perpetually weighing down on you at your fingertips; but should you get tired of that, to entertain, to inform, to friend, to unfriend, to anger, to exhaust, to enslave. Today, one no longer knows whether politeness requires putting away the cellphone to notice the person in front of you, or to gamely allow the person in front of you to indulge in texting and tweeting, and take out your own cellphone and do the same.
Francis says, “when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously… Real communications with others … now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relations at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devises and displays than with other people and nature” (47).
I remember the counter argument to our objections to the large-scale Tampakan mines in South Cotabato which would dig an open pit five-hundred hectares large and eight hundred meters deep, harm the forest growth and biodiversity in the area, endanger the water supply and displace the indigenous B’laan people. “You use cellphones, don’t you?”
Lifestyle. Everything is connected.