The United Nations is persistently pursuing “sustainable development,” a goal with which some in the Church hierarchy, even the pope, seem to be onboard. This is troubling in a time when many see U.N. global initiatives as thinly-veiled Marxist ploys. Still, no matter what the subject, it seems such a reasonable question when someone chimes, “But, is it sustainable?” Sustainability is a good thing; who can argue with that? If recent times have taught us anything, it is that any good thing can be hijacked toward an evil end.
It starts when we are children. Do something disproportionate, like helping yourself to half of the available desserts at dinner, and a parent is bound, at the very least, to ask, “What if everybody did that?” It’s a legitimate question. By this we are taught the nature of fairness and responsible action. Unsurprisingly, social justice questions are, more often than not, framed with what appear to be legitimate questions of sustainability: What if everybody did that? But it is very easy, and diabolically useful, to conflate sustainability with conformity, and the what-if-everybody-did-that question is the gateway.
Let’s look at some examples:
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- You and your wife have eleven children—what if everybody did that? Talk about a population explosion!
- Because you have eleven children, you drive a huge, gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing van—what if everybody did that?
- Heating and cooling the large home required for all those kids leaves a large carbon footprint—what if everybody did that?
- Your kids aren’t attending public school. They won’t get proper sex ed and will end up breeding like rabbits the way their parents did—what if everybody did that?
- You belong to a religion that teaches that the sex act must be open to life—yada, yada, yada. You can see where this is going.
If a cookie-cutter version of how you live your life cannot be applied to the population at large and practiced en masse without repercussion, then your lifestyle is unsustainable and unjust because unsustainability = injustice. So goes the narrative.
Of course, those who level the crosshairs of this weaponized narrative on their opponents always avoid aiming it at the person in the mirror. They never ask, what if everyone in the world practiced a homosexual lifestyle? What if all couples only had one child, or no children? What if everyone went trans and mutilated their genitals? What if everyone aborted all their children? What if everyone bought carbon credits so they could fly their private jets? Those are not the sustainability questions that you’re likely to hear on the evening news. The purveyors of conformity have no real interest in sustainability, it is simply a Trojan horse.
But what about real sustainability issues—raw material usage, industrial pollution, soil depletion, deforestation? Unfortunately, not only are these issues politicized, but they are often done so based on completely false information. For decades, we have been sold the story of rabid deforestation. And here in North America, we had the tree-hugger phenomenon because, you know, Dr. Seuss says that one day we’re gonna whack that last tree—and then what?
You may remember his book, The Lorax. In it, the Lorax tells the businessman, “I’m the Lorax who speaks for the trees which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please.” The businessman responds, “Business is business! And business must grow…I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered my loads…I biggered my money, which everyone needs.” Of course, in Dr. Seuss’ world, everything gets “biggered” except the forest because nobody’s replanting.
But The Lorax wasn’t written until 1971. Reforestation in the U.S. did not begin in 1971, and it did not begin because Dr. Seuss’ silly little book goaded the collective conscience of the lumber industry into submission; reforestation had already been going on for more than two centuries. Speaking of my own stomping grounds, pioneers cleared farm land in the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but they planted trees on the prairies of the Dakotas. But if you are someone who’s never been outside of the Bronx, or Haight-Ashbury, a cartoonist who creates a cute, accusatory little tale suddenly becomes a sustainability expert.
I spent many years of my career working in the wood-products industry; enough years to know that there is more forestland in North America today than there was when the Mayflower landed. Why is that? Because the wood-products industry believes in sustainability—of profit. They don’t want to lose their bread and butter, and they are therefore deeply involved in reforestation. Now, I know it’s not that simple—that there are some potentially legitimate environmental considerations concerning old-growth vs. new-growth trees, etc., but nuance did not exactly frame the arguments of Dr. Seuss or that of tree-huggers.
And then there is this oddity among environmentalist—the clear tendency not to see humanity as part of nature; as having any place or any rights in nature; as though we emigrated from outer space—an invasive species. Somehow, the whole notion of descending from apes gets pushed aside when the rights of apes are on the line. We are reduced from beings with a supernatural soul to solely natural beings—and then denied any natural rights.
