An article by Sophie Caldecott, from the Catholic Herald 24 Feb 2013.
Glenn Juday, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has a refreshingly positive attitude towards the issue of global climate change. He is a calm scientist with a passionate love of the natural world and a clear-sighted vision for the future, not a panicked activist shouting about the end of the world. What is the secret to his unique brand of practical, holistic environmentalism? His vision is nothing more than the mature vision of the Catholic Church and of Pope Benedict XVI, he tells me.
Juday has been involved with the long term monitoring of forest growth and health over the course of a career of more than 36 years. By examining tree rings, he has been researching climate sensitivity in trees, analysing which factors in the environment make trees grow more or less and how these are affected by climate change. This can then help scientists project how forests will respond in future scenarios, and therefore how we need to act to deal with the serious challenges that we face as a result of the climate change crisis. Juday and his team deliver their findings to the highest levels of the American government in the hope that it will influence policy both locally and nationally.
“Growing up in the Church, I’ve always been interested in the topic of environmental stewardship, and intrigued by the question of whether there’s something uniquely helpful about the Catholic perspective,” Juday says. “The created world always had this immediate attraction for me, and it gave me a deep sense of satisfaction and privilege to be associated with it. I see it as a gift from God, not to be taken for granted, and we shouldn’t have an exclusively utilitarian attitude towards nature.” As Lead Scientist and Trainer for the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, a national effort set up by the US Congress of Bishops to galvanise change amongst Catholic communities, he helped to train and commission Climate Change Ambassadors who would roll out concrete green action and activities in parishes all around America. The idea was that these Ambassadors “would be trained both in the theological elements of the Catholic approach to environmental questions, and the scientific background of the climate change issue, and be available for programs to educate and mobilise Catholic institutions and audiences to deal with the issue,” both locally, by making Catholic universities, churches, and hospitals more energy-efficient, and nationally, by promoting environmental ethics in Catholic further education. Sadly, the ambitious project, started a year and a half ago, has come to a bit of a standstill. It seems the Climate Change Ambassadors encountered resistance among more conservative parishioners, as well as support from more unorthodox members that they would have rather been without. Why? Because for many Catholics, both liberal and conservative, the green movement is thought of as a political mule for ideas about birth control and population management.
Other critics tend to argue that the issue of environmentalism is arising pretty late on the Church’s agenda. “I think there are several strands to this,” explains Juday. “Firstly, the Church doesn’t rush forward with anything, but gives a considered, stable, dependable, and profound treatment of any subject that it takes on, so it’s no surprise that as the world goes through the industrial revolution, transforms nature, involving wanton destruction on a grand scale and now reaches the consequences of all of that in climatic upheaval, the Church is only now coming forward with more mature reflections on the issue.” Church teaching always takes a while to develop, and then a while longer to be fully accepted by the members of the Church.
Juday believes that there is a profundity to the Church’s understanding of the climate change issue that is unique. “As the scientific consensus developed, the Popes, certainly John Paul II and Benedict XVI, informed themselves and have offered their reflections.” The last two popes have addressed environmental concerns through statements such as the address for the 1990 World Day of Peace and the 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate. However, the Left has claimed the issue and imposed a political idealism that involves a certain loathing of humanity and reproduction, seeing mankind as the root of all evil in the natural world. Catholics who are reluctant to accept environmental issues “are reacting to the enthusiastic embrace of the climate change issue by people whose philosophical presuppositions they utterly reject, the radicals who are interested in collectivist solutions, the people who tend to value less or completely disregard questions of human freedom and – in the case of population control – human dignity.” Because these Catholics lack the scientific and theological background to see the urgency and importance of the issue from a Catholic perspective, they feel uncomfortable associating with it at all.
Glenn has often found himself caught in the midst of controversy. Once, he found himself in the middle of the battle over whether Alaska’s ancient forests should be timbered or not. He understood both sides, and argued for sustainable farming and logging that maintained both environmental concerns as well as human needs. Now, as then, he does not see in black and white. About environmentalists who see humankind as a pest to the planet, he says “Lacking the Catholic understanding of the human condition and our place in nature, it’s no surprise that they lack some of the tools for the appreciation of a positive understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, hence their anger.” A true environmental ambassador, he believes that it is a Catholic mission to minister to those at both ends of the spectrum. Papal teaching, he argues, offers “a balance between those opposing poles.”
The Church’s ecological vision “is grand, it’s all encompassing”. A relationship with God, an understanding of the purpose of creation as being ordered towards worship formed within the ecology of the family, should naturally flourish in a profound respect for the natural world around us. As William Patenaude of the Catholic Ecology blog says, “For [Pope Benedict XVI], man is at war with nature because we are too often at war with God.” Juday continues, “It’s not an add on, it’s not the case that the Church is digging up a new issue to add on to a whole lot of others,”; it is an integral part of Catholic teaching.
Is Juday worried about the population control obsession of the environmental movement? Not particularly. “I’m convinced, just personally speaking, that the challenges that we face from the worldwide collapse in fertility that is unfolding with all of its consequences will bring the popular view around to something much more sympathetic to the Church’s position, because in the future I see the real challenge will be what can be done to remind the people of their fundamental responsibility to perpetuate the human race.” Let’s hope it does not have to reach Children of Men proportions before this happens, though. Juday’s optimism that popular opinion will start to change before too long is already starting to be justified; in Jonathan Last’s new book, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting, he argues that “The nation's falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems,” and that conventional wisdom on the population control issue is wrong. “First, global population growth is slowing to a halt and will begin to shrink within 60 years. Second…growing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation… Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.”
As Juday says, “We as the laity have a lot of work ahead of us to unpack all of the teachings [of John Paul II and Benedict XVI] and to develop the new institutions with an ecological perspective.” The attractiveness of the vision that Catholicism can offer is “the satisfaction of this longing that people seem to have, a feeling that our lives are somehow out of joint in this modern hurried pace disconnected from nature, disconnected from each other, and getting increasingly so because of the technological mediation of communication.” We want something different, “we want something more naturally human that appeals more fully to this ecology of being human.” And that is the secret to his calm, assured attitude to the whole thing. Deep down, he believes in the goodness of all created things, humankind included.