Previewing Laudato Si’: Anthony Annett on Integral Ecology

Previewing Laudato Si’: Anthony Annett on Integral Ecology June 16, 2015

AR: Would you say then this document will probably be about the common good? If so, why is there so much dissent from its (mostly unknown) contents, especially from those who see themselves as
very faithful Catholics?

TA: 100%, it will be about the common good – of both present and future generations.Why so much dissent? The first thing we must realize is that we are dealing with an “American problem.” The fierce and often unhinged opposition to a document that has not even been issued is being driven overwhelmingly by American interests. The Vatican understands that. They leaned it the hard way.

But why? The most basic reason is the power and influence of the oil, gas, and coal lobbies. Yes, there are powerful energy companies elsewhere but the U.S. is unique among advanced economies for the ability of big money to influence politics. Hence you have pretty much every Republican running for the hills when climate change is mentioned, because their funding spends on obstruction. I have been told that if you get these people in private, they will admit that anthropogenic climate change is a hugely important issue. But they can’t say that in public.  Aside from the political level, you can also see a tidal wave of propaganda coming from monied interests, especially through outlets like Fox News and talk radio, outlets that really appeal to the worst instincts in people. So the first issue is the degeneration of American politics and political discourse.

The second issue is related, and it is the dominant strain of libertarianism in America. Again, the U.S. is unique in this sense. What you get is a self-centered individualism and an entitlement mentality – I have the right to do whatever I want, and the government better stay away. It’s an ideology of hooliganism, the very opposite of the common good based on harmonious social order. And the same monied interests spend an inordinate amount of money propping up “free market” think tanks (and a heavy dose of fossil fuel funding closes the circle). Americans call this “conservative”, but it is in fact the antithesis of conservatism. This is where basic economic logic runs smack into rigid ideology. Economics say that carbon is underpriced, because the market price fails to account for social cost. We have an externality, so the solution is to put a price on carbon (and there a number of ways to do this). But the ideologues will say “no way”, as this is government instruction in the sacred space of the market.

And yes, I’m choosing these words carefully, because it is quasi-theological. That brings me to the third point: the influence of a peculiar American theology, especially the horrible idea of American exceptionalism, which is so rooted in this country. Honestly, what could be less Christian than the idea that God favors some nations over others? The implication is that America is under God’s protection, ordained for prosperity and greatness, to be achieved by using the resources given by God. So don’t worry about climate change, God is in control. (But I wonder: if God won’t let carbon emissions destroy the earth, is it also “safe” to start a nuclear war? Best not go there!). It’s derivative Calvinism, and dangerous Calvinism at that. Add to this the bizarre eschatology, whereby most evangelicals seem to think we are living in the end times. Well, if the world is ending, then we should party on, and the best highs come from the fumes of fossil fuels…

So a lot of Americans who self-identify as “very faithful Catholics” (as you put it) are heavily influenced by the prevailing ethos of individualism, Calvinism, and exceptionalism. Is it a surprise that Rick Santorum sounds exactly like an evangelical? Is it a surprise that white Catholics are closer to white evangelicals that non-white Catholics on the issue of climate change? In the past, these Catholics have been very good at obfuscating and changing the subject when Rome talks about topics they don’t like. But that has become extremely difficult under Francis, simply because he speaks so plainly and forcefully. This is why he’s their worst nightmare – he’s obfuscation-proof!

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