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Letter from a soulmate — Religion, oil and alternative fuels

FrancisDear His Holiness Pope Francis:

I have been impressed with your tenure as Pope. You have literally taken the road less traveled (Robert Frost) in the Catholic Church. You have succeeded in opening up the hearts and minds of many in your flock. For non-Christians, like me, your words have suggested great love for the diversity among people and a strong concern for the future of humankind and the quality of life in the world.

You have made religion meaningful for millions. Your willingness to raise concerns about the visible degradation of the environment, because we have not been good stewards, has granted new energy to environmental reformers in and out of governments around the world. Your courage in acknowledging our collective role in increasing GHG emissions, because we have regarded the air above us and the ground below us as free to use and misuse, public commons has stimulated a vigorous debate among leaders, religious and otherwise, and their constituents.

I am grateful for the policy and behavioral link you have made between environmental, GHG emissions, and poverty issues. Failure to aggressively respond to pollution and pollutants, as well as failure to significantly reduce GHG emissions, as you have indicated, will lead to a bleak future for our children and their children, etc. In this context, as you have indicated, it is the least advantaged among us who bear the heaviest burdens. Their low incomes and lack of mobility limits choices concerning living space, clean air and water, healthcare, work and recreation. It is the poor in many nations who most (and must) often live next to GHG- and pollutant-spewing industrial plants and utilities, as well as emissions from congested, dirty, auto-filled roadways. It is the poor, particularly in poverty-stricken nations, that also must live next to unregulated landfills, untreated sewage, polluted streams, ponds and lakes.

Your Holiness, you have put us all on notice that if we continue to behave as we have in the past, we will risk global calamity and increased human suffering. Here my own theological beliefs as a Reconstructionist Jew match your Catholic or universal view of our obligations to each other. There is a part of God in us, and our role in life is to bring out the Godliness. Paraphrasing the Jewish scholar Hillel, if not us, who, and if not now, when?

By your words, you have accepted the fact that none of us is perfect but that we all are perfectible. I suspect that this is how we must look at policy and behavior responses to GHG emissions and environmental crises. Permit me, in this context, to focus my words on something the nations of the world and their citizens can do relatively quickly to make the world a better place.

Right now the world produces nearly 90 million barrels of oil every day. In my own country, the United States, oil accounts for 95 percent of all energy used by transportation every day. One of oil’s derivatives, gasoline, provides the fuel we use to power most of the vehicles used by industry, commerce and households.

Gasoline is a dirty fuel, meaning that it generates GHG emissions and other pollutants. Alternative fuels either that exist or are on the horizon (like ethanol,  batteries for electric vehicles, fuel cells, biofuels and natural gas) could reduce the oil and gasoline dependency for many nations and simultaneously lessen emissions that despoil the lands we live on, the water we drink and the air we breathe. The expanded use of alternative fuels could also reduce the need to go to war to protect oil supplies and transit, thus making the world safer for both secularists and non-secular families and children. Finally, their increased use could reduce the costs of travel for low-income folks and help extend their means to acquire needed basic goods and services.

Please forgive me for using the word agnostic, but I believe we must be fuel agnostic and grant a range of alternative fuels status as long as each one on the fuel spectrum can provide cheaper, safer, environmentally better power for vehicles than gasoline.

For God’s or people’s sake, we can do better! You have begun to stimulate our minds and hearts. Your recent encyclical on climate change, while controversial and provocative, provides each of us with the normative guidelines to make a difference with respect to securing a healthier planet for future generations. While your criticism of capitalism and free markets is very severe, and while I must confess disagreement with its implication that market mechanisms should not and cannot be used to impede global warming and GHG emissions, I applaud the encyclical’s implicit (if not explicit) support of actions to reform market systems.

Your Holiness, I would hope that religious leaders led by you would encourage reform and, as with alternatives to gasoline, accept perfectibility, not perfection. If we don’t, the enemy of the good will be the perfect. Certainly, if the church, under your outstanding leadership, secured the support of other organized religions, as well as secular leaders from many countries, including the U.S., and the group subsequently urged oil companies to open their gas station franchises to a range of alternative fuels, the results could provide a big step in the journey toward GHG emission and pollutant reduction and a better world. Similarly, if the group urged the world’s auto manufacturers to both produce more vehicles able to run on alternative fuels and support development of innovative ways to convert existing cars to flex-fuel vehicles, the impact would provide consumers, including the poor, lower-cost fuel choices and reflect another step toward healthier people and a cleaner planet.

You have opened the door to increased ecumenism among religious faiths and a positive dialogue between the very religious, less religious and non-religious institutions and people concerning social welfare and environmental problems. I suspect that you find sympathy for the writings of one of my favorite authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I do not find that the age or country makes the least difference; no, nor the language the actor spoke, nor the religion which they professed, whether Arab in the desert, or Frenchman in the Academy. I see that sensible men and conscientious men all over the world were of one religion of well-doing and daring.”

Thank you!