Chatting with Creighton Associate Professor Richard Miller, Ph.D., about climate change is not for the faint of heart. Director of Creighton’s M.A. in Theology program, Miller talks of four-foot rises in sea levels that will spell the end of Miami, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Charleston and other coastal cities. He talks of permanent drought in the U.S. Southwest and of radical transformation to the economy. To him, there will be no return to an idyllic Eden. “We choose between catastrophes,” Miller says. “That’s our choice at this point.”
For more than 10 years, Miller has reviewed climate reports — every day. He edited God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis, winner of a 2011 Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada book award in the faith and science category. He has been sounding the bell that change is coming — and change is needed.
Now he’s got company — the sort Catholic theologians like to keep. In May, Pope Francis released Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment. Named after the hymn on creation by the pope’s guiding namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the 38,000-plus-word encyclical covers climate change, biodiversity, water, societal breakdown, population growth and much more. It is addressed to the whole world, a change from nearly every past encyclical addressed only to Catholics.
The pope, at times, is no less strident than Miller. In Chapter 4, paragraph 161, the pope writes:
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.
Laudato Si has impressed numerous Creighton faculty — Catholic or not. “What really amazed me is how comprehensive the encyclical was,” says business professor Peter Gallo, Ph.D. “I felt in the first 40 pages or so, it touched so many things I had studied in different disciplines, from public policy to engineering to business.”
Says Barbara Dilly, Ph.D., an associate professor of cultural anthropology: “It doesn’t have holes in it. You can try to weasel your way out of these things, but if you’re a person of faith and if you’re an educated person, there’s nowhere you can find a hole in it, intellectually, spiritually.”
Theology Professor John O’Keefe, Ph.D., says the pope is preaching ecological conversion — pleading for a change of life at the individual level. “It’s never been applied quite so forcefully to environmental living,” O’Keefe says. “He really thinks the future of the world is at stake. We need to face reality and change the way we live.”
Until now, says Miller, many of the arguments urging action against climate change were scientific or economic in nature.
“What the pope brings to the public debate, which I think is a game-changer, is ethics. Ethics does not require scientific certitude. It requires credible evidence. Here’s a pope who’s the head of 1.2 billion Catholics. That’s a big deal.”
It’s already become a big deal at Creighton, which has offered a degree program in environmental science for more than 20 years, one of the first Catholic universities to do so. The program boasts several hundred graduates. More recently it has launched a degree program in sustainability.
Given its far-flung reach, Pope Francis’ encyclical offers something for faculty across numerous disciplines.
Here’s a brief look at what seven Creighton faculty got out of Laudato Si.
Technology, Markets | Peter Gallo, Ph.D.
Peter Gallo had never read an encyclical. Until, that is, he picked up Laudato Si.
“It fell into my wheelhouse,” Gallo says. “Maybe I should be reading more encyclicals.”
The assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship in Creighton’s Heider College of Business liked what he read. Gallo, whose primary research interest is the integration of social and ecological sustainability principles with strategy and entrepreneurship, was particularly intrigued by the pope’s take on technology and markets.
“I was originally trained as an engineer,” says Gallo, who holds a degree in environmental energy engineering from Stanford University, “and when I had these passions about the environment, I thought I needed to go out and use the technology to solve the problem. That would help save the environment.”
But, he continues, many solutions already are available.
“That’s not what’s holding us back from accomplishing these social and environmental goals,” says Gallo, who grew up in south Florida in the 1970s, a period when the state was experiencing a water crisis. “There’s this sort of mythology of progress that technology always leads to progress and humanity will continue to improve through technological progress.”
But, he adds, technology often comes with a price and unexpected consequences.
The pope addresses the issue in Laudato Si:
Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only wayof solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.
Gallo also agreed, with some reservation, about Pope Francis’ take on “deified markets.” The pope writes:
We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.
Change of Course | John O’Keefe, Ph.D.
