29 December 2006

Work and Global Warming

A couple very different pieces in the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune today. In the Post, Lonnae O'Neal Parker writes about a quartet of retired African-American union men in the D.C. area. All four of them were regular, steady guys, whose core values — "work, family, respect and responsibility" — served them well. They all earned between $60,000 and $80,000 in their last years of working, and retired on full pensions with health benefits.

That's what unions can do for people without college degrees. But it's also what those sweet values can do. Our society has turned its individualistic collective back on those values, in favor of celebrity and bling.

Here's one of the guys explaining his credo:

"Look here, working hard is the basis for everything," Thompson said. "I mean overtime, Christmas, New Year's, holidays -- the whole nine yards." Work was dignity and manhood. It was the sure, quiet rebuttal to the nasty things whites said about you. It is Thompson's most unassailable belief, incubated in segregation and stoked inch by inch -- his brother had polio, and it was Thompson who helped around the house when his mother became a single parent. He worked odd jobs as a teenager. Then he became a daddy. He provided for his family. "I felt good," Thompson said. "I still do."

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that of participation, most especially the importance of participation in human society through work. William Byron put it like this for America magazine back in 1998:

"We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable" (Reflections, p. 5).

Without participation, the benefits available to an individual through any social institution cannot be realized. The human person has a right not to be shut out from participating in those institutions that are necessary for human fulfillment.

This principle applies in a special way to conditions associated with work. "Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative" (Reflections, p. 5).


But then how do we reconcile that with the fact that so much of our work seems to be destroying the world we live in — not a "participation in God's creation," but rather a destruction of it?

And that's what Anatol Lieven wrote about in the International Herald Tribune, in an opinion piece titled "The end of the West as we know it?"

He wrote that every system must finally collapse in the face of forces that "its very nature has made it incapable of meeting."

For the West and our market economies, that may be global warming.

"The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations."

Lieven outlines the merely terrible things that might happen if the more moderate consequences of global warming come about, and also the truly catastrophic possibilities — such as the end of Western civilization as we know it.

If the outcome is only moderately bad, say, like the Great Depression, Lieven reminds us that the economy wasn't the only thing that suffered. Authoritarian regimes tend to step in under such circumstances.

So how do we and our children find a purpose-driven life, the kind of life that once seemed our birthright in a middle-class country that valued work, family, respect and responsibility?

Rene Dubois, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "So Human an Animal," wrote that the only way forward was through a positive vision. Writing back in the tumult of the 1960s, Dubois said that reaction and rejection wouldn't work.

The rejection and reaction these days, fortunately, are mostly coming from the brittle yet wildly profitable institutions that have created most of the problems — the energy sector, for instance, and the health insurance folks. There are plenty of positive visions for change, percolating up from all around. It's astonishing how many people understand that the internal combustion engine is kaput, as is the idea of ever-increasing premiums for health insurance that force more and more people out, leaving only the sickest people willing to pay those premiums.

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