Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Forgive me, father, for being a naughty recycler
It wasn’t quite papal bull, uh, material. More in the nature of arch-episcopal press release. But the upshot’s the same. For the world’s 1 billion Catholics, pollution is now officially a sin. Not just any old sin, either, but mortal sin, the kind that – unconfessed – locks you in the cellar and swallows the key. Gulp, indeed.
It’s really no surprise. Sin, like anything else, requires constant upgrade, and it’s a good 14 centuries since Pope Gregory’s previous list: pride, avarice, sloth and the rest. Just last year the Church of England came out against planetary pillage and, one might argue, a thou-shalt-not eco-piety has typified the green movement for decades.
In any case, there’s the possibility that labelling something a sin may lessen neither its popularity nor its frequency. Gluttony, after all, was one of the deadlies well before the obesity epidemic, pride and avarice before the advent of the corporate executive, and lust before Sex And The City.
So will pollution’s new sin status change anything? Might it actually make things worse? Could it, by allowing redemption-through-confession, effectively give people permission to pollute? Is that how it works?
Maybe, maybe not. In part, it’s about scrutiny. We’ll stay too long in the shower, or take an extra plastic bag, if we think no one is watching. No one will judge. So although scrutiny, with its suggestions of tyranny, espionage and the witch-hunt, is something we dread as children dread the teacher’s eye, it is also something we need and crave.
The psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom has written on the human’s need for scrutiny, pointing out that a main ingredient of loneliness is that sense of no longer being closely observed. One of the things people miss most on the death of a partner or, especially, parent, is the sense of being watched by someone who gives a damn.
In one of his best-known stories, Momma And The Meaning Of Life, Yalom unpicks his own mysterious need, as a then 60-something adult, to impress the dead mother he didn’t especially like, even in life, and who had little or no interest in what he regarded as his own most valuable characteristics.
There’s more than just Jewish Momma syndrome here. As we grow, the child’s awe of the parent is gradually internalised into a “don’t do it, mummy might be watching” inner voice, then further abstracted into the “don’t do it because it’s wrong” voice we call conscience.
Which is why conscience – that soft, relentless, won’t-let-you-off-the-hook, always-bloody-right whisper located a hair’s breadth below your cerebellum – tends to use an accent, tone and timbre just like mother’s. The sense of being watched, then, may indicate paranoid schizophrenia, or may just indicate good parenting. So it’s no surprise that for God, too, scrutineering has always been a major part of the job description. Not just watching that forest tree to ensure existential continuity. But watching us to make us good. This need to be surveilled helped punch that God-shaped hole in our psyche.
It also helps explain why, in the general absence of God – or maybe absence of a general God, or even absence of God-as-general – fame has become so hugely valued. Less because we want to watch, although we clearly do, than because our urge to watch is matched (and possibly now outmatched) by the desire to be watched.
We envy the famous – movie stars, television newsreaders, even mass murderers – not for their achievements, which may be scant. We envy them the simple fact of being watched, any time, all the time. We envy the fact that, because we care (whether they divorce, dissemble, die), they matter. No one ever said humans weren’t complicated.
But the question for the green movement, and now for the Pope, is this. If pollution is now a sin and if, as Tim Flannery told a recent Property Council lunch in Sydney, “The climate problem is really, at root, a pollution problem,” how do we measure it, actually? Personally? What is the scale of penalties? And how can we be “good”?
For pollution is quite unlike other, more familiar sins, in that we can’t not. Human life, even when ecologically redeemed (whatever that might mean) cannot be cost-neutral to the planet. Even in small numbers, living wholly biodegradable lives, our existence disturbs the balance, chucks ground-carbon into the air, wastes energy.
Any sort of mass civilisation makes all these losses bigger, worse, more wasteful. Standing there in the shower, you know it.
This, you might say, makes pollution not just an original sin but the original original sin. But are we ready for permanent, irredeemable guilt? Who will hear our confession? Holy Father, I over-showered, I had a dump in the river and I failed – three times! – to recycle. Sins of omission, sins of emission.
And who will take the watch? Back in Neolithic times, alpha males, it is said, produced effigies of themselves to set in trees, to be their eyes and ears, applying that mix of intimidation and benevolence that became Jahweh’s hallmark. We learnt to be good because we knew He was watching. Is Gaia?