To be fair, Dr. Seuss’s little tale takes on more veracity when applied at an international level. There has, indeed, been a good deal of raping the environment on an international level—multinational corporations taking advantage of the disadvantaged—but as the world shrinks and corporations grow to immense size, even the most profit-hungry among them begins to be concerned about the sustainability of that profit on a global scale, simply because the planet has become their backyard.
From a Catholic perspective, politicized information is often embraced by well-meaning, duped members of the clergy who try to influence their charges by woke social justice involvement in the real world—where the rubber meets the road, so to speak—doing so without really knowing anything about either the rubber or the road.
How do we differentiate between the legitimate sustainability questions and the socially weaponized questions? In the past, we may have relied upon the episcopacy to provide such filtering. Given the current highly-compromised state of the hierarchy, what resource is there for the responsible Catholic?
Perhaps just such a resource lies in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Commissioned by St. John Paul II and completed shortly before his death, the document, while not without its questionable globalist catchphrases and quasi-scientific assertions, is nonetheless valuable for giving the proper context for the place of humanity within the cosmos. A word search only discovers two instances of the word sustainable, both of them in paragraph 483, where it reads:
“The close link that exists between the development of the poorest countries, demographic changes and a sustainable use of the environment must not become a pretext for political and economic choices that are at variance with the dignity of the human person.
The Compendium is not a short or simple document—because the subject is immense and complex. And it is also not an easily weaponized document unless taken out of context. In its fullness, social justice is, simply put, a balancing act between our freedoms and our responsibilities. That said, it is clear throughout the document that our first responsibility lies in placing the proper value on human life; that solutions for sustainability, such as programs for drastic population reduction, are “at variance with the dignity of the human person.”
The bottom line is that, if humanity is just another species—if we possess no more dignity than any other species—anything goes. If we are just another species, and are perceived as a threat to the environment, then any sustainability argument, no matter how grossly inaccurate, will be found sufficient; the eradication of humanity becomes an answer looking for a question. To quote The Compendium, “The direction that human existence, society and history will take depends largely on the answers given to the questions of man’s place in nature and society…”
This is a reality that was clear to St. John Paul. At the outset, The Compendium cites three of his encyclicals—Laborem Exercens (Through Work), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern), and Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year)—that “represent fundamental stages of Catholic thought in this area.” Because a short essay cannot adequately scratch the surface of this subject, I can only hope to point out what I deem some outstanding features. Perhaps a line from Centesimus Annus best begins the summation:
Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given to him, but man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed. (Paragraph 38)
As one studies The Compendium and its supporting documents, it becomes clear that the social doctrine of the Church finds justification for environmentalism and sustainability only if humanity is seen as the primary legitimate benefactor of such efforts. The earth is our gift, but we ourselves are God’s greatest gift to us. We are to treat creation with reverence because it is a gift and because it sustains us, making it immensely important to the gift giver, who reverences us as His own, His sons and daughters. Reverence for the gift is reverence for the giver.
Sustainability that is focused on nature for nature’s sake, without benevolence toward humanity, is not only unjust, but unnatural, for we are part of nature. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, we are the pinnacle of nature—the only creature with free will: the only creature which is an end in itself, created for itself.
And that belief is the fault line, the gaping crevasse where Tradition and tree-hugger part company—adrift on separate continental shelves. In the eyes of a de-Christianized world, we are nothing special—just another species, and a destructive one at that. For a self-destructive generation, sustainability is about sustaining everything but humanity.
Progressives will overlook the only thing that unites our visions: the very fact that we are part of nature. They will overlook it not because they don’t understand it or see it but because of the demands it puts on them—the responsibility. They are not fixers, they are whistle-blowers, and they are only whistle-blowers so long as they can conduct said activity from a safe space. Of one thing you can be sure: That safe space contains nothing so dangerous or offensive as a mirror.