Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Consumption, contradiction and climate change

Soap bubbles fly as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015.
Soap bubbles fly as Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. AP

The allure of a big truck is strong even though I have no need for one. I would never drive it off-road. I wouldn’t use it to haul anything heavier than laundry and groceries. But there I am late at night, scanning car websites, imagining myself behind the wheel of a massive vehicle that would not fit my lifestyle.

Why? Because they look cool. They exude power. They are sleek and rugged. They give white-collar guys the illusion of blue-collar grit and are expertly marketed to scratch that itch.

My neighbor just bought one. Other friends have theirs. I’ve eradicated envy from my professional and personal lives, and yet I have truck envy.

Consumerism is a powerful force, a state of mind targeted by no less a world figure than Pope Francis himself. The pontiff has called me out. He’s calling you out. We’re damaging Earth through our ingrained habits and our vehicle tailpipes. The impact on the environment cannot be denied any longer and those of us who do so are on the wrong side.

I’m not a climate change denier. I’m even worse. I’ve largely ignored climate change until now – not intellectually but practically, thinking there was little I could do to halt global warming. When the pope released his 192-page encyclical on the environment in June, it was widely praised, and I cheered his courage as a world leader even as I lusted for my truck.

That contradiction is at the heart of a climate change crisis.

At a news conference at the Capitol on Monday, Catholic leaders spoke in support of climate change legislation nearing an important vote with lawmakers. Senate Bill 350 – the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 – would require that Californians cut petroleum consumption in half by 2030. Also by 2030, California would have to generate half of its electricity through renewable resources.

The primary opponents of SB 350, championed by Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León, are described as “big oil” – the petroleum industry.

But the more insidious opponent is me. It’s you. It’s those of us who have tuned out air pollution and its effect on our climate and our health. It’s those of us who mouth slogans of why protecting the environment is important, but don’t really live by them. It’s those of us who think Francis is cool and impressive, even as we gloss over his words and his message.

A papal encyclical is essentially a letter to the Catholic bishops and the Catholic faith that is written by the pope. Plenty of popes have written plenty of encyclicals before, but this one about protecting the environment has become gospel for non-Catholics as well.

“He has hit on a very global nerve,” said Bishop Jaime Soto, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. “In a good sense and a bad sense, the issue is on people’s minds.”

Here is a pope promoting public transit. Here is a pope talking about the impacts of air pollution on the poor.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” Francis wrote in the encyclical. “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”

There is no denying it: He means me. He means us. I used to drive 30 minutes one way just to get a haircut. I’ve driven places every day when I could have easily walked or taken transit. I lust after a truck I don’t need.

It’s a delicate dance when we moralize about everyday behavior. De León invited Soto and the Most Rev. Stephen E. Blaire, bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, to speak in support SB 350. At the news conference, the two bishops were asked if they preach about SB 350 from the pulpit.

No, they said.

“Preaching underlying values is more important than preaching the importance legislation x or y,” Soto said.

Are polluters sinners?

Soto said faith leaders aren’t doing their best work when they single people out that explicitly.

Politicians create labels like “big oil” to persuade voters. But faith leaders are mindful that some petroleum executives go to church as well. So do some carmakers, farmers and other business leaders who pollute while making a profit. Soto said Pope Francis’ motivation is to have a public conversation about the environment. It’s an to attempt to persuade and change stubborn human behavior that would cause people to consume without thinking – to a buy the big truck when they don’t need it.

“When we fail to be good stewards of the Earth, there is culpability, moral culpability,” Soto said. “Here in California, we see the grave consequences when we waste water.”

Californians are conserving water more effectively than state guidelines require, but achieving the reductions of SB 350 will require a different kind of industry involvement. The politics of that involvement created strange theater at the Capitol on Monday. Here were Soto and Blaire advocating for SB 350, even though Pope Francis opposes cap and trade – the system by which corporations can buy “allowances” that let them to conduct their businesses even while exceeding statewide greenhouse gas emissions standards.

The political answer of Gov. Jerry Brown is that the money raised by cap and trade goes toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in poor communities. The message of Pope Francis is that pollution is pollution.

It’s a powerful message to consider, but one that’s much harder to live by.