June 19, 2015

The Encyclical - Selected Excerpts

The Encyclical by Pope Francis is being hailed by environmentalists as the second coming. It's hardly that, in my view. Nonetheless, having read the entire length of it, I was struck within minutes of starting it, about how incisive and accurate commentary it offers on our true predicament.

Apart from sections I disagreed with or with which I couldn't connect, there were several passages that completely resonated with me and some that I found highly insightful. I list them below in the order in which they appear in the Encyclical with headings of my own.

Sacrifice and sharing
Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”.

Failure of ecological movement
The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.

Structure of the Encyclical (included for reference)
I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows. I will then consider some principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent. I will then attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes. This will help to provide an approach to ecology which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings. In light of this reflection, I will advance some broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy. Finally, convinced as I am that change is impossible without motivation and a process of education, I will offer some inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience.

Repeating themes (included for reference)
[...] a number of themes which will reappear as the Encyclical unfolds. As examples, I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.

Decline in quality of life
Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Media noise obfuscating deep truths
Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.

Facebook culture and relationships
Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.

The wide gap between the elite and the poor
These days, [concerns of the poor] are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.

Population vs. consumption
To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Weak responses
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.

Incisive summation of outcomes of climate conferences
The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

The Pope denounces air conditioning!
People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

Financial gain as the new God
In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.

How future society will look back on today's leadership
What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?

Possibility of change
In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; [...] These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

Denial due to cognitive dissonance
As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.

Collapse
Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity.

Coming together of faith and reason
I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.

There being no single way of perceiving reality
Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality.

Whether man has "dominion" over earth
We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth, has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world. “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s”; to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it”.

Human dignity
The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness. This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”. Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”. Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”. We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.

The charge of anthropocentrism
“You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and withhold your help… If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the young”. Along these same lines, rest on the seventh day is meant not only for human beings, but also so “that your ox and your donkey may have rest”. Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.

The message of each creature
The bishops of Japan, for their part, made a thought-provoking observation: “To sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope”. This contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us, since “for the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice”. [...] Paying attention to this manifestation, we learn to see ourselves in relation to all other creatures: “I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own”.

Inequality
But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.

Private property
The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”.

Deriving joy through contemplation of nature
The Lord was able to invite others to be attentive to the beauty that there is in the world because he himself was in constant touch with nature, lending it an attention full of fondness and wonder. As he made his way throughout the land, he often stopped to contemplate the beauty sown by his Father, and invited his disciples to perceive a divine message in things: “Lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest”

Power and its deployment
Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.

Power and progress
There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”, as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.

The technocratic paradigm
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.

Unlimited growth, resource depletion and peak oil
[Earlier] it was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.

The fallacy of neutrality of technology
We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

Technology as a dominant force over society
The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”.

The deepest roots of present failure
We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.

Specialisation
The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. This very fact makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.

Partial responses
Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

Call for a revolution
All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Choosing technology over reality
Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves.

Consequences of separation from reality
Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

Restoring inter-personal relationships
If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.

Abortion and protection of nature
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.

Practical relativism
When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.

Use-and-throw logic
In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.

An economy that favours small businesses
[...] it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.

Integral ecology
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

How ecosystems interact
Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities.

Homogenisation of cultures
A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. [...] There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.

Death of a culture
Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.

How native people view land
For [indigenous communities] land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Lack of housing
Lack of housing is a grave problem in many parts of the world, both in rural areas and in large cities, since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand. Not only the poor, but many other members of society as well, find it difficult to own a home. Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families. This is a major issue for human ecology.

Slum relocation
When the poor live in unsanitary slums or in dangerous tenements, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand, with choices of decent housing offered, and the people directly involved must be part of the process”.

Improved public transportation instead of cars
The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the [transport] systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.

Our physical body as an allegory of nature
The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.

Intergenerational justice
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.

Irresponsible to view doomsday predictions with disdain
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.

Cultural decline is part of the context
Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family.

Failure of climate summits
Worldwide, the ecological movement has made significant advances, thanks also to the efforts of many organizations of civil society. [...] This notwithstanding, recent World Summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment.
[...]
The Conference of the United Nations on Sustainable Development, “Rio+20” (Rio de Janeiro 2012), issued a wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document. International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good. Those who will have to suffer the consequences of what we are trying to hide will not forget this failure of conscience and responsibility.

Decentralised community solutions
In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instil a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.

Limitations of governance centric solutions
Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term. That is why, in the absence of pressure from the public and from civic institutions, political authorities will always be reluctant to intervene, all the more when urgent needs must be met. To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.

The precautionary principle
The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” which prevent environmental degradation. This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.

Opportunity lost
The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world. Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth. This frequently leads to an overproduction of some commodities, with unnecessary impact on the environment and with negative results on regional economies.

Market no panacea
Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.

Openness to different possibilities
... we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development. Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term. If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.

New definition of progress
For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change “models of global development”; this will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications”. It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.

True costs of production
The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”, can those actions be considered ethical.

Sense of connectedness
Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.

The illusion of freedom
Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. Romano Guardini had already foreseen this: “The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”. This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.

Collective selfishness and social unrest
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness”. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.

Call to overcome individualism
[...] we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society.

