Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Out here in California, where a four-year drought has already resulted in the loss of an estimated 18,000 jobs in the state's agricultural sector for the first half of 2015, Pope Francis' climate-change encyclical resonates in a unique way, and will be celebrated in some quarters and reviled in others.
It's easy to cherry pick the encyclical's policy prescriptions, as The New York Times did in a recent article, which hinted that partisan groups will use the encyclical to attack GOP presidential candidates who identify themselves as Catholic and may dispute some aspect of climate-change arguments.
But this pastor from Argentina is offering a message that defies the current orthodoxy of either party, ans we may be surprised by what he has to say to each of us.
In the Golden State, the primary issue for debate is not whether the drought was caused by humans. The present consensus among scientists is that it is part of a natural weather cycle, which has been repeated many times in the state's history. Farmers and their allies, however, have questioned environmental policies that divert water to protect the fish habitat in state waterways, leaving less for agriculture.
The resulting polarization has further complicated the search for a consensus on how the burden of water rationing should be shared across the state.
Over the past year, the drought's impact on farmers and farm workers, many of them poor migrants, was almost invisible to those of us who live in coastal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. That changed in April, when Governor Jerry Brown directed urban residents to reduce their water consumption by 25% or more — an order that has since prompted attacks on farmers for consuming the lion's share of this increasingly precious resource.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that residents in wealthy neighborhoods consume a larger percentage of water to maintain gardens and golf courses than people living in poor communities, where penalties for water consumption actually matter.
The majority of Californians pride themselves on embracing tough environmental policies, and voting for politicians who will secure them. But after water rationing moved beyond relatively isolated agricultural communities — some of which must now receive donated drinking water after their wells ran dry — to enclaves where an expansive green lawn remains a matter of pride, we began to hear a lot of griping.
I griped too, as I instituted a two-minute shower regime and altered my dishwashing techniques. But I stopped complaining after I began to think about the hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland that lies fallow, and rising unemployment among farmworkers, with parents looking for work far from home.
Californians who think they no longer have a stake in agriculture argue that farmers should simply stop consuming so much water. Sounds reasonable at a cocktail party, but it isn't so simple. We Californians still want the fresh produce grown on those farms, and our food prices will rise as supply declines.
Further, when we decide that the Central Valley and not Silicon Valley should feel the pain of steep reductions in water consumption, we forget that poor rural workers, including migrants, will be the first to lose jobs. Farmers must adapt to the drought, but we all need to consider the common good.
These questions should be part of the debate out here, as Californians consider the Pope's message in his new encyclical. Whatever our views about the causes of climate change and whatever impact the drought has already had on our lives, the pope is asking us to consider the totality of his message and not simply cherry-pick the parts that work for us.
Here is an early passage (no. 9) from the encyclical that resonated for this Californian. It shines a light on the interplay between the life of my soul and the world beyond my doorstep. Pope Francis writes:
(Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew) has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.
For me, this passage poses questions that can't be resolved in the statehouse in Sacramento or a debate on climate-change science. How do I learn "to give, and not simply to give up?" How do I embrace, and not simply tolerate, the sacrifices imposed by our changing world? The two-minute shower is the first step toward a deeper solidarity with fellow Californians who have weathered this drought alone.