Sunday, February 7, 2016

Laudato Si: Sunday Reflection #26... How to cure a technological headache

To be totally honest, this last section of the third chapter of the Pope's letter to the world gives me a bit of a headache. Or maybe it's just this whole chapter on technology. I guess I'm something of a Luddite at heart, or at least someone who sees where technology has taken us away from much simpler and healthier ways of living. There are just so many contradictions, and contradictions give me a headache!

Yes, it's wonderful that I don't have to wash all our clothing by hand like my grandmothers did -- or hang everything out on the line in the deep of winter -- but all these amazing, convenient, time-saving machines that we own have come with a huge price tag for our planet, too (and did you know that clothes dryers can account for 15% of your monthly electricity bill?) The resources required to make and power enough washers and dryers to handle the clothes of the world population would probably bankrupt the earth -- good thing many of us rely on other methods to clean our clothes. But therein lies the issue – we in North America are spoiled by technology in so many ways that the thought of going back to simpler living is a hard sell. Even for me.

Still, this week's paragraphs of Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home (130-136, which can be accessed by clicking here) almost make me wish we hadn't progressed in technology for changing biology in particular as far as we have. Paragraph 30 quotes section 2417 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it notes, "While human intervention on plants and animals is permissible when it pertains to the necessities of human life... experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only "if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to care for or saving human lives"" (paragraph 130).

But Pope Francis and his writing team also underline the words of St. Pope John Paul on the 1990 World Day of Peace when he said that it is part of our vocation as human beings to "participate responsibly in God's creative action" while paying close attention to how human interference affects the all-important links between ecosystems and their species. Human experimentation involves considerable risks, as many sci-fi movies have had fun pointing out in rather horrific ways. This is exactly why we must constantly "rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits" of the biological experimentation that technology affords us (paragraph 131).

Paragraph 132 is where my headache really begins. It is all very well and good to say that we need to be careful and to experiment on nature only in such a way as "to favour its development in its own line, that of creation, as intended by God," as St. Pope John Paul told the World Medical Association in 1983. The problem here is that no one can really say what God intends, as we can't begin to know the mind of God. Does God really want us to play with human DNA to the point that we thereby rid the world of Trisomy 21 and the gorgeous and loving people who have Down Syndrome? Is our experimentation using animals really something that God appreciates even if it saves people from medical problems? If God had really wanted us to have corn that has built in pesticide to kill corn weevils (not to mention other insect life as "collateral damage"), wouldn't God have come up with it?

Paragraphs 133 and 134 try to address the issues of genetic modification, but it seems a pretty wishy-washy effort that only managed to warn us against corporations who are running small producers into the ground through control of genetically modified seed and fertilizers that have been patented by said corporations. But the infertile seeds mentioned at the end of paragraph 134 already exist; surely the Pope and friends are aware of that and could have used stronger words!

The ethical implications of biological technology and genetic modification are topics about which a lot of the world's population is oblivious, and I suppose a papal encyclical isn't exactly going to be the thing to wake us all up and impress upon us the need to call our scientists and the corporations involved to accounts. There are many activists who try to make us aware; unfortunately they don't have Pope Francis's star power. But the best the Pope can do, it seems, is to say that "Discussions are needed in which all those directly or indirectly affected... can make known their problems and concerns, and have access to adequate and reliable information in order to make decisions for the common good, present and future" (paragraph 135). It seems that no one is able to definitively state what is right and what is wrong when it comes to genetic modification because we are unable to see what the future holds.

There's mention of the common good, at least. As we complete the reading of this chapter about the human roots of the ecological crises we are facing on so many different fronts, Pope Francis and friends remind us that "the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development," pointing out the importance of protecting human life in all its ages and stages (paragraph 136). Would that we could feel that way about all life on earth – that environmentalists and medical ethicists and scientists could all see through the same lens, or through God's glasses, to what is the common good for all life.

But no one has actually found God's glasses yet, so the best we can do is be vigilant – to try to see where human activity is overstepping its bounds, and to refuse to support those projects, even to protest if necessary, while supporting more positive choices. My husband and I know that supporting the development of alternate forms of energy rather than fossil fuel pipelines is better for our earth, so we've been buying green power for years, and we're always looking for the healthiest options for our planet. It takes work, and I'll admit that we're not always successful.

While I don’t much like the biological manipulation of anything, preferring to trust that things will unfold as they should in God's loving hands, I'm also pretty aware that "when technology disregards the great ethical principals, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit... [and] will not easily be able to limit its own power" (paragraph 136).

But facing facts, if it wasn't for biological manipulation, I wouldn't be here. For ten years, I lived thanks to pork and beef insulin. Now I take five injections of synthetic, human-made insulin each day. And I have to thank God that Banting and Best and other scientists have figured out medications that keep me and others alive, that medicine has evolved to the point that it has perhaps saved my dad from his particular cancer, that we human beings have developed ways to live in cold climates like mine, and that we can transport the things we need from one place to another, to name just a few of the ways technology has made life better. I bet we could come up with thousands more.

Life must be lived with a sense of balance if we are to truly create a common good that works for all of creation. Sometimes that work involves these headache-inducing contradictions. So for this week, perhaps we can reflect on how human creativity and manipulation of our planet and its resources has made the good things in our lives possible. What do we most appreciate that we have received through the work of human hands? What are the positive technological options that we can support to enable life on earth for future generations? And have we thanked God enough for those things lately? (Or prayed the prayer below?)

I suspect the cure for a technology headache comes from a combination of vigilance, action in support of positive options, prayer, and gratitude.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


(A prayer for our earth and all quotations from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home © Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Up next: #27... An integral way of thinking

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