Letter from Rome

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

In case you missed it, the major food ethics newsflash for last week came out of Rome. Pope Francis issued an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’. At first I thought it was from a crowd chant heard when the Allman Brothers Band played stadium gigs in Italy: Alberino fustigazione, laudato, si! [Tr: Whipping post, louder, yes!], but it turns out that the Allman Brothers never played any stadium gigs in Italy, so I had to go back to square one on the Pope’s encyclical. I must confess that I still haven’t read it, but I did find a link to an English translation, which I am offering right here.

Eventually the hysterical reaction from the right wing press told me that the Pope had done one of two things. He had either suggested that it was time to start looking after Sister Earth, or he had made disparaging remarks about NASCAR. The fact that he decided to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi is a pretty good hint that it is probably the former, so that’s what I’m going with this Sunday.

Of course both of my regular readers know that I am being coy. While not stooping to the point of having done actual research on Pope Francis’s encyclical, I have been following the buzz on the International Society for Environmental Ethics List Serve. If you are one of the Thornapple Blog readers who does not know what a “list serve” is (and believe me, you would not be the only one), I’m just going to suggest that you Google it. I’ve already fulfilled my quota of tangential misdirection for the week, and it is really time to get on with the main point.

Folks on the ISEE list are generally favorable. They approve of the fact that the Pope has said that humanity has a responsibility to halt the harm that it has been doing to the global ecosystem by releasing a toxic cocktail of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and even to undertake measures that would repair some of the damage. The amount of kneejerk outrage spewing from the climate sceptics on this is really kind of depressing, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to be lured into that quagmire.

I will point out that not everyone on the ISEE list is wholly positive about the Pope. There are a few who are kind of grudging about their approval of the Laudato Si’ encyclical mainly because, well, after all, he is the Pope, and they are just kind of down on things religious, being (as many are) formally trained philosophers and all. There are some who object to his association of “the Earth” with a gendered term (e.g. ‘sister’), seeing it is more than a bit passé and even sexist coming from a man in his position. And there were longer rants about his refusal to endorse the idea that human population growth was a driving source of the problem. I point out these objections in the spirit of reportage. I have no more intention of engaging these points than those of the nutcases.

Readers of the Thornapple Blog may be asking themselves, “But what does this have to do with food ethics?” But here I will note that based on what I have read (and again I’ll confess in all seriousness to have read only some excerpts), this is clearly what the Pope gets right. There have already been serious consequences from greenhouse gas pollution for world agriculture. They range from loss of farmland due to sea level rise to flooding and drought associated with the increased volatility brought on by change in some of the basic atmospheric processes that make up the global climate system. As the Pope notes, the people being affected by this are not people who have gotten fat eating steak and driving SUVs (to mention two things that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions), nor are they people who can afford to undertake the measures that would offset the devastating impact on their local farming environment.

The Pope is pretty clear that we should think of ethics as involving duties to Nature herself (apologies to my feminist readers for following the Pope’s language use here), but he is also clear that duties to Nature align nicely with more traditional Christian social teachings about duties to the poor.

Now if I could just figure out what ‘encyclical’ means.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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