We shall never find our way home

A few days ago I began reading Climate Matters: ethics in a warming world, by John Broome, an economist and moral philosopher. Chapters One and Two are very good, as he introduces the book and lays out the science of climate change in a clear and succinct way. But as soon as I got into chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, I began to feel uncomfortable: something seemed wrong.

When I picked it up again today, I skipped a few chapters and went directly to Chapter 10 on population. It was while reading this chapter that I realized the problem: He never addresses the issue of human suffering. He never addresses the suffering of those who remain alive but who will suffer greatly from day to day, perhaps for their entire lives, in ways that are unimaginable to those of us who live in the industrialized West.

Checking the index, I see that there is only one reference to human suffering in the entire book and that is on page 180 where he describes features of climate catastrophe that will be genuinely bad. He lists three such features. It is the first of his three features that mentions suffering: “First, global-warming catastrophe will cause suffering and death to a great many people. There will be starvation. There will be wars over water and other resources. There will be deaths from diseases and floods, and from many other causes.”

This is the only time he mentions human suffering. He does address the ethical ramifications of deaths by climate change, but he does not address the massive suffering of those who remain alive. This is striking to me. How can this be? Is suffering not quantifiable?Is it not something that can be put in economic terms?

I must lay this book down. I do this because my ‘cost/benefit analysis’ prevents me from reading more at this time. Perhaps I will return to it in the future.

In all of this, I cannot help but think of the words of Pope Francis: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it (from Laudato Si).”

If we do not reach beyond complicated theoretical arguments, and open ourselves to the suffering of others in a very direct and personal way, we shall never find our way home.

If A Clod Be Washed Away By The Sea

Though today we would not use the word ‘man’ as it is used in this famous poem by John Donne (1572-1631), we may, for the moment, justifiably dismiss this cultural difference so as to contemplate and absorb its full impact in light of the present climatic regime.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

It is not difficult to translate the entire poem to our own time and our own understanding. Though it would no longer be the beautiful poem that it is, we could easily substitute ‘human’ for ‘man,’ ‘our planetary civilization’ for ‘Europe,’ ‘rice farm’ for ‘manor,’ etc. Try it. Try it again.

Are we involved in mankind? Do we feel that the planet, and you and I, are diminished if a rice farmer in the Mekong Delta loses his entire farm to the rising sea, as is happening at this very moment in this extremely vulnerable region of the world.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

In order to fully comprehend where we now live and the time we now live in, we must retrieve from our bones and blood a visceral and palpable sense that we are the planet, that our breath is its breath, and its breath ours, and that every person’s death, every person’s loss, diminishes us, every one of us. We must “become painfully aware.” We must “turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it (Laudato Si, Pope Francis).”

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.