Msgr. Charles Pope: Anti-Human Themes in Modern Environmentalism

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By Msgr. Charles Pope, Oct. 23, 2019

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I enjoyed much of the popular music of the day but paid little attention to the words. It was usually the rhythm and melody that got my attention; the lyrics were more like another instrumental track than something to analyze. As I got older and especially when I became a writer, the words and their message became much more important to me. When I listen to the ’70s music now, I’m surprised by some of the radical, impure, and foolish philosophies we teens of that time “grooved” to.

One of my favorite groups was the Eagles, though I preferred their lyrical songs like “Desperado” to their hard-driving rock songs like “Life in the Fast Lane.” Among their more lyrical offerings was a song entitled “The Last Resort.” It has a beautiful melody and builds from a simple piano accompaniment to a full-on orchestra. I was oblivious at the time to the preachy and even anti-human lyrics.

It was written in 1976 by bandmembers Don Henley and Glenn Frey and reflected the sentiments of the newly emerging environmentalist movement (the first “Earth Day” was in 1970). Its lyrics argue, in effect, that man destroys everything he calls paradise; he ruins everything he sees as beautiful.

Don Henley would later say that “The Last Resort” was one of his favorite songs because I care more about the environment than about writing songs about drugs or love affairs or excesses of any kind. The gist of the song was that when we find something good, we destroy it by our presence—by the very fact that man is the only animal on earth that is capable of destroying his environment. The environment is the reason I got into politics: to try to do something about what I saw as the complete destruction of most of the resources that we have left. We have mortgaged our future for gain and greed. [1]

His comments convey the anti-human belief that somehow, by our mere presence and capabilities, we destroy whatever is pristine and naturally beautiful. This pessimistic and cynical view of the 1970s has only gotten worse today. Notice also that “the complete destruction of most of our resources” he spoke of still hasn’t occurred more than forty years later. Before I critique any further, let’s examine the lyrics.

The first part of the song describes a young woman from Providence, Rhode Island. To his credit, Henley begins by featuring a young, liberal interloper. She is depicted as one of the dope-smoking hippies who experimented with commune life in the 1960s and 1970s. She sets out for the Rocky Mountains to live like “the red man,” but the presence of filthy communes wrecks the place and “laid the mountains low.”

She came from Providence
The one in Rhode Island
Where the old-world shadows hang
Heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams
Like a refugee
Just as her father came across the sea

She heard about a place people were smiling
They spoke about the red man’s way
And how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere
To the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand
Or a place to hide

Down in the crowded bars
Out for a good time
Can’t wait to tell you all
What it’s like up there
And they called it paradise
I don’t know why
Somebody laid the mountains low
While the town got high

The second part of the song addresses suburbia. The human plague is depicted as a chilly wind that blows down the mountains all the way to Malibu. The claim is made that we wrecked the deserts, the canyons, and the coast; that rich developers raped the land with ugly houses and neon lights. The natural beauty was appreciated as a kind of paradise by the dwellers, but Henley argues that their mere presence means that paradise is lost, destroyed.

Then the chilly winds blew down
across the desert
Through the canyons of the coast
to the Malibu
Where the pretty people play
hungry for power
To light their neon way
and give them things to do

Some rich men came and raped the land
Nobody caught them
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes
and Jesus people bought them
And they called it paradise
The place to be
They watched the hazy sun
sinking in the sