Climate Change and the Legacy of Thomas Merton
By M. Sophia Newman | December 1, 2015
“I love the nature that is all around me here,” Catholic monk, author, and social activist Thomas Merton wrote from his Kentucky hermitage one cold January day. The words end a cutting-edge missive he sent to Rachel Carson after she published Silent Spring, the tome known for starting the modern environmental movement. “Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life,” Merton remarked. He added, “I believe it is the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them.”
From November 30 through December 11, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will convene in Paris, France, to craft a treaty to discuss that consistent pattern—a habit of burning carbon-emitting fossil fuels—in time to prevent climate change from becoming disastrous. A global movement has helped bring the issue to the fore. Led in part by faith communities, that activism stands on vivid historical antecedents. This includes Merton, whose words offer thoughts of surprising prescience and power even though they come from a man who died before climate change was known.
In many ways, the world has never been closer to an environmental crisis. Carbon emissions have raised the planet’s average temperature by about a degree—creating problems ranging from the cleaving of Antarctic icebergs to unrest in Syria, which spurred its civil war. Scientists and policymakers have coalesced around the goal of holding warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-climate change global averages. That level, a doubling of the already harmful one-degree rise, will trigger more chaotic weather and ever-greater stress on water, land, and agriculture, prompting greater crises. Yet even that goal may soon slip from our collective grasp. As International Energy Agency economist Fatih Birol told The Wall Street Journal, “The door to reach two degrees is about to close. In 2017 it will be closed forever.”
Nor has the public outcry ever been louder. May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, an organization working to prevent climate change, says that the massive public response to climate change “puts to rest this idea that climate change is only of concern to wealthy environmentalists who love hiking.” Last September, a 350.org-spearheaded march at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York attracted more than 400,000 people. One of the largest protests in American history, the People’s Climate March included every conceivable demographic group—not least of all U.N. head Ban Ki-moon. Alongside the many voices advocating against climate change advances one group with a particular clarity to offer: the faithful.
“I think it plays a pretty central role,” Boeve says about religious activism on climate change. “When we were starting, one of the communities that we noticed was already most organized around climate change were faith communities around the world.” Bill McKibben, 350.org’s founder, has also spoken often of the faithful within the movement’s ranks.
As with the climate march, that activism is coming even from the uppermost echelons. This includes Pope Francis, who released an encyclical, Laudato Si, intended to evoke support for environmentalism on theological grounds (“the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor”) and induce policymakers to commit to a treaty in Paris.
Catholic involvement in modern environmentalism has a long history. Among the very first to embrace modern environmentalism, in fact, was Thomas Merton—who also commented on other apocalyptic issues in a way that resonates today.
In January 1963, Thomas Merton, then a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in central Kentucky, read Carson’s Silent Spring. The book is credited with prompting both the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and starting burgeoning radical movements. Merton, then living in a tiny retreatant’s hut on the monastery grounds he described as “quiet as the Garden of Eden,” wrote that Carson’s book “shocked” him. But he quickly embraced a concept then far from the mainstream. “His whole life was fringe. He was the original fringe festival,” Merton scholar Monica Weis, SSJ, says, laughing.
Merton began writing pages in his journal about pollution: “We are in the world and part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves, spiritually, morally and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together.” That year, he wrote a letter to Carson, renouncing the pesticide DDT that her book investigated and praising her for “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” He added his own analysis: “Man has lost his ‘sight’ and is blundering around aimlessly in the midst of the wonderful works of God.”
Weis is quick to note that the notion of climate change would be foreign to Merton, since the problem was not widely understood until decades after his 1968 death. “Nevertheless, he was very interested in the idea of an ‘ecological conscience,’” Weis says, noting its similarity to the Pope’s statements on “integral ecology,” or the interdependence of all beings. The socially active monk published work relevant to today’s climate change movement, especially his writings about the nuclear crisis that plagued the globe at mid-century.