Educational challenge
Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them. In those countries which should be making the greatest changes in consumer habits, young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment. At the same time, they have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits. We are faced with an educational challenge.

Family as the heart of culture of life
I would stress the great importance of the family, which is “the place in which life – the gift of God – can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life”. In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say “thank you” as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings.

Aesthetics and environment
In this regard, “the relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked”. By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour.

Self conversion
The Australian bishops spoke of the importance of such conversion for achieving reconciliation with creation: “To achieve such reconciliation, we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart”.

Less is more
Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Life of sobriety
Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Inner peace and ecology
Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life. Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances? Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride rough-shod over everything around them. This too affects how they treat the environment.
[...]
We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.

Abandoning superficiality
We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.

Love in social life
Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”.

Community actions
Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism.

Discovering God's grace
The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves”.
Complete text

May 12, 2015

The City Is Not A Concrete Jungle But "The Human Zoo"

Last Sunday, The Hindu profiled a bunch of people who left the city to live and work closer to nature. This is third such story in recent months that I know of (see, first and second). It reminded me of a book about life in the city that I read a few years ago and one which left a deep impression on me. Thought I'll share what I learned from the book with you.

It's called "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris, the renowned zoologist/ ethologist (ethology is the study of animal behaviour) published in 1969 and re-published in 1994. Morris is better known for "The Naked Ape" but I consider this little known gem of his to be of far greater significance.

In "The Human Zoo" he makes uncanny comparisons between the patterns of human life in cities with those of animals held in captivity. Sample the introduction from page one:
When the pressures of modern living become heavy, the harassed city-dweller often refers to his teeming world as a concrete jungle. This is a colourful way of describing the pattern of life in a dense urban community, but it is also grossly inaccurate, as anyone who has studied a real jungle will confirm.

Under normal conditions, in their natural habitats, wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, attack their offspring, develop stomach ulcers, become fetishists, suffer from obesity, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit murder. Among human city-dwellers, needless to say, all of these things occur. Does this, then, reveal a basic difference between the human species and other animals? At first glance it seems to do so. But this is deceptive. Other animals do behave in these ways under certain circumstances, namely when they are confined in the unnatural conditions of captivity. The zoo animal in a cage exhibits all these abnormalities that we know so well from our human companions. Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.

The comparison we must make is not between the city-dweller and the wild animal, but between the city-dweller and the captive animal. The modern human animal is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge, restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain.
I first read the book around five or six years ago. I came across it at a time when I was beginning to question whether a vast conglomeration of millions of people over a small area, namely in a city, that necessitates a) centralised supply of food, water, cooking fuel, transportation fuel, clothing, building material and so on from sources far away, and b) consumed at a rate that is constantly increasing; can ever be sustainable. Desmond Morris comes from a completely different perspective, that of a zoologist, and looks at patterns of human behaviour in cities to lucidly illustrate "the increasing price we have to pay for indulging [our inventive urges] and the ingenious ways in which we contrive to meet that price, no matter how steep it becomes."

It's the most fascinating account. Re-reading bits and pieces of the book now I see how much I have forgotten and perhaps need to read again. What I remember most from the book is the second chapter on status struggles titled "Status and Super Status" which relates closely to my interest in consumption patterns in our society. Morris says that in any organized group of mammals there is always a struggle for social dominance. Each adult individual has a particular social rank, giving him his position, or status, in the group hierarchy.

He then goes on to provide ten commandments of dominance, the first of which states: "You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of dominance." Then he goes on to show how this holds true for Baboons and Humans alike. What's truly insightful is what Morris has to say about the consequence of status struggle in a group:
The general result is a constant condition of status tension. Under natural conditions this tension remains tolerable because of the limited size of the social groupings. If, however, in the artificial environment of captivity, the group size becomes too big, or the space available too small, then the status ‘rat race’ soon gets out of hand, dominance battles rage uncontrollably, and the leaders of the packs, prides, colonies or tribes come under severe strain. When this happens, the weakest members of the group are frequently hounded to their deaths, as the restrained rituals of display and counter-display degenerate into bloody violence.
This, to me, accurately describes the pattern of events unfolding in this country and elsewhere in the world. I do not endorse everything in the book. It has its limits. But what I really like about it is that it transcends the narrow vocabulary of concepts through which we perceive today's reality. It's a reminder of the need to abandon single, narrow frames of looking at the deep malaise in which we find ourselves. There are so many of them and each one is useful. But I have a problem when a proponent of any given frame argue that it alone is the defining frame from which to understand our predicament: Capitalism vs. Socialism, Globalisation vs. Localisation, Stupid Policies vs. Smart Policies, Stupid Political Class vs. Smart Political Class, Growth vs. De-growth, Fossil fuels vs. Renewables, 1% vs. 99%, West Vs. East, Monetary System vs. Gift Economy, and so on.

One thing I've learned after reading the Russian book series by Vladimir Megre (see mention in left navigation bar) is that no matter how confident we may be about our Weltanschauung, we must always leave scope for new ways of perceiving and understanding reality. Sometimes there are explanations we may never have considered before in our wildest imagination which may be equally valid than the one we hold dear.

