Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New York Times Hearts the Vatican - What Gives?

The Vatican generally gets a predictably bad rap from the MSM for its insistence on restrictive moral codes that would limit individual liberty. Much of the current coverage of the Pope has settled into the comfortable reportage mode that BXVI increasingly seems to be revealing his true colors as the conservative that he is. His first encyclical, on love, left the MSM a bit confused - love's good, right? - and his recent vigorous defense of traditional Church teachings on sexual morality, male-only priests and clerical celibacy has resulted in an almost audible sigh of relief from our liberal media. They know how to report on that news.

Imagine, then, a favorable story about the Vatican on no less than the front page of the New York Times. In yesterday's edition the Times carried a story about the Vatican's efforts to go carbon neutral, effectively producing zero carbon emissions by means of an offset elsewhere. In this case, a company in Hungary - seeking a bit of free publicity, and succeeding - has offered to plant a 37 acre forest on a currently denuded section of the Tisza river in eastern Hungary. The paper quotes Cardinal Paul Poupard, leader of the Pontifical Council for Culture, to say: “As the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recently stated, the international community needs to respect and encourage a ‘green culture....’ The Book of Genesis tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful.”

The mechanism by which the Vatican proposes to be a guardian over the earth is to rely on the new Hungarian forest to absorb an equal quantity of carbon that the Vatican itself produces. While in this instance the forest is being donated by a company called "Klimafa," this firm will seek to find paying corporate clients looking to offset their own carbon production by the further planting of forests in Hungary and in other parts of the east.

What we should notice about this arrangement is that it demands no change in behavior on the part of the Vatican, in this instance, or by extension corporations (and their consumers). The wealthy producers of carbon in the West will use part of their wealth to pay off poorer economies in the eastern Europe or Africa or the Far East to plant trees or to reduce their carbon output. The arrangement is effectively a payoff by polluters to poorer nations not to pollute, that is, to remain for the most part poor (except for those few companies who will pocket the winnings for planting trees). What is most egregious about this - and I think the Vatican could do much better, though the article does acknowledge that they have installed solar panels - is that this mechanism of purchasing carbon offsets has been embraced by elite Western entities to allow users in the West to avoid changing our behavior. The Vatican is usually lambasted by the MSM precisely for its efforts to encourage sinful humans to change their behavior, but in this instance - where culture is at issue, just as much as in matters of sexuality - the Vatican has failed to call for a change in behavior and a reduction of our use of the planet's resources. We should be little surprised that, in this instance, the New York Times finds the Vatican's actions to be praiseworthy.

The article concludes by quoting Msgr. Melchor S├ínchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Council for Culture at the Vatican. Msgr. Alameda is quoted to say, “one can emit less CO2 by not using heating and not driving a car, or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees.” The problem with this statement should be obvious: not all forms of penance are the same. Feeling sorry is different than the recitation hundreds of Hail Mary's and a promise to sin no more. "Offsetting" avoids the moral imperative to change our behavior, and effectively asks someone else to pay our penance. If the Vatican can't be moralistic, then we're surely in a bad place. Not to mention a positive story in the New York Times. Let's hope they'll do penance for that.


Anonymous said...

I think you're a little too hard on the Vatican. Although the NYTimes article doesn't mention it, conservation and changing behavior has been a theme developed throughout the Pope's discussions of environmental issues.

For example, in April:
The Holy Father invited everyone to adopt "a way of living, models of production and consumption marked by respect for creation and the need for sustainable development of peoples, keeping in mind the universal distribution of goods, as is so often mentioned in the Church's social doctrine."

And in July,
"Everyone can see today that humanity could destroy the foundation of its own existence, its earth, and therefore we can't simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us, what seems to us in a given moment useful or promising, but we have to respect the inner laws of creation, of this earth, we have to learn these laws and obey them if we want to survive," Benedict said. "This obedience to the voice of the earth is more important for our future happiness than the voices of the moment, the desires of the moment. … Existence itself, our earth, speaks to us, and we have to learn to listen."


Patrick Deneen said...

Zak - Thanks for the gentle and informative correction. These are good words by our Pope. And, in the reportage we're generally seeing in the MSM, you don't see these particular statements of the Pontiff reported by the NYT.

My broader point (which does go beyond the Vatican) is that there is a considerable disconnect between much of what is being said by "environmentalists" and what is being done. Especially worrisome is the widespread reliance upon market mechanisms to solve our problems, where - as the Pope's words point out - the issue is more deeply moral than narrowly economic. The Vatican ought to be taking the lead on showing how "we have to learn to obey these laws." Continuing to behave as usual while relying on the outsourcing of penance and indulgences to low cost markets is NOT what we need. It really only extends what's going on in the broader "free market" to our growing "environmental" - or, better put, natural - crisis. Again, if the Vatican won't be the examplar of how a change in behavior would look, can we have any hope for the latte-drinking, electricity guzzling, jet setting, "environmentalist" set?

Nancy said...

I have my doubts about these carbon credits, as well. Yes, some low paid workers will plant the trees and the gang leader will reap all the profits.

Here's another one. If you're unfaithful, find another person whose faithful and pay them your "faithfulness" credits.