by Shelley Douglass
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace
My sisters and I email each other a couple of times a week, keeping up on life as it happens to us. We share news about medical problems or pets or kids, we comment on politics and books we’ve read, and always, always, we give each other weather reports. Lately the weather reports have been really exciting, featuring snow and freezing temps, roads blocked by disabled cars, storms and winds and ice, and now possible tornadoes. What interests me about these messages is that, whatever the weather – we’re interested!
When I was in college I can remember feeling that people who talked about the weather were boring. I mean, after all – it was either rainy or sunny or somewhere in between! What more was there to say?
Of course, that was before I gardened. Now I’m vitally interested in whether and when and how much rain we’ll get, and in when the sun shines, for how long – and in how hot it will get. I’m hoping that our recent one-digit temps will mean fewer bugs in the garden, and that the mulch of leaves kept some of the salad greens from freezing. I’m wondering if the harsh winter will be longer than usual, as well as colder, and whether our “last freeze” date will hold this year. Is it still a good idea to plant peas on Good Friday, and if I put tomato seeds into pots right now, will it be warm enough to transplant them when they’re ready? Weather has become vitally interesting.
And not only weather, but climate. Here in Alabama we have hot summers and mild winters (usually), long growing seasons and intense sunshine in the summer. I enjoy telling my Washington State friends when I plant, when my tomatoes are ready to harvest, when I pick winter crops – they shake their heads and envy us! Our climate is a great one for gardening, although also great for garden pests.
Lately though – gardeners, even amateurs like me – know the climate is changing. When we moved here in 1989, Northern Alabama was in plant hardiness zone 7, which was like paradise to me after Washington State. Now we are in hardiness zone 8. Why? Of course, because it’s getting warmer.
Our interest in the weather continues, but it has a new urgency. Weather occurs within the overarching frame of climate, and climate is changing. I’ve just been reading about the Jet Stream, and how a warmer Arctic is probably causing it to meander more, so that our “weather events” are sticking around for a longer time. Before that it was the Polar Vortex, and how the high speed winds that keep it in place over the Arctic have been weakened by warming, allowing the Arctic air to come south to Alabama. Ironically enough, global warming has translated into colder weather this winter.
We deal with a lot of issues here at Mary’s House – homelessness first, as people come and stay with us when their housing falls through. Homelessness leads to many other issues, transportation and wages and unions and health care and education and affordable housing, for starters. We deal with the courts and criminal justice system because we work against the death penalty. We are in touch with people who work against war and nuclear weapons, who travel to Palestine and Afghanistan. We are familiar with the heart-breaking stories of immigrants and refugees. All of these human issues play out against one backdrop: the magnificent planet we live on, the environment in which we literally live and move and have our being.
Now that backdrop is changing rapidly and drastically, in ways which will have first and greatest impact on those people who are already at risk. Rising sea levels, drought, wildfires, “weather events”, unpredecented rainfall – the first effects hit poor folks. We can be sure, though, that the rich will also be affected eventually in a graphic demonstration that we are in fact all one.
As Catholic Workers, Jim and I have tried to live simply. As activists and researchers we have had little money because those aren’t “professions” that are highly valued in our society. With a bit of effort, we have kept our income below the taxable level, primarily to avoid paying for wars and weapons of war. (Of course, what passes for living simply in the United States would be considered luxury in much of the world, a fact that should spur us on to act for economic justice.) The “simpler” lifestyle also includes trying to conserve, recycle, compost, and otherwise reduce our contribution to local pollution and global warming.
We have to face the fact, though, that our personal contributions to these global problems are dwarfed by the military, governmental, and corporate policies that create and exacerbate the problems. We vigil with people who drive Prius cars; we maintain our own cars and organize our driving to minimize gasoline use – while the military uses thousands of gallons of fuel and corporations use thousands of tons of natural resources for ships, planes, tanks, and all the supportive infrastructure of war.
Corporations seeking the maximum profit use their influence to push for more and more destructive processes. Witness the boom in exports of “petcoke” from the U.S. to China, at a time when citizens’ groups in the U.S. are pushing for more responsible use of fuels of all kinds. Petcoke is a by-product of one step in refining the products of fracking. It can be burned by power plants to generate electricity. It is far more polluting even than coal, and the United States is producing more and more of it, and exporting much of it to China. The news this week reported that pollution in China at the moment replicates nuclear winter. (Visit desmogblog, among other websites, for information.)
Learning to live more simply is an important part of our personal commitment to change, but it becomes obvious that personal simplicity alone is not going to halt climate change, or any other major global problem. The system that allows and encourages global destruction has got to be changed. Pope Francis talks about evil which is “crystallized in social structures” (The Joy of the Gospel, 59). In speaking of our current form of capitalism, he says, “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule” (56).
To create a saner world there will have to be momentous changes in our political and economic system – revolution, one might say. Those changes will need to come from citizen action, pushing to restore a moral compass to public policy so that “whatever is fragile” is valued and protected. A new group is calling for a commitment to mainstreaming nonviolence, addressing poverty, the arms race, and the climate crisis in ways that move us into nonviolent paths. Check out “Campaign Nonviolence”, which Pax Christi has endorsed, or take action in some other way that you prefer. We’ll need to walk together and not get weary.
Meanwhile, the garden is both a source of hope for me, and a spur to action.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.