Also recommended is the BBC TV documentary series "The Human Animal" which takes Desmond Morris around the world to reveal that patterns of human behaviour are common across national, regional, and racial differences. It is differently organised than the book and contains material from his other works as well. Like the book, the series is little known and also rated highly (8.8 on IMDB from less than 100 users).

Calling Anastasia Readers in India

"The Ringing Cedars of Russia" is a ten-part book series originally published in Russian language over a period of fifteen years having sold around twelve million titles so far. They are authored by Vladimir Megre and Anastasia is the name of the lead character in the books.

Reading the books is a very special experience. If you have read the English translation of any of the titles and live in India, we would like to hear from you. Since the books are not available in India, my guess is that very few people in the country have read them. The e-book version is available as torrent though. I have read nine and my wife is on #5. If you are one of the readers, do contact on the email given in the left navigation bar, we'd like to share notes. Thank you.

July 24, 2013

Nothing Natural About This Disaster (Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change)

In part-1 of multi-part series on viewing Uttarakhand floods in the context of climate change, I argue that the floods were induced by man made climate change by explaining how rising temperature influences extreme weather, showing that the world's most respected climate scientists would attribute the event to climate change, that it is in line with scientific predictions, and matches with extreme weather events being witnessed around the world.

Indian Meteorological Department calls all rains, falling over a region, that are 20% more than normal, "excess" rainfall. In the week of 13-June to 19-June, the entire state of Uttarakhand received 847% excess rainfall according to IMD.[1] This has no precedent.

In an excellent (though limited) analysis of the reasons for the disaster, R. Ramachandran writes in Frontline [2]:
What was peculiar about the monsoon this year? On June 14, the monsoon front was located over eastern India. In fact it was a trifle sluggish compared with the normal progress of the front. But within a day, the front advanced right across Uttar Pradesh and the western regions to cover the entire country by June 15, exactly a month ahead of its normal date of July 15. While the IMD had forecast a rapid advance [...], its advance right across to the west just within a day was entirely unexpected.

This has never happened in the past, according to M. Rajeevan, Adviser in the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).
Despite the significantly unusual nature of the event in more ways than one, every single commentator has called the Uttarakhand floods a "natural disaster," or something to that effect, that has been aggravated by poor governance. True, illegal construction on riverbeds, unchecked deforestation, high inflow of tourists, sham environmental clearance process and a dam density that is highest in the world - are all responsible for exacerbating the damage and need to be addressed.

Without taking away from the significance of the factors that made the disaster worse, I wish to point out that we must pay greater attention to climate change, the phenomenon which induced the disaster in the first place.

Scant reports in mainstream media on climate link of the floods have cautiously talked about changing monsoon patterns [3][4] but even in reports from environmental institutions that should know, [5] little has been said on precisely how climate change influences such events, there's also fairly little about studies that had predicted disasters like these, and what they say about disasters of tomorrow. No one has connected the dots between Uttarakhand floods and other major climate anomalies unfolding around the world. Most importantly, we haven't been told who is really responsible and what implications a changing climate hold for future of the country.

How Climate Change Influences Extreme Weather

The term "natural disaster" is one of those things that has lived way past its expiry date, like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It's time we should let it retire into obscurity. Today almost all disasters that are supposedly natural - floods, droughts, storms, heat waves, cold waves, and forest fires (with the exception of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes) - are linked with climate change.

Scientists like to put the word "anthropogenic" (man-made) before the term "climate change" [6] to signify that the phenomenon is caused by factors for which humans are responsible. Chief among them is burning of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, oil and its various derivatives are consumed to power every day of our lives from the home in which we wake up in the morning, to the air conditioner that keeps us comfortable at office, the car that takes us there, and the stuff we buy at shopping malls.

None of this, of course, is "natural." As Joel Salatin, a self-described "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-Farmer" and a personal hero, says in his book [7]:
For the first time in human civilization, you can flip on a switch or clench a nozzle to get energy from who knows where, turn on a faucet and get water from who knows where, send the sewage out a pipe that goes to who knows where, and build a house from materials that came from who knows where. Folks, this ain’t normal.
Over the past two centuries or so human beings have veered far beyond the path of our natural existence and we're now seeing its consequences. Back to topic, the most pertinent question here is this: "Is climate change solely responsible for causing Uttarakhand floods rather than natural factors?" Ask any climate scientist and you will get no for an answer. It's the wrong question. Instead, a good question would be: "Is it fair to say that Uttarakhand floods would have been less severe if there was no climate change?" All scientists would answer yes to that.

Our weather is a complex beast. No extreme weather event is "solely" caused by climate change. Such events are caused by a combination of what's called "natural variability" - the natural processes of a normal climate and rising temperature due to climate change. For thousands of years life has existed and thrived on this planet in a climate that has remained largely stable.[8] But less than two centuries of fossil fuel consumption has led to a warming world.

Rising temperature does to global weather patterns what drugs do to an athlete. It boosts their performance. In scientific terms, you could say, climate change amplifies natural variability. But when an athlete takes drugs before a track event and creates a world record, can you say to what degree were the drugs responsible?

