Rural America

Tuesday, Jul 28, 2015, 4:50 pm

Vatican Country: American Farmers on the Agricultural Message of Pope Francis

By Dayton Martindale

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In this 13th century fresco by Giotto, St. Francis of Assisi is depicted giving a sermon to the birds. In his new climate encyclical, Pope Francis seeks to rekindle the saint's ecological consciousness.   (Wikimedia Commons)

A July 1 press conference at the Vatican on climate change and inequality featured mostly the figures you’d expect: the cardinal in charge of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the leader of a Catholic anti-poverty organization, the co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—and Naomi Klein. Klein, a Canadian journalist famed in activist circles for The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, inserted herself forcefully into the climate debate with last year’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

On the surface, one might not expect the church to align itself with Klein, a self-described “secular Jewish feminist.” But while reading Laudato si’, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on climate change, it became clear to me that moving foward this pope will be an essential ally to the environmental movement.

An encyclical, for the layperson, is technically just a letter sent by the Pope to his bishops. They usually do not create much of a stir, but Laudato si’ is not merely addressed to bishops or practicing Catholics, but “to all people of good will.” In this 246-paragraph paean to nature, the Pope (clarifiying that he includes humans as “part of nature”) presents an ethical vision within a religious framework, but argues that the underlying principles can still be “apprehended by reason.” Even for those uncertain of a higher power, the encyclical’s ode to the beauties of Creation cannot help but evoke a near-spiritual connection to the planet we live on.

 There are some early references to “a very solid scientific consensus,” and the encyclical does show a solid understanding of the science, but it is no summary of the IPCC report. Instead, Pope Francis seeks to tie climate into a broader narrative of environmental degradation and human struggle, on a planet where no living creature is independent from the others. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope aims to elaborate “just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

Intriguingly, while the Pope mostly cites quotes from bishops and cardinals, he (or at least those bishops who actually drafted the encyclical) uses rhetoric straight out of green politics.

Shades of Green

When I (a baptized, confirmed and lapsed Catholic) read the encyclical, I happened to also be reading the works of 20th century American eco-utopian Murray Bookchin—an influential figure in the radical green movement whose ideas have surfaced in places as diverse as Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novels and today’s revolutionary Kurdistan. The foundational insight of Bookchin’s school of “social ecology” is that “present ecological problems cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society.” This notion, far from universal within the ecology movement, is echoed in the encyclical: “We cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

Francis also speaks of dialogue “between the various ecological movements, among which ideological conflicts are not infrequently encountered.” Not only does he know that various factions exist, but he actually begins this conversation himself. He writes:

[The ecological crisis] has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser [nonhuman] beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. … A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism” … Nor must the critique of a misguided anthropocentrism underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations.

As Bookchin and others had tried to do before, the Pope is seeking a compromise middle ground between the prevailing view, in which humans are a dominant species meant to control the Earth, and so-called “deep ecology,” a biodiversity-oriented alternative philosophy in which humans are treated as just another species, with no more (some would say less) worth than any other. Whether the pope’s take on ecology will resonate with Catholics remains to be seen.

A June Pew poll conducted in the wake of Laudato si’ found that 71 percent of U.S. Catholics believe the Earth is warming, 47 percent believe it is caused by humans, and 48 percent believe it is a serious problem. This puts Catholics two or three points ahead of the average American, but there’s been no significant change since the encyclical, and the numbers seem to reflect party preference far more than religious belief. While 86 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of the Pope, only 53 percent think he is doing an “excellent” or “good” job at “addressing environmental issues”—far more support his approach to “standing up for traditional values” (80 percent) and “addressing needs/concerns of families” (79 percent).

In looking at these numbers, we must come to terms with the startling reality that fewer than half of Americans believe that humans cause global warming—a number that has actually been on the rise in recent years but is still lower than its peak earlier in the century. On the other hand, 79 percent of U.S. Catholics approve of how the Pope is “addressing needs/concerns of the poor.” Perhaps the way to encourage climate action is not to belabor a technical debate on the science, but instead to ground ecological concerns into the lived experiences of people.

Reading Francis in the Field

Francis focuses much of his attention on the global poor, rightly so for the leader of an internationally popular faith. But his encyclical also has specific lessons that the United States—including and perhaps especially rural America—could learn from and build on.

W. Michael Slattery isn’t sure whether most U.S. Catholics will respond to the encyclical: “The people attending regular Sunday mass … they simply won’t move on it.” On the other hand, he says, Pope Francis is “definitely striking a chord with those very dissatisfied with the leadership of bishops in this country,” among whom he counts himself.

