Reflecting on Years of Living Dangerously

Sarah Spengeman, Catholic Climate Covenant

My husband and I have been tuning in regularly to watch Season Two of Years of Living Dangerously on the National Geographic Channel, and so much of what we have seen this season has hit close to home. Last week, Don Cheadle traveled to the Central Valley of California — where I grew up — to see firsthand how the drought has devastated family farms there in the Valley and is posing a threat to food supplies worldwide. This week, we saw our former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, fly to the Middle East to learn how our military is facing the threats posed by climate change. Governor Schwarzenegger’s conversations with members of our military overseas reminded me of how I felt when my younger brother was in Iraq — I have never prayed so hard in my life. In this episode we see men and women in our armed services driving hundreds of miles across the desert to deliver fuel to our military bases. As one driver described the situation, the convoys are easy targets, and thousands of our military personnel have already died along the way.

As someone who knows what it feels like to have a family member stationed in harm’s way, I was dismayed to learn that so many men and women have died, not in combat, but simply delivering gasoline. I watched as Schwarzenegger investigated what Congress has done to protect our men and women in uniform who have given up so much to serve our country. What he found out in his conversations with retired military leaders troubled me — the Pentagon has repeatedly asked Congress for funding to help the military transition to renewable energy, but has been denied funding for those budget items year after year. As a nation, something has gone wrong when we are prioritizing the interests of the oil and gas industry over and above the safety and security of our men and women in the military.

As Schwarzenegger continued his investigations, he spoke with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Dennis McGuinn. McGuinn warned of the dangers climate change poses to our national security — 18 naval bases on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States are threatened by rising oceans. Not only that, but the effects of climate change such as drought, famine, and population destabilization are already causing new violent conflicts around the globe.

Each episode of Years of Living Dangerously features two stories, and the second story in this week’s episode took us to the Amazon Forest with Gisele Bundchen. The story of the destruction of the rain forest is a familiar one to me. In my role as a Catholic advocate for the environment, I often share the story of Sister Dorothy Stang, who was murdered by ranchers for her struggle to protect the forest and the peasants who call the forest home. Her witness to caring for creation and her willingness to give up her own life, continually challenges me to ask myself — what will I give up for the sake of others and to protect our common home?

Though the episode doesn’t mention her, Bundchen travels the same paths tread by Sister Dorothy not long before. Through encounter an with nature and with indigenous peoples, Bundchen allows her heart to be broken by what is happening in Brazil — more than 20% of the rainforest is already gone. In this episode we learn how the Amazon Rainforest functions as the planet’s natural air conditioner, cooling the planet and absorbing carbon dioxide. If the deforestation continues unabated, the result will be disastrous for all of us. Bundchen speaks with a Brazilian climate scientist who explains, “if we lose the Amazon, we will lose the world to climate change.” We also learn that meat consumption is one of the principle drivers of deforestation with 65% of all deforestation of the Amazon due to cattle ranching. The cattle are raised not only for domestic consumption in Brazil, but also for export to the United States and China. As Bundchen’s tour guide puts it, most people don’t realize that “your burger is coming from rainforest destruction.”

From both Schwarzenegger and Bundchen’s travels it is clear how much is at risk as a result of climate change. We owe it to our men and women in the armed services, and to their families who have sacrificed so much, not to put them in harm’s way unnecessarily. The Department of Defense should be provided the funding it needs to transition to alternative fuels without any further delay. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Dennis McGuinn reminds all of us that solving the climate crisis is not a partisan issue.

And as a Catholic, I believe God has given us the earth in trust and that we have a moral responsibility to be caretakers of this gift we share in common with the entire human family and with the millions of other species who call this planet home. Can I give up meat to help protect the Amazon when Sister Dorothy gave up her life? In my perspective, that is a small sacrifice to make, and I hope I won’t stop there. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls all of us to an ecological conversion, to examine every area of our lives to see how we can live more simply to be in solidarity with the vulnerable earth and the vulnerable poor. While watching this season of Years of Living Dangerously and hearing the stories of people who are on the front lines of the climate crisis, I have been reminded of what Pope Francis says in the first chapter of Laudato Si’, “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it (19).” May we seek out these stories and allow ourselves to be changed by them.

Sarah Spengeman, Ph.D. is Director of Programs at Catholic Climate Covenant.