It's the same with climate change. When an extreme weather event strikes, it is impossible to tell the share of climate change and that of natural variability in causing it without studying the event in detail. What we know for sure is rising temperature increases the odds of extreme weather events. If you rate all extreme events in a normal climate on 1 to 10, many 5's would be converted to 8's in a warming climate. If there is a rare event that rates 9 in normal climate, under rising temperatures it may go up to level 13 or 15 - an intensity and scale you cannot imagine in normal climate. Such records are made when both climate change and natural variability are moving in the same direction. This is what seems to have happened in Uttarakhand.

Scientists Knew This Was Very Likely to Happen

Scientists have long predicted that as temperature continues to rise this century the intensity, as well as, frequency of extreme weather events will rise with it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a conservative body of scientists who examine existing scientific studies and whose every word is debated by government representatives in its panel — has been saying since 1990 that climate change is unequivocal.[9]

Its 2007 Synthesis report warned that "continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century."[10] The report predicted, among other things, of "increase in frequency of...heavy precipitation" (rain, snow, hail or their combination) specifically in higher altitudes like the Himalayas.[11] It further said that "disruption of settlements, commerce, transport and societies due to flooding: pressures on urban and rural infrastructures; loss of property" is to be expected. A conservative way to state what happened in Uttarakhand.[12]

In fact an RTI application filed by Climate Revolution Initiative with the Ministry of Environment in 2009 had sought to know whether the central government acted on the IPCC warnings and conveyed them to state governments to prepare for adaptation. As can be expected, the ministry had issued no such advisory.[13]

In 2009, Government of India constituted its own body of scientists named 'Indian Network on Climate Change Assessment' or INCCA to look into published research on climate change.[14] In executive summary of its report #2 published in November 2010, a key result listed in section 13 was titled "Impacts of climate change on floods." It warned of a significant increase in the magnitude of floods. And said the following [15]:
this has a very severe implication for existing infrastructure such as dams, bridges, roads, etc., in the [river basin] areas.
In 2012, IPCC published a special report on extreme events or SREX called 'Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters...'[16] It says "evidence from observations gathered since 1950" show the number of heavy precipitation events are rising; losses from weather and climate disasters are increasing; that in future, we can expect "substantial warming in temperature extremes"; and that "frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase."[17]

After a record-smashing "Angry Summer" Australia endured in 2012-2013, which brought heat waves, brush fires, and record maximum temperatures the country has ever seen, researchers at the University of Melbourne were tasked to look into future weather patterns. In a paper published earlier this month they conclude that Australia is five times more likely to see extremely hot summers and half the blame can be laid at the door of greenhouse gas emissions.[18]



While science can tell us broad trends going decades into future, it cannot tell us when and where climate impacts will occur. To an extent "where" can be determined by detailed climate vulnerability assessment studies but "when" is much harder to know in advance. Climate adaptation will be looked at in a later post.

Climate Change Has Role in Every Extreme Weather Event, Say Scientists

Records and events around the world bear out scientific predictions. May 2013, for example, was the 339th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, according to National Climatic Data Centre (NCDC) based in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.[19] Think about that for a moment. Since 1984, average global surface temperature for every single month has been greater than 1901-2000 average. The odds of that occurring by simple chance is a number "considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."[20]

If the planet was not warming, one would expect the number of occurrences of record maximum temperature and record minimum to be about the same. For U.S, until 1970's that was the case. But by the year 2000, the ratio of high temperature records in the country was twice as much as low temperature records, says Kevin Trenberth who heads climate analysis at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) at Boulder Colorado, U.S. By 2012, maximum temperature records were being created ten times more frequently.[21]

Earlier, scientists used to hold the view that no single climate event can be attributed to climate change. But that view is changing. Three years ago, Trenberth, in a presentation to scientists argued that we should assume global warming plays a role in every climate event, then ask how significant is that role.

In August 2010 the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre organised a workshop on attribution of climate events. In it Myles Allen, another reputed scientist who heads Climate Dynamics group at Oxford university department, argued that it's no longer appropriate to say that you can never blame an individual weather event on climate change.[22]

In July 2011 climate researchers from Britain, the United States and other parts of the world announced a new international alliance that aims to investigate exceptional weather events.[23] They believe that it is no longer plausible merely to claim that extreme weather is “consistent” with climate change. Instead, they intend to assess each unusual event in terms of the probability that it has been exacerbated or even caused by the global temperature increase.

In September 2011 a press teleconference held by a renowned group of climatologists and weather experts made it clear: "All weather events are now influenced by climate change because all weather now develops in a different environment than before." [24]

James Hansen, world's most respected climate scientist, who until recently headed NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, U.S, goes a step further. Based on a purely statistical analysis of historical weather data, he says even without investigating individual extreme heat wave events one can say they were "caused" by climate change.[25] Hansen's study showed extremely hot temperatures covered less than 0.2% of the planet between 1951 and 1980. By 2012, those temperatures covered about 10% of the land area - a fifty-fold increase already.[25-A]

Hansen says scientists need not be defensive about linking individual weather events directly to climate change. "To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change," he wrote in August last year describing his results.[26] [27]

Studies Have Conclusively Established Climate Change Contribution to Past Weather Extremes

