Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

By Marie Therese Kane

Donald Trump rejected the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement that seeks to safeguard our planet from the increasingly disastrous impacts of climate change on June 1, 2017. I received this disappointing news 8,300 miles from my home, by an Indian schoolgirl tasked with reading the daily headlines at her school’s morning assembly. She declared these words with an innocence and clarity apparently universal to eight year-olds, leaving them to echo across a sea of other school children, sitting with prayerful attention in their schoolyard.

Allow me to explain. Last summer, I traveled to Bangalore, India—whose bustling streets are home to 10 million people—for a month-long academic immersion through College of the Holy Cross. Exploring “Social Justice in Context,” my peers and I dove into issues of urban development, globalization, gender, caste, and religious diversity through seminars and visits to NGOs and cultural sites. One weekend, we traveled to Manvi, a rural village in the Raichur district of the Indian state of Karnataka, twelve hours by bus from Bangalore, to build community with The Loyola Xavier School.

Loyola Xavier school welcomed the Holy Cross cohort into its classrooms. Pictured are Loyola elementary school students in class. 

Loyola Xavier school welcomed the Holy Cross cohort into its classrooms. Pictured are Loyola elementary school students in class. 

Loyola Xavier is a fellow Jesuit school that educates 1,200 students from over 75 different villages, most of whom face discrimination within Indian social, economic, political, and educational spheres because of their social standing as members of the Dalit caste. Dalits, also known as “untouchables,” sit on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, and have suffered extreme forms of oppression for centuries. At Loyola Xavier, our group was humbled by the hospitality offered to us by the community—manifest in flower garlands, strong, sweaty handshakes, and steaming chai—and struck by the Jesuits’ familial care of their students, many of whom board on campus. As part of our visit, we participated in the school’s morning assembly, during which students read the daily announcements, including the day’s newspaper headlines, aloud to the community. Which brings us back to that June morning.

The confident schoolgirl’s announcement struck me because it interrupted a moment of kinship with a reminder that, as Holy Cross and Loyola Xavier students, we come from different worlds. That despite our shared faith, our countries have very different histories, and that if there was a wrong side, I was on it. The U.S. is the largest national greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, responsible for 27 percent of global historical emissions, while India, despite being the fourth largest emitter today, is responsible for only three percent of historic emissions. The U.S.’s rejection of the Paris accords was a rejection of this reality, and in that moment, I felt like a liaison of the enemy, as if our group had come in person to confirm that there are indeed living, breathing people behind such decisions. I could not help but think about how in just fifteen more days, we would be back in the U.S., where we would continue to deny reality with our excessive lifestyles, burning fossil fuels all the way home.  

The announcement’s drama was magnified by a larger mosaic I saw taking shape in Manvi: namely, the intrusion of climate change into the everyday lives of Indians. Manvi was in its third year of an extreme drought, which had made food, water, and employment scarce, prompting migration to urban areas like Bangalore. The drought has left Manvi with fewer people and fewer opportunities, especially for young people like Loyola Xavier students. In conversation, Father Arun Luis, the principal of Loyola Xavier, shared that many students asked to stay at school over their last summer break so that they would have food to eat. As children of Dalits who depend on agricultural harvest for sustenance, even young students recognize that less rain means less income and food.

We passed miles of fields like this one on the way to Loyola Xavier, evidence of the three-year drought. 

We passed miles of fields like this one on the way to Loyola Xavier, evidence of the three-year drought. 