Slattery is an organic farmer who raises Holstein steers and grows soybeans, wheat, oats and alfalfa hay near Maribel, Wisconsin. A one-time Jesuit now active in the Wisconsin Farmers Union, he voices frustration that the “upwardly mobile bureaucrats” making up the U.S. Catholic leadership have focused so exclusively on what he calls “pelvic issues” like abortion and gay marriage. Pope Francis, in his view, is putting the Church back on the right track.

The Church, in turn, is trying to put the whole planet back on the right track, including the agriculture industry.

Combatting climate change is of course a central part of this task, as a warming planet threatens stable food supplies worldwide. Climate change has “been on my radar probably forever,” says Ron Rosmann, an organic farmer with a variety of plants and animals on his 700 acres in Harlan, Iowa, and a board member of the nonprofit Catholic Rural Life. “What I’ve noticed in my farming career is that the extremes have become the norm.”

Not only does the climate impact farmers, but vice versa. “As farmers we do contribute to climate change through some of our farming practice,” explains Darin Von Ruden, an organic dairy farmer born and raised on the land he now works in Westby, Wisconsin. Von Ruden is president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and a practicing Catholic. He and other small farmers like him are trying to shift to more sustainable methods—but it’s not easy to counteract the lobbying might of Big Ag, which pushes for policies favoring industrial farms over organic ones.

This drive towards “yields and profits and big equipment,” as Rosmann puts it, has “had devastating effects on communities.” As large-scale operations have pushed family farmers off their land over the past several decades, rural populations plummet. “The smaller communities lost their schools first,” says Rosmann of his native Iowa, but with fewer students both public and private schools started closing even in larger communities.

“Inasmuch as farming becomes larger in scale, we remove ourselves from consciousness and responsibility towards the environment,” says Slattery. These farmers—as well as the encyclical—speak to an intimate connection with the land and its animals that comes from working with one’s hands. With fewer and larger food operations, even farmers—not to mention the average consumer—become disconnected from their ecosystems.

Laudato si’ also wades into one of the thornier issues in agricultural policy today: the spread of genetically modified crops. The encyclical takes a balanced approach, acknowledging that “no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth.” The Pope maintains, however, that this does not mean the debate is over. He calls into question both ecological and economic impacts as corporate monocultures displace small farmers and recommends “independent, interdisciplinary research” as well as “responsible scientific and social debate.”

This view seemed to resonate with the three organic farmers I spoke to. All three were concerned about monocultures, and Rosmann voiced frustration over the rise of pesticides and fungicides that some studies have linked to GMOs. In an ideal world, says Rosmann, “We don’t just adopt a technology because we can. We adopt it because it’s socially and ecologically responsible.”

Slattery admits that technological innovation can increase yield, but identified “real problems with regard to distribution, and who is profiting in the process.” “We can grow an awful lot more food here, but if I undermine markets and local economies of Vietnam or India, it does no good at all.”

Another issue of concern to the Wisconsin Farmers Union is water rights, for which the encyclical comes out in strong support. “Both water quantity and quality problems should be addressed,” says Von Ruden, pointing to the drought in California and contamination of Lake Erie in Ohio.

These intersecting issues of climate, water and technology essentially boil down to a new way of interacting with the nonhuman world. “This idea, ‘dominate the Earth’ comes out of Genesis,” admits Slattery. He thinks this view misinterprets the Biblical origins of man’s dominion over nature, “but from a literal standpoint that’s what most people read it as.”

Laudato si’ radically distinguishes today’s Vatican from that earlier philosophy. Pope Francis ascribes worth and value to other species, and even nonliving features of our planet. He mourns not only the human costs of ecological degradation, but the degradation itself.

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” the encyclical states bluntly. “In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

Slattery has witnessed this decline throughout his career. Decades ago, he says, “thousands of blackbirds would follow behind the plow and pick up insects and worms. All we see here is seagulls. Where did all the birds go?”

The birds are going, and so are the reptiles, the amphibians, the fish and the trees. But while the encyclical admits the ecological crisis is “troubling,” the Vatican has taken a necessary step towards outlining the changes—in our policy but perhaps more importantly in our minds—necessary for a better tomorrow.

Laudato si’ is explicit that this policy change means limits to economic growth, but for Rosmann, that’s okay. “We just need a whole new economic model based on ecology,” he says. “There’s just no getting around it.”

Rosmann also believes we need a change in our value system: “I say if we profess to love God, and view Him—Him or Her or whatever we call God—as a Creator, we have to love the Earth. If we loved the Earth we wouldn’t treat it the way we do.”

The encyclical’s appeal lies in its eager embrace of economic and environmental sanity. “We need to reject a magical conception of the market,” writes the Pope, “which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.” To neoclassical economists I offer the following observation: When your theories are dismissed as magical by a man who—for all I know, rightly—believes he can turn a wafer of bread into the flesh of a deity, it might be time to rethink those theories.

Dayton Martindale is former associate editor of In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Journal and The Next System Project, Boston Review and Harbinger. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

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