In July 2010 Russia burned. Some called it a once-in-1000-year heat wave, others said it is the worst heat wave ever in Russian history.[28] [29] Forests caught fire, crops were destroyed and capital city Moscow got enveloped in smoke with people walking around in masks and feeling like "smoked fish in an oven".[30] [31] [32] More than 50,000 died from respiratory illnesses and heat stress that year.[33]

Soon after, a scientific study was undertaken to investigate the factors responsible. The scientists used a new approach for crunching climate data called Monte Carlo modeling, which reports say, "is a tool for investigating tricky, probabilistic processes involving both defined and random influences: Make a model, run it enough times, and trends emerge."[34] Their conclusion was categorical: "80% probability that the 2010 July heat record would not have occurred without climate warming."[35]

Scientists at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Research used physics, statistical analysis and computer simulations to link extreme rainfall and heat waves to global warming. They conclude that "It is very likely that several of the unprecedented extremes of the past decade would not have occurred without anthropogenic global warming." The study said that "the high amount of extremes is not normal."[36]

Another study conducted by Munich RE, the world's largest reinsurance firm, says the number of natural disasters per year has been rising dramatically on all continents since 1980 with the largest increase in North America where countries have been battered by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, searing heat and drought. It says climate change is driving the increase and predicts those influences will continue in years ahead.[37]

Uttarakhand Floods Match Pattern of Extreme Weather Events Worldwide

Flood fury in Uttarakhand this year matches the pattern of climate change induced extreme rainfall and flood events in recent years in different parts of the world. In 2010 monsoons, one-fifth of Pakistan was under water killing close to 2000 people and damaging $43 billion worth of property.[38] Thailand, Combodia, Myanmar and Vietnam were all severely flooded in 2011.[39] The same year El Salvador in central America saw more rains in ten days than in entire year.[40]

Ten Years of Flooding in China

China has always been prone to flooding in the monsoon season.[41] Flooding in China, according to observers, is distinctive in that it is not limited to a single incident in a limited area. It is a series of individual flood disasters occurring over a large number of provinces, "with each province measuring the size of a European country." Over the last few years massive flooding is occurring with regularity and intensity not seen before.

Over the last ten years, every single year saw floods in China.
  • 2012: On 21st July capital Beijing was hit by the heaviest floods since records began. It brought the city to a halt, led to evacuation of 57,000 people, took lives of 79 and caused damage worth US $1.6 billion. It was part of series of floods that began in Spring.[42] [43]
  • 2011: In June to September central and southern China saw series of floods inundating 12 provinces while leaving others in drought. The floods affected 3.6 crore people while killing 355 and resulting in damage of US $6.5 billion.[44] [45] [46] [47] [48]
  • 2010: Floods and landslides from May to September broke all records as it affected 28 provinces leaving close to 3200 dead, over 1000 missing, affecting crops over 97,200 square km, destroying over 13 Lakh houses, leading to evacuation of over 1.5 crore people and destroying US $51.4 billion of property.[49] [50] [51] [52] [53]
  • 2009: Floods caused by more than 30 large-scale rainfalls and nine typhoons hit 29 provinces, regions and municipalities involving 87,300 sq.km, affecting over 1 crore people and causing US $12.39 billion in damage.[54] [55]
  • 2008: Fifteen provinces in Eastern and Southern China were flooded for around 15 days of torrential rain and landslides causing over 200 people to die, forcing 13 lakh to evacuate and destroying US $2.2 billion of property.[56] [57] [58]
  • 2007: Massive flooding from June to September caused by torrential rains and overflowing rivers affected 24 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities with 200 million people resulting in more than 1,000 casualties. Some claimed it to be worst flooding in 80 years.[59] [60]
  • 2006: In the most serious disaster since 1998, over 3000 people died in China due to Typhoons, floods, landslides and hailstorms. More than 1.3 crore sought emergency shelter or were evacuated.[61] [62] [63] [64]
  • 2005: Flooding devastated 27 provinces across the country leaving some 134 million people affected. 910 people were reported dead, over 830,000 houses destroyed and more than 9.5 million hectares of farmland submerged.[65] [66] [67]
  • 2004: In June and July 2004 Guangxi Autonomous Region experienced serious flooding that affected at least 3.69 million people, with 76 people losing their lives. 57,000 rooms were destroyed with 398,380 tons of crops lost.[68] [69]
  • 2003: Over 2 Lakh homes collapsed and another 530,000 damaged after pounding rain in China's Shaanxi province, where 123 died or went missing between August and October. An unusually long flooding season continued till October.[70] [71] [72] [73]
India too saw a number of floods over this period. The state of Bihar regularly witnessed large flooding, particularly in the year 2004, in 2007 when several other parts of the country were flooded too along with other parts of South Asia and in 2008 when Kosi embankment broke and inundated large areas of the state affecting 23 Lakh people.[See Update 25-Jul] We can't forget Mumbai, of course, which saw 1000 mm of rain in a 24 hour period in 2005. In 2010 Leh witnessed a cloudburst killing 200 even though it's a sparsely populated cold desert that hardly sees any rainfall all year.