Laudato Si never mentions Merton by name (although Pope Francis did mention Merton in a speech in his recent visit to the United States). Nonetheless, the encyclical resonates with Merton’s thoughts in one other highly notable way. “More than fifty years ago, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis,” Laudato Si mentions in its opening pages, “Pope Saint John XXIII wrote an Encyclical which not only rejected war but offered a proposal for peace. He addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will.’” That 1963 encyclical urged peace in the face of nuclear war, just as 2015 encyclical urges responsibility on climate disaster.
Merton’s insights on the topic resonate today. “It must be said again,” he wrote in a 1962 essay for Commonweal on the nuclear risk described in Pacem in Terris. “The world and society of man now face destruction.” That essay, rooted in a fear of a worldwide crisis, presages the climate anxiety that has defined climate change activism in recent years. Indeed, much of it could have been recast as the same plea climate activists have been making in recent years—and, because it refers to a struggle now less threatening than it once was, might signal what we could expect at Paris this December.
The essay, “Nuclear War and Christian Responsibility,” begins with strong words about the political powers that sustained the risk of war (“the world’s leaders commit themselves more and more irrevocably to policies built on the threat to use these agents of extermination”). The article offers a framework to consider the current range of responses, addressing both excessive obedience to the current order—“moral passivity”—and what Merton calls the “demonic activism” of those who supported technological development (“an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation”). In this, he echoes a climate debate in which activists have railed against private individuals’ do-nothing complicity and stood against the corporations working to advance oil and gas extraction. Finally, as 350.org and many others do today, Merton advises activism: “In plain words, in order to save ourselves from destruction we have to try to regain control of a world that is speeding downhill without brakes … We have to make ourselves heard.” His unpublished notes on the essay draft include a quote from Pacem in Terris to clarify what he meant: “We feel it is our duty to beseech men, especially those in public affairs, to spare no pain or effort until world events follow a course in keeping with man’s destiny and dignity.”
Those plain words were heard. On June 12, 1982, a march of as many as about one million people—one of only a few to ever outstrip the 2014 People’s Climate March’s size—flooded New York City to demand the end to the nuclear arms race. In March 1983, aware that the movement had destroyed public support for the issue, Ronald Reagan suggested nuclear disarmament to Nikita Khrushchev. In October 1986, he and Mikhail Gorbachev memorialized it at a meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. Merton’s vision, laid out in 1962, had been realized.
Connections between the anti-nuclear movement and the environmental movement endure. In a call to action for the Climate Summit in New York, 350.org’s McKibben described how protest made the nuclear weapons ban a reality. “Consider the nuclear-freeze campaign of the early 1980s, when half a million people gathered in New York’s Central Park,” McKibben wrote in Rolling Stone, citing the example as a reason people should come protest for the climate in the same spot in 2014. (Incidentally, in 2013, McKibben won the Thomas Merton Award, which a center named for the monk gives to prominent peace and justice activists.) In 2014, Weis told me, “If Merton were alive today, he’d be supporting that climate change rally.”
But will the rally have an effect on the Paris climate talks? That remains to be seen. Boeve says, “It’s scary to think about what has already happened, and what will happen if we don’t see the leadership that we are looking for.”
Changes to the world’s consistent pattern of environmental destruction are occurring. These changes include President Obama’s final declination of the Keystone XL Pipeline; a congressional bill that would stop energy companies from extracting fossil fuels on federal lands and waters; and widespread recognition that climate change is fueling the million-strong flood of refugees into Europe. And, as Boeve notes, the pope’s recent encyclical “has had a profound impact” on the climate conversation.
No matter what happens in Paris, Merton’s insights on the environment remain prescient. Among the many ecological jottings in his journal (a topic Weis explores in her 2011 Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton) are frequent reminders that humans are forever embedded in their environment. “Were he alive now,” Weis says, “he would love the idea of integral ecology.” Merton, she thinks, would also love that the climate talks were happening in Paris. “He’d probably write something and send it over,” reaching out to the U.S. delegates “to make sure he got a word in for it.”
M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a writer and a public health professional. She was a 2014 Shannon Fellow of the International Thomas Merton Society at Bellarmine University and a 2015 retreatant at Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. See more at msophianewman.com or @msophianewman.
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