Op-Ed

What we’re not saying about California fires

Firefighters monitor a burn operation on top of a ridge near the town of Ladoga, Calif., on Aug. 7.
Firefighters monitor a burn operation on top of a ridge near the town of Ladoga, Calif., on Aug. 7. Tribune News Service

California is on fire. Its 17 unprecedented conflagrations are predicted to rage out of control until at least the end of this month.

Despite such disaster, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of the catastrophe. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is a person, “Pope Francis.”

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change.” The term hardly crosses the lips of commentators covering the wildfires across an area larger than the sprawling city of Los Angeles.

That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters.

(Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.) So, you don’t hear much these days connecting wildfires and climate change.

And that brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s.

Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial is not jobs, but money. It’s greed that drives corporations such as Exxon to accept destruction of the planet over appropriate response to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name is unmentionable in connection with California’s omni-fire.

In fact, more than three years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.)

Yet, Francis’ dire warnings in Laudato Si’ (LS) remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic” leaders like Paul Ryan.

Worse still, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet, the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to not only wildfires, but to the record temperatures, droughts and increasingly violent hurricanes now happening in real time. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain ... 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 ... be reduced by our decisive action here and now.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for?

Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture.

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Their rationale? Such submission threatens profits.

But realities much more important than unspeakable profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith and morality.

In fact, the California fires and the other climate disasters remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

The California omni-fires demonstrate that truth.

The question is: Why aren’t people of faith listening? Why are we not electing public servants who will simply recognize and respond appropriately to the disasters unfolding before our very eyes?

Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, retired Berea College professor, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.

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