So far I've listed only flood events. The number of heat waves, forest fires, storms, droughts and other extreme weather events over the last few years in various parts of the world is far too large. Some people have a new term for this: global weirding. As Tom Friedman puts it, "The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous."[74]

Even as Uttarakhand floods were unfolding, other regions of the world were experiencing impacts of extreme weather of varying intensity. If there is one common denominator with all of these stories it is the fact that none were reported in mainstream print and TV media in India. Consider the sample below.

June 2013: Alberta, Canada Sees Worst Floods in History

Heavy rainfall led to extensive flooding in multiple cities in Alberta province of Canada as several of its rivers swelled to many times their peak flow. Floods displaced or evacuated over 1 Lakh people and led to deployment of Canadian Armed Forces to help in relief work. Damage was estimated to be (Canadian) $3 billion to $5 billion, which is 20-30 times the amount of damage caused by the second biggest floods in the region in 2005.[75] [76] [77]

June 2013: Central Europe Faced Floods

Several parts of central Europe mainly Germany, Austria and Czech Republic but also Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland were caught in floods as two main rivers Danube and Elbe and their tributaries became swollen after heavy rainfall leading to floods along their banks. One region in Austria saw as much rain in two days as it would in two months. Overall losses are estimated to be US$16 billion.[78] [79] [80]

June 2013: U.S. Witnesses Large Forest Fires and Other Extremes

State of Colorado witnessed second largest forest fire in its history by area.[81] Started on June 20, it merged with two other fires a few days later and covered 110,405 acres in total. Other parts of the country from New Mexico to California and Idaho were also reported to be witnessing forest fires. Even Alaska saw forced evacuations of hundreds of citizens and animals due to a wildfire.[82]

Although immediate cause of forest fires can range from lightning strike to an Army artillery exercise, forests are more susceptible to catching fires due to climate change as rising temperature sucks moisture out of the air, out of ground and out of the trees.[83] [84] In other extremes witnessed this month in U.S, storms were lashing more frequently and tornadoes were getting more powerful as the one-and-half minute ABC news clip shows (video taken down by member).

The New York Times is calling it the new normal — an increasingly hot and dry West, resulting in more catastrophic fires.[85] Scientists say that the recent fires are hotter, more enveloping, and that they are killing far more trees.

July 2013: Southwest China Floods

In late June and early July heavy rains lashed on Sichuan province and other parts of southwest China killing 58 and disrupting lives of 60 Lakh people. The rains were described as heaviest in the region since records began in 1950s.[86] Multiple landslides following the rain buried dozens of people. In another part of the country, Eastern China, 5 Lakh people were forced to evacuate in anticipation of torrential rains brought along with Typhoon Soulik.[87]

May-July 2013: Russia Battered With Drought

Large parts of Russia have been battling drought conditions since May this year due to higher than normal temperatures. Russia has had a long relationship with drought which makes an appearance very few years. This time though Russian grain production has been affected for the fourth year in a row by weather maladies. As can be seen in the graph below, Russian crop projection is down to 20-40% in most areas. Daytime temperatures have been so high that the Government health officials called on people to take an afternoon break to limit strenuous work and sun exposure during the hottest part of the day.[88] [89] [90]



Could Uttarakhand Floods Be Linked With Arctic Melting?

Some scientists have claimed that the floods in Europe and droughts in Russia could be linked with melting in the Arctic summer ice. Arctic region experiences melting of sea ice (floating ice) every summer and regains it in winter. Since 2005 though the rate of melting has accelerated to several times the previous years. In 2007 extent of melting shocked scientists as it was more than 22% over the previous record low.[91] In 2012, it set a record even lower.[92] This melting is decades ahead of projections in IPCC 2007 report.

Scientists have suggested that this is disrupting the normal flow and position of jet stream which influences weather patterns worldwide. An AFP news release from June 5th explains[93]:
Leading the charge is the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) near Berlin, which says a low-pressure system that dumped the rain [in central Europe] was locked into place by a disturbance with a global wind pattern. "We think it is linked to the current drought conditions in Russia as well," Stefan Rahmstorf, PIK’s professor of ocean physics, told AFP.
Rahmstorf and colleagues introduced "wave resonance theory" in a paper earlier this year that has gained a lot of traction with climate scientists:
Normally, air moves around the mid-latitudes of the planet in the form of waves, oscillating irregularly between the tropics and the poles, Rahmstorf explained. The main force behind this movement is the big temperature gap between the frigid Arctic and the warmer southerly latitudes. Like a pump, this differential helps to force air northward or southward.

The problem, though, is that the Arctic is steadily warming — last year, its summer sea ice hit its lowest extent on record — so the temperature difference is declining. As a result, according to the theory, the wave movement diminishes. At a certain point, pressure systems stay locked in place, causing a weather pattern that persists wretchedly.
In a key statement Rahmstorf adds that the "planetary wave resonance is not a local effect but spread around the whole (northern) hemisphere." He argues that when "resonance" episode occurs, half a dozen peaks and troughs of high or low pressure form around the northern hemisphere. "This explains why some parts of the world become unseasonably hot or cold and others unusually dry or rainy," said Rahmstorf.

The purpose of including this section is not to claim that record Arctic melting is responsible for Uttarakhand floods but to draw attention to a phenomenon which could be connected and which requires research. Since like Europeon floods, heavy rainfall in Uttarakhand is also linked with a low pressure system,[2] that was locked into place[94], this aspect needs to be seriously investigated.