In both Manvi and Bangalore I witnessed to the inconvenience and insecurity of a climate-changed world. For example, in Manvi, temperatures spiked to 106 degrees Fahrenheit; the moment I lay down to sleep, my T-shirt dripped with sweat, my dreams turning hallucinogenic with the heat. Come morning, as we drove through dusty roads of Manvi, our windows framed scenes that continue to haunt me—bridges reaching across empty valleys where rivers used to flow, miles of dusty, barren soil, a few scattered women bowed over farming tools, trying to till life out of the very fields that had betrayed them. Back in Bangalore, our group got stuck in an enormous thunderstorm while out shopping one evening. We managed to hitch an Uber back to our accommodations, but only after a turbulent ride through three-foot rivers of murky water, and watching an auto rickshaw succumb to the undertow. Later, when I volunteered at St. Joseph’s School in Bangalore during the latter part of our trip, the teachers dismissed students early one day because there was no water supply. I later learned that the school’s natural water source dried up a few years ago, forcing it to rely on biweekly shipments. If these are not delivered on time, as was the case, classes must be cancelled. While specific droughts, storms, and resource shortages cannot be directly linked to climate change, these events are emblematic of larger climate trends across India, which show that monsoon rainfall has been declining since the 1950s while the frequency of drought and heavy rainfall events have increased.

As an international studies major at a Jesuit, liberal arts college, I fought the urge to view the drought, the thunderstorm, and the water shortage as isolated phenomena, as unfortunate yet necessary parts of what it means to be poor or Indian. In the U.S., we tend to accept these experiences as natural elements of the landscape of poverty, desolation, and dust that we consider “business as usual” in countries categorized as “developing” by Western standards, as the everyday dangers that come with the territory of being “other” in a world built for “us.” Yet, the precarious existences paved by drought, unemployment, and hunger are unnatural effects of the unnatural disaster of climate change.  

The Call to Act

Many Jesuit schools have begun to address the climate crisis through dialogue and on-campus mitigation efforts. However, the urgency of climate change demands a conversion that is distinctive to our Jesuit identity, and the Jesuits at the Loyola Xavier School can serve as a model in leveraging our institutions’ moral and political power to affect necessary structural change. In India, the caste system forms the social, political, and economic backbone of society. By educating children from the Dalit caste, the Jesuits have taken a radical stance to prove that Dalits have the same talents and potential as other Indian children, witnessing to an alternative model of human relationship. In the United States, we have similar unjust structures, namely, our dominant economic model which relies on the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels in its quest for economic growth at all costs. In his encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis reminds us that to address the climate crisis, we must look beyond technological solutions alone and address the root of the problem, which is our unsustainable overconsumption of our planet’s resources, “aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels.”

The good news is that there are many pathways for Jesuit schools to address the structural causes of climate change; a problem as sprawling and diverse as our network, as entangled in culture, ethics, and politics as our mission. One is fossil fuel divestment, which involves releasing investments in fossil fuel industries as part of a global movement to stigmatize the companies that extract and burn dirty fuels while also blocking climate legislation through their powerful political lobby. While a few Jesuit schools have achieved partial divestment commitments, including Georgetown University, campaigns in the greater Catholic Divestment Network are organizing for full divestment and reinvestment in more responsible funds, including at my alma mater, Holy Cross. Institutions can also endorse carbon-pricing legislation, which puts a price on carbon emissions to account for their negative externalities (think: the crop loss in Manvi), incentivizing the transition to a clean energy economy. In 2017, Fordham University became the first—and hopefully not the last—Jesuit school to endorse carbon pricing. Both of these initiatives send a critical message to our national representatives, (10 percent of whom are Jesuit-educated): people of faith and good will demand political and economic systems that promote a just and sustainable future for all.

The fact that some Jesuit students do not have food because of climate change, while other Jesuit schools continue to take “small steps” towards sustainability is embarrassing, saddening, and ultimately, unacceptable given the mission of Jesuit higher education. Clearly, witnessing to Gospel truths in the face of issues that lack a comfortable political consensus is inherently counter-cultural, sometimes costly, and never easy. Yet, every year on our campuses, we honor the Jesuit Martyrs who were murdered at the University of Central America in El Salvador for taking such a stand. What will it take for us to recognize that we, too, are being called to be prophets of our time?

Marie Therese Kane is a 2018 graduate of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. She is the founder of HC Fossil Free, the student-led campaign to divest Holy Cross’s endowment from fossil fuel industries. She is currently pursuing service with the Peace Corps in Central America. 

Entitled "Drought," the cover photo featured documents a crumbling piece of infrastructure where water once was. All photos are featured courtesy of the author.