Uninhabitable: Indonesia, the Gulf, and Pope Francis

The wildfires in Indonesia are the worst such outbreak in recorded human history.  Prior to this, the worst such outbreak was also in Indonesia, in 1997.  1997 was also a record El  Nino year, but the fires this year are wo much worse than 1997 that any comparison is a weak one.  Further, wildfire problems in Indonesia have pretty much been endemic every year since 1997.  Here is what has happened:  In 1997 global surface temperatures spiked and they never really returned to their pre-1997 average.  This stair-step-like acceleration provided for an incrementally hotter and drier climate in Indonesia, and the slash-and-burn industrial agriculture that had been in place for decades began igniting fires that simply did not go out.  Previously, the wet season and the general humidity of the country limited fires.  But as the wet season has grown steadily shorter over the decades and as the humidity levels have dropped due to increased air temperatures, fires that previously were naturally extinguished now smolder throughout what is left of the wet season.  The ground, which is peat-like in many areas, simply burns like charcoal for months and then fires re-emerge as the dry season gets underway.

This year, there have been more than 100,000 individual fires in Indonesia and the government is on record as saying that, for many of the fires, human intervention is useless.  The air in Indonesia is now so smoke-clogged, and the health impacts are so dreadfully dire, that the government has begun putting in place a plan to have people either shelter in place (with air purifiers cleaning the air in one room one a house) or be evacuated.  The problem with this plan is that there really isn’t anywhere to be evacuated to.  The government plans to place people at high risk (the very young and very old) in hospitals or on military bases or, as a last resort, on converted cruise ships waiting off-shore.  It is a wholly unworkable plan that addresses the misery and risk of only the smallest fraction of the population.

Let’s step back from the immediate situation and take a look at what is happening in Indonesia:  The country is undergoing a mind-bogglingly rapid environmental decay.  And that decay is accelerating.  Year after year, the lush country-side is being converted from healthy forest into sterile and unproductive dirt.  This is happening through the effect of fires on forests and carbon-rich soil, which is in turn driven partially by corporate interests and mostly by the steady drying and heating of the country.  Currently, in the midst of record fires, parts of the country are simply uninhabitable.  The problem here is that, while the fires may decrease when the wet season finally begins (it appears that this will happen sometime in December), the long-term trajectory is toward a country that is increasingly degraded.  The road Indonesia is on ends with very significant parts of the country being unproductive and uninhabitable.  Indonesia has a population of 250 million souls.

Indonesia is not the only place that is headed toward an uninhabitable state.  A study out earlier this week has taken a close look at strengthening heat waves in the Middle East, specifically in the Gulf region.  The study finds that before the end of this century significant parts of the Gulf area will be uninhabitable due to occasional heat waves that will exceed 170F.  The human body simply cannot cope with temperatures like this, because no amount of sweating and evaporation is sufficient to cool the body so heat stroke and death results fairly quickly.  While killing heatwaves are not expected to happen every year, they are expected often enough to make the region simply uninhabitable, even for those who have serious air-conditioning (there is only so much cooling you can achieve when everything around you is 170F).

So here we have two regions that are headed toward tremendous social destabilization and eventual near desolation.  And, in both cases, the time-frames involved are the next 30-50 years at current rates of system decay.  However, since earth systems are in an accelerating decline, we can confidently pull  those timeframes forward.  In truth, the entire earth is in accelerating decay because the entire earth is subject to the effects of sin.  So, extrapolating, we can assume massive social destabilization over the next few decades.  What can we do about it?  Well, since the problem is sin, no solution will suffice that does not address this core problem.  Just the same, humanity will grasp at any solution that avoids this reality.  Enter Pope Francis.

The Pope had a mixed week last week.  He failed to get his bishops to sign-on to a plan to create a path for divorced and remarried Catholics to be able to once again take communion.  He did, however, get many of his bishops to sign on to his signature environmental push.  Many Bishops around the world are now agitating national governments to move toward aggressive goals in the upcoming climate change conference in Paris.  Among these aggressive goals is the “complete decarbonization” of major economies by 2050.  What this means, in essence, is that the major countries of the world stop using oil and gas and coal by 2050.  Given the massive amount of oil used in global industrial agriculture and given the massive amount used to make chemicals and fabrics and other products, it is almost impossible to see how such a goal could be reached.  But, that issue aside, the call itself is fully consistent with the Pope’s” Laudito Si” encyclical released in May, in which he posits that our global economy and industrial society need to be completely revamped in order to become both sustainable and equitable.

Situations like Indonesia and the Gulf add urgency to the Pope’s call and ultimately strengthen the Pope’s hand.  As societies around the world more fully understand that  human society is on a completely untenable trajectory, they will be more and more willing to turn to the Pope for a level of planning and coordination that, simply put, is lacking in the world today.  The problem is that planning and coordination will not solve the problem.  As states earlier, the problem is sin and its long-term effects and the world is simply unwilling to engage with the actual problem.  If the world does not engage with the actual problem, then the solutions proposed will be ineffective.

Interestingly, this unwillingness to engage with the problem extends even to Pope Francis.  You might expect that Pope Francis would embrace the concept that sin is the ultimate cause of man’s multitude of miseries and that, therefore, Jesus and His second coming are the ultimate solution.  But no.  Actually, the Pope makes no mention of end-times or prophecy or the causality of sin in his encyclical.  In fact, the solution he pushes forward is an entirely technical one, relying on governments to carry out the policy suggestions that the Pope puts  forward.  How will a world respond to the Pope’s ultimately ineffective plan?  I assume they will respond very positively.  When places like Indonesia and the Gulf (and Central America and Africa and everywhere else) see clearly that they face desolation and have no other options, they will sign on to the Pope’s plan and leadership.  This will be especially true if the Pope or his successor manifests some supernatural act.

Our global situation is growing steadily more dire by the day.  Our realization of our situation, on the other hand, progresses in fits and spurts.  While this is going on, a potential savior with a plan has emerged — the Pope — and both his influence and credibility in this sphere are steadily growing.  In all of this steady progression of events, we see the steady fulfillment of prophecy.  What we don’t see — yet — is the servants of the Lord having a degree of alarm and commitment that is commensurate with the events going on around us.  That alarm and commitment will come, and the sooner the better!

Scott Christiansen