In Conclusion

Uttarakhand floods cannot be termed as a "natural" disaster. Since we know how climate change influences extreme weather events; we know it is consistent with scientific predictions; we know climate change contributes to every extreme weather event today; and finally, because similar unusual and extreme weather events attributable to climate change are unfolding all across the world; a more appropriate descriptor would be "a disaster induced by man made climate change."

Next in the series on Uttarakhand Floods and Climate Change: Mega-Disasters of Tomorrow

Update 25-Jul: Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP comments below that Kosi embankment failure of 2008 was more due to human error rather than extreme rainfall. If his data of below average rainfall in the area is correct, the event cannot be blamed on climate change. That said, the same year Assam, Western Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh also witnessed flooding due to heavy rainfall. In total, according to government data, over 2400 people died in monsoon floods that year. Deaths due to Kosi is said to be around 400.

Update 05-Aug: In a comment below Nagraj Adve writes: "Unfortunately, we still cannot link single rain events to climate change though as you persuasively argue, it is likely they like Uttarakhand are linked." I would respectfully disagree. I think it has long been known that warming will lead to heavy rainfall events. Here's a paper from 1992 and one from 1993 investigating climate change influence on rainfall. Today in mid 2013 there is already extensive research on this.

In a 2011 paper titled "Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes", researchers from Canadian and UK universities argued that "human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas." It went on to add that "the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming." Joe Romm of Climate Progress blog called it a "seminal" paper and BBC report on the study was titled "Climate change raises flood risk".

Another study titled "Anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000" published at the same time looked at flooding of UK and Wales in 2000 and concluded that GHG emissions were "very likely" ( >90% probability) responsible.

A study published in April this year titled "Probable maximum precipitation and climate change" found that "continued course of high greenhouse gas emissions would influence the potential maximum precipitation." See coverage on Climate Progress blog titled: "When It Rains, It Pours: Study Confirms Climate Change Will Keep Driving More Intense Precipitation."

Apart from this, we also know that climate change raises risk of glacial lake outburst which was also witnessed at Kedarnath in Uttarakhand. A 2010 report from U.S. Geological Survey, which came out when one-fifth of Pakistan was under floods, stated that Himalayan glacier retreat due to climate change "increases the likelihood of outburst floods that threaten life and property in nearby areas."

Then there are several studies specifically on Indian Monsoon that link climate change to extreme rainfall events. Prof. Dr. Anders Levermann at Potsdam Institute For Climate Research replied to a query saying that "variability of the Indian monsoon system is very likely to increase under global warming. We have recently shown that all models of the new CMIP-5 model inter comparison afford show such an increase in variability. Overall higher rainfall during the monsoon season is to be expected." He cited two of his recent studies in support of increase monsoon rainfall and increased monsoon day-to-day variability respectively.

So science is pretty clear that climate change leads to extreme rainfall. That said, one can well argue that every extreme rainfall still cannot be attributed to climate change and one may technically be correct unless there is evidence. But what I have tried to establish in this post is that we do no necessarily need this evidence! As observers we do not need to CONCLUSIVELY PROVE climate link for each single event because it fits a broader PATTERN of increased frequency of such events which is consistent with climate change.

Update 11-Feb 2015: Struck down references to upcoming posts on climate impacts.

Notes and Links

(All links open in new window.)

[1] IMD's weekly rainfall graphic for 13-June to 19-June, all states (PDF) | Downloaded from imd.gov.in on 26-Jun

[2] Why Kedarnath happened | Frontline

[3] Earth sciences secretary blames Uttarakhand rains on climate change | Times of India

[4] Uttarakhand: Warning bells on deaf ears | Hindustan Times

[5] Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) magazine coverage | Down to Earth

[6] Scientific articles with term Anthropogenic Climate Change | Google Scholar

[7] Folks, This Ain't Normal by Joel Salatin | Amazon

[8] Holocene | University of California Museum of Paleontology

[9] IPCC AR1 Working Group 1 1990 (PDF) | IPCC

[10] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-7 (PDF) | IPCC

[11] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-8 (PDF) | IPCC

[12] Summary For Policy Makers Pg-13 (PDF) | IPCC

[13] RTI disclosures | Climate Revolution Initiative

[14] Environment and Forests Ministry to give renewed impetus to science | Press Information Bureau

[15] Climate Change and India: A 4x4 Assessment (Executive Summary), Pg-29 | MoEF

[16] SREX - Press Release (PDF) | IPCC

[17] SREX - Summary for Policy Makers Pg-12 (PDF) | IPCC

[18] Study: Global Warming Has Increased Australia’s Chances Of Extreme Summers Five-Fold | Climate Progress

[19] NCDC Releases May 2013 Global Climate Report | NCDC

[20] Global Warming's Terrifying New Math | Rolling Stone

[21] Climate Change Buoying Wildfires Across Country | npr

[22] Time to blame climate change for extreme weather? | New Scientist

[23] Extreme weather link 'can no longer be ignored' | The Independent, UK

[24] Scientists Warn Extreme Weather Linked to Steroids of Climate Change | Huffington Post

[25] Hansen et al: “Extreme Heat Waves... in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 Were ‘Caused’ by Global Warming” | Climate Progress

