Two experiences that I had over the summer sort of came together recently in an insight concerning a very troubling issue that one regularly encounters in the United States these days.
The issue is the disorderly way that people drive nowadays.
At one point I was driving across Alligator Alley in South Florida (which is neither an alley, nor are alligators to be seen there: discuss), which for most of the way is a two-lane highway with a speed limit of 70 mph. And one would hope to drive at least that fast, especially in the left lane. But for much of the trip, that was not possible. Apart from the obnoxious person who kept passing me, only eventually to slow down and cause me to pass him (all for no apparent reason), there were so many folks who just drove in the left lane at whatever speed they felt like and with apparently no regard for those around them – often with the result that a sort of moving roadblock was created. It was a frustrating experience.
So as I was driving along I was thinking: What is the cause of this? We all learned, theoretically, the correct way to drive in school. And in many countries, if you don’t keep the left lane clear for passing you will create serious problems (such as Sicily, where someone tried to run me off the road once because I apparently didn’t get out of their way quickly enough…).
In short: this is not exactly the most “pro life” type of driving. And I wondered: Could it all be due to cell phone usage?
Another experience, probably about a week later, gave me the insight into what happened down there on the Alligatorless non-Alley. I was driving around with my brother in his small SUV, which has a nice feature built into the dashboard: when you are driving in a way that conserves fuel, a green light glows out from around the speedometer; but when you are not driving fuel-efficiently, it turns white (Ahhh!! It burns!!!). And besides all the mental manipulation going on via the use of LED color displays, there is also a digital readout that tells you your approximate fuel usage in any given moment. Given the cost of fuel, and the psychological situation created by these displays (at least for those of us who are disposed to take that bait), Who wouldn’t slow down a bit whenever the gauge goes beyond whatever arbitrary threshold they’ve mentally set… or whenever that terrible light turns white!?
In chatting with my brother about this and indulging in some nostalgia for the days when I had a car and could go wherever I wanted whenever I would, it dawned on me: one of the reasons why people drive so erratically is because they are being distracted (like my brother often is, and I often was) by these stupid readouts that are designed to make you save fuel!
So it is not just cell phones. It is not just the distraction of the GPS. It is not just the apparent inability to use mirrors and be considerate of others. No, all of these things may be factors, but there is another: Green Guilt!
* * *
In keeping with my conservative tendencies, I am naturally concerned about conserving the environment as well. (As it turns out, even liberals permit themselves to be conservative when it comes to that.) There can be no doubt that we – especially in the United States – waste colossal amounts of stuff and create entirely too much refuse. While I am not really convinced about global warming or climate change theories, yet even still, it stands to reason that we should take care of and respect the earth, so naturally we should try to limit pollution, waste, and the like.
But I am also concerned with being consistent about these things. Being “green” and “sustainable” is a big fad right now, and it tends to focus on certain areas: recycling, avoiding plastics, reducing carbon footprint in various ways, etc. All of that is good but our ecology is ultimately useless if it doesn’t include a proper view of the human being. How many women, for example, take pride in how they compost their food waste, recycle whatever they can, drive a hybrid car, and shop for clothes at Goodwill®… only to pump their bodies full of artificial estrogens on a regular basis – estrogens that then enter into the environment and go on to cause other problems – so that they can avoid having children? The moral arguments concerning contraception aside (and make no mistake, it is gravely immoral)… Where is the coherence in that?
(Or there is this one, which I love: Your iPhone uses more energy than your refrigerator!)
Ecology is all well and good, but we need a proper human ecology before we can have a proper earth ecology. Pope Benedict XVI – labeled by some as the first “green pope” – spoke often about this matter of human ecology. For example:
Men and women will be capable of respecting creation to the extent in which they have a full appreciation of life; otherwise they will be inclined to condemn themselves and their surroundings, to respect neither the environment they live in nor creation. Thus, the first ecology that is in need of defense is “human ecology” (cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate, n. 51). It is also important to say that without clearly defending human life, from conception until natural death; without defending the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman; without truly defending those who are excluded and marginalized from society, without forgetting in this context those that have lost everything, victims of natural disasters, we could never speak of an authentic defense of the environment.
In other words, it doesn’t do much good, in the end, if we drive around obsessed with what color our dashboard is glowing (possibly driving our fellow travelers nuts in the process) and take on certain other acts of discipline and sacrifice in order to respect the environment, if ultimately we don’t have a proper view of ourselves and our fellow human beings.
This is where it is more necessary than ever for Catholics to take ownership of environmental activism, and seek to understand, live, and promote the ideas about which Pope Benedict XVI taught us so extensively. It seems to me that a proper and coherent environmentalism is a natural offshoot of the pro-life movement. There are organizations (like the Acton Institute) that do promote these ideas, but we need more individuals not only to promote them, but to live them.
So inform yourself, ask where you need to make changes, and start making a difference! Virtually all of us have made adaptations to live a more “green” life, but perhaps we have more adaptations to make, and some philosophical presuppositions to purify in the process.