With Laudato Si, Pope Francis signals a change of direction, says John O’Keefe, professor of theology and the A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Environmental theologians,” O’Keefe says, have for some time talked of the need to stop thinking about the earth as existing solely for human purposes.
“We have to stop filtering the whole world through an anthropomorphic lens,” O’Keefe says.
Previous papal statements have been anthropomorphic, he says, “But not Francis. He really changes course on that. It’s a pretty big change of direction for theology. I was struck by that.”
The approach, he says, doesn’t mean other creatures are equal to humans, “but that other creatures have intrinsic value in the eyes of God. Once you start thinking about the intrinsic value of other beings on the earth, that they have a right to exist independent of how they serve us, that’s a pretty big shift.”
O’Keefe has written extensively on the environment and the Catholic Church. And in 2013, he edited the Journal of Religion & Society article “The Greening of the Papacy.” He says Laudato Si differs from previous encyclicals in other ways, too.
“I think it takes more risks. It’s less politically cautious. He’s more willing to say things that would really irritate some people, and I think in the past there has been a little bit less of that, which may in part be why so many provoke so little reaction.”
Most encyclicals are read by theologians or really passionate Catholics, O’Keefe says.
“This one, it feels like everyone has to read it and respond to it. That to me says he was intentionally taking great risks.”
The Big Picture | John Schalles, Ph.D.
John Schalles, a longtime biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, likes looking at the big picture. And that’s what Pope Francis delivers, he says, in Laudato Si.
Schalles, co-founder and former director of Creighton’s Environmental Science Program, uses data from satellites and the International Space Station to investigate changes in coastal ecosystems, especially in Georgia. That’s through the National Science Foundation Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research project.
“In many ways, it’s a macroscopic view of our planet that is so important right now,” Schalles says. “We can see, literally before our eyes, these changes.” He points to 28 years of satellite data examining the Georgia salt marshes that he and graduate student John O’Donnell study at Sapelo Island.
“Changes are obvious in the landscape,” Schalles says. “We find evidence that marsh productivity is slowly deteriorating.”
The pope also provides a top-down view in Laudato Si.
“The overall scope was impressive,” says Schalles, who has taught at Creighton since 1979. “And how well the pope was able to merge science with nonscience topics, especially that relate to religious teaching, philosophy, social science and economics. It’s expansive. Yet I think it’s cohesive, too. It’s a good argument for the complexity of our problems.”
That was especially true, says Schalles, as the pope talked of ecosystems and the larger connections in nature.
That ranges from discussion of concerns specific to Schalles’ work (“In some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern”) to more minute considerations (“the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms”).
Says Schalles: “Anymore, it’s very clear one cannot practice ecosystem science without considering the human dimension. We cannot visit any ecosystem on the planet and find ourselves removed from human presence or impact.”
Finding Facts Amid the Faith | Richard Miller, Ph.D.
Though he’s director of the Graduate School’s M.A. in Theology program and an associate professor of theology in the College of Arts and Sciences, Richard Miller’s first read of the pope’s encyclical wasn’t for faith, but for facts.
“For me, the big question going in was, would they get the science correct?” Miller says. “Second: Was the tone going to be adequate to what scientists were saying? What you see in the American press corps … is not close to what the scientists are telling us.”
Miller has his ear to the ground. For about 10 years, he says, he’s been reading the scientific literature about climate change, “very carefully, every day.” And what he’s reading isn’t exactly comforting. It’s summarized in Miller’s email signature that quotes a statement from a synthesis paper penned by 20 winners of the Blue Planet Prize:
In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency [i.e., climate change] society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization.
When Miller started reading Laudato Si, he wanted to know, “Was the encyclical going to catch that?”
It does, Miller says, in part because the pope leans on previous work done by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and by bishop conferences from around the world.
“He doesn’t overstate the problem,” Miller says. “He gets it about right.” He points to several passages from the encyclical to support that take: “We can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point” and mention of the “radical change which present circumstances require.”