[25-A] Perceptions of Climate Change: The New Climate Dice pg-5| PNAS

[26] Climate change is here — and worse than we thought | Washington Post

[27] NASA scientist links climate change, extreme weather | CNN

[28] Deadly Russian heat wave gravest over millennium | RiaNovosti

[29] Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” | Climate Progress

[30] Moscow smog and heat: "I feel like a smoked fish placed in an oven." | BBC

[31] Area in Russian fires increased to 500,000 hectares (Russian) | Lenta.ru

[32] Smoke Over Moscow | NASA Earth Observatory

[33] Heat wave, drought, wildfires in Russia (PDF) | Munich RE

[34] Russian Heat Wave Statistically Linked to Climate Change | Wired

[35] Bombshell: Study Finds 80% Chance Russia’s 2010 July Heat Record Would Not Have Occurred Without Climate Warming | Climate Progress

[36] Link builds between weather extremes and warming | Reuters

[37] Report: Climate change behind rise in weather disasters | USA Today

[38] One-Fifth of Pakistan Under Water As the Country Turns Sixty-Three | NYMag

[39] More than 700 dead as flooding hits southeast Asian countries | CNN

[40] El Salvador still reeling from October floods | ticotimes.net

[41] China's history of floods | BBC

[42] Beijing floods caused 'significant losses': official | AFP

[43] Beijing 7-21 torrential rain death toll rose to 79 people (Chinese) | People.com.cn

[44] China floods kill 52 as 100,000 flee homes | AFP

[45] Drought persists in northwest as downpour drenches south | Xinhua

[46] Yangtze Rains Bring Drought Relief, and Floods | NT Times

[47] Over 460 dead, missing in China floods | Presstv

[48] China lost $6.65 bn due to floods in 2011 | inewsone

[49] Floods, landslides leave 3,185 dead in China this year: MCA | Xinhua

[50] Flood-hit families to get subsidies from government to rebuild homes | Xinhua

[51] Over 10 mln affected by floods in S China, 132 dead | Xinhua

[52]  Landslides Kill Scores in Northern China | NY Times

[53] 2010 Floods Special | Xinhua

[54] China says flood causes 84.60 bln yuan losses in 2009 | reliefweb

[55] China floods kill 16, force 320,000 to evacuate | CBC

[56] 20 Days of Rainstorms in South China Affected 15 Provinces | Sina

[57] Worst rainstorms in 50 years hit southeast China | Reuters

[58] Freak rainfall lashes nation's south | Shanhai Daily

[59] China: Floods Appeal No. MDRCN002 Final Report | reliefweb

[60] 66 killed in South China flood | China Daily

[61] At least 30 dead in China floods | BBC

[62] China's 2006 Floods In Pictures | China.org.cn

[63] Natural calamities caused over 3,000 human deaths in China | reliefweb

[64] China: 2007 Outlook Appeal no. MAACN001 Programme Update no. 4 | reliefweb

[65] China: Flooding death toll surpasses 500 | NBC News

[66] China Flood Appeal 12 Aug 2005 | reliefweb

[67] South China flood toll surges | CNN

[68] Humanitarian Aid for the victims of the 2004 floods in Chongqing, Hunan and Guangxi provinces | reliefweb

[69] Map of 2004 China Floods | Dartmouth Univ.

[70] Floodwater Enters East China's Shandong Province | China.org.cn

[71] 15,000 Houses Destroyed by Continuous Rainstorms in E. China City | China.org.cn

[72] Death Toll from Typhoon Dujuan Rises to 40 | China.org.cn

[73] China says 123 dead or missing in Shaanxi floods, 200,000 homes destroyed | reliefweb

[74] Global Weirding Is Here | NY Times

[75] Alberta’s flood worse than flood of 2005 | Global News

[76] Tens of thousands could be forced from homes in Alberta floods | Timescolonist

[77] Alberta Floods: High River evauated, more than 150 rescued from rooftops | The Vancouver Sun

[78] EUROPE: Floods Are Here to Stay | IPS news

[79] More Flooding in Central Europe | The Atlantic

[80] Europe Floods 2013's Costliest Natural Disaster | Weather.com

[81] 3 wildfires combine into one near Colo. tourist spots | CBS

[82] Hundreds of residents, animals evacuated as wildfire threatens Two Rivers | ADN

[83] Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks? | UCS

[84] Climate change causing US wildfire season to last longer, Congress told | The Guardian

[85] Experts See New Normal as a Hotter, Drier West Faces More Huge Fires | NY Times

[86] Storms across nation cause landslides, collapse bridges | Global Times

[87] China evacuates 500,000 as typhoon hits | The Telegraph

[88] Russia Suffers Severe Heat, Drought | Accu Weather

[89] Russian farmers continue to struggle with drought | Producer.com

[90] Russia’s Tatarstan Seen Losing Half of Grain Harvest to Drought | Bloomberg

[91] Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts | NY Times

[92] UN Report: 2012 Arctic Ice Melt Larger Than Size of United States | US News

[93] Climate and land use: Europe’s floods raise questions | Inquirer

[94] 144% surplus rain so far in flood-hit Uttarakhand | Times of India