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!

Pope to publish rare encyclical on climate change

Pope Francis will issue an encyclical, a message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, urging them to take action on climate change, The Guardian reported.

The publication will follow the pontiff’s trip in March to the city of Tacloban, in the Philippines, which was devastated in 2012 by the super Typhoon Haiyan. Months later, the pope will address the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Guardian reports:

The reason for such frenetic activity, says Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, is the pope’s wish to directly influence next year’s crucial UN climate meeting in Paris, when countries will try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce emissions.

Francis has addressed global inequality and environmental depredation in recent months, arguing that economies needn’t harm the ecosystem to provide opportunity for citizens. In October, he spoke at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome:

“An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. … The monopolizing of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.” science writer Phil Plait said it’s “wise” for the pope to issue his statement on climate change after visiting Tacloban:

… people there are still recovering from the incredible power of super Typhoon Haiyan … and it’s known that cyclones like that one are becoming more powerful due to global warming. It will present a strong and clear message of the urgency of this issue.

I have no doubt that the deniers in Congress (and in the usual venues) will bloviate, creating sound and fury over this. But what they are doing is flailing, trying to delay the inevitable.

What Do Religious Patents And Pope Francis Have To With Reducing Oil Dependency?

Israel has more patents per capita than any other nation in the world. Despite wars and tension at its borders, international investor interest remains high, particularly in high-tech industries. Indeed, high-tech industries continue to grow faster than any other industrial sector.

Okay. I have a serious question for questioning minds. The Jerusalem Post stated that pollution levels dropped by 99 percent on Saturday, Yom Kippur, a key Jewish religious holiday. The article indicated that nitrogen oxides decreased by 99 percent in the Gush Dan and Jerusalem regions and that other serious pollutants that affect health and well-being also dropped significantly. (Truth in advertising compels me to say that Israel has another holiday called Lag B’omer, where folks light bonfires to celebrate a wise sage in Israel’s past. Many also travel to the sage’s tomb. Both activities make air quality terrible. But understanding, apology, patience and penitence may result yet in friendlier environmental options.)

Wow, could Israel patent environmental behavior based in religion to secure a healthy environment? What would they patent? Perhaps, activities resulting from seeking forgiveness for previous driving and fuel related sins generating harmful pollutants. Asking forgiveness and apologizing are what Jews are supposed to do on the Holy Day. Or should they try patenting the environmental God, Himself or Herself, to make sure we have a major partner with respect to minimizing pollution in the environment. Here, they could include other possible partners like the scientists busy at work in Switzerland on the “God particle” in their patent.

Maybe Israel’s success with Yom Kippur behavior would lead Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons to define and patent Holy No Drive Days or better yet, because of lessons learned from Israel and possible Israeli involvement, lengthier environmental behavior days, weeks, months or years. Because of the negative impact on the global economy, international security and the environment of the world’s present dependency on oil and oil’s derivative gasoline, perhaps all the major religions and even the minor ones could agree on a range of environmentally friendly behavior changing initiatives, particularly related to one of the largest pollutants of them all…oil. Each patent would be based on prescriptions written or derived from religious interpretation of each religion’s environmental norms and tenants and holidays. Here’s one: Just say no to gasoline and yes to use of replacement fuels. Tithings from believers or congregants would support the effort. Figure it out, enough long holidays and the world might begin to reduce levels of pollution and likely GHG emissions, as well as oil-based wars and tension. Maybe we could develop a whole set of religious patents, that once patented, would be capable of being used by any nation or religion and any group or individual free. You know, building good, Godly behavior.

No government subsidies, no new government regulations. If behavioral changes stick, based on religious initiatives, our grandchildren and their grandchildren could live in a better world. While, likely impossible and the idea of patenting good behavior is more humorous than real, the thought seems worthy of a prayer or two and lots of meaningful sermons as well as interfaith action.

Collaboration by churches, synagogues and mosques could influence governments to jump in and also play a leadership role. Clearly, religiously inspired guilt is often aspirational and motivational — sometimes politically. Combined with religiously inspired individual commitment concerning grassroots activity, it could secure secular support for the development and implementation of comprehensive fuel policies concerning environmental, security and economic objectives — like social justice.

Where might we go with this? Probably not very far. But think of it. We spend much time arguing about God, and often much less time achieving godliness through reforming institutional and our behaviors as good stewards of the world. If we could marshal (excuse the pun), the leaders of some of the major religions of the world to help reduce harmful pollution from gasoline, GHG emissions and wars related to oil, over time, amendments to individual and group activities could help “convert” the bleak forecasts concerning climate change and increasingly dirty air for the better. Additionally, such an effort could also lead to a reduction of tension in areas like the Middle East, and global and national economic growth based on the development and distribution of both transitional replacement and renewable fuels.

I don’t expect invitations to discuss the matter from religious forums or meetings. But seeking collaboration from the religious community to end dependence on oil is something to think about in terms of the “what ifs.” Maybe in this context, a respected celebrated religious leader like Pope Francis could be asked to try to bring together religious leaders and even some secular ones to at least begin to discuss initiatives across man- or women-made national boundaries.

The proposed agenda would link short-term coordinated strategies to use transitional replacement fuels such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol and biofuels with longer-term plans (with immediate efforts) to increase the competitiveness of electric and hydro fuels. For my religious colleagues and secular friends, it seems to me that beginning these discussions is a moral and practical imperative.