“I think the tone of the encyclical was right in line with the science and what we’re facing,” Miller says. “He didn’t overstate it by any stretch, and I think he got it about right.”
An Encyclical that Plants Roots | Barbara Dilly, Ph.D.
Creighton Professor Barbara Dilly is big into fruits and veggies. But she concedes there’s a lot of meat to Laudato Si.
“The overriding message that I got is everybody’s got to change,” says Dilly, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Cultural and Social Studies.
In Omaha and elsewhere, she helps make change possible through community gardens.
That includes the Bluejay Community Garden adjacent to the Creighton campus. It’s an example of what the pope writes about as “practical relativism.”
“It argues that we need to put labor in a different relationship with the environment compared to the current perspective that sees labor and nature as something to be exploited in the marketplace for the interests of others,” Dilly writes. “Community gardens place labor in a relationship with nature that is not exploitative.”
The Bluejay Garden includes two projects. One is a flower garden Dilly coordinates and CU students maintain. The other project is Root Down, a garden coordinated with the Refugee Empowerment Center. There, refugees from several areas in Asia grow vegetables during the summer.
It’s not just sustainability being planted. Community gardens help give people “meaning to their labors” and help them “be who they are,” says Dilly. It also connects them to each other, to the surrounding community and beyond. It’s something Pope Francis specifically addresses in Laudato Si:
Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.
Giving ’Em Something to Talk About | Graham Ramsden, Ph.D.
It’s no wonder Graham Ramsden reads Laudato Si and thinks politics. Ramsden is, after all, chair of Creighton’s Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I think in terms of, What’s his strategy? What’s his angle?” Ramsden says. “Why is he doing it this way?”
Governments trying to improve the environment typically rely on carrots (tax breaks for solar panels), sticks (fines, regulations) or sermons (“shame tactics”).
Ramsden sees Pope Francis’ encyclical as none of those. Rather, it’s a matter of agenda-setting. “There are so many problems facing the planet,” Ramsden says. “None of these problems gets solved until they’re put on the world to-do list. In a sense, he’s saying we need to get this on the agenda, folks, and you can figure out the solution. Get people talking about it such that it becomes a problem that policy-makers have to solve because people are clamoring for a solution.”
Ramsden, who teaches a seminar on environmental politics and policy, spent the summer in Vermont, one of the most democratically liberal and environmentally conscious states. “Up here, he’s preaching to the converted,” Ramsden says. “They’re cheering him on.”
More people might do so as the U.S. presidential election campaign continues.
“I think it will be a salient issue in the campaign,” Ramsden says. “It’s getting on the agenda. It’s become more of a salient issue in the next presidential election. He just happened to make it more so, especially among Catholics.”
Cause for Hope | Jay Leighter, Ph.D.
Jay Leighter cracked open Laudato Si and looked for what he loved. “Part of the beauty of the encyclical is being able to look for a piece that really speaks to you,” says the professor in the Department of Communication Studies and director of Creighton’s Sustainability Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences.
And what speaks to Leighter is hope.
With good reason. For Creighton students who feel committed to solving such weighty issues as environmental crises, “that comes with a lot of emotional weight.”
“It can be a very discouraging enterprise,” Leighter says.
And so Leighter wants to “figure out the ways the Church and things like faith and spirituality can help buoy students when they’re feeling down about the gravity of this situation. It’s no different than people who work in social work or case workers who do violence prevention for women and people who work on issues of poverty.”
He found hope in Laudato Si nearly from its start. In the section “A Variety of Opinions” the pope writes:
But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems.
Elsewhere the pope writes:
How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles!
If things get too heavy for Creighton’s sustainability studies students, Leighter can point them to Laudato Si.
“I’m not a theology professor and I’ll probably be referring to it literally for years as a place to understand how to connect biblical teaching and Catholic social teaching with education,” he says. “I need to learn as a faculty member a way to kind of balance the gravity of the situation and also feel like students can continue to push forward.”
by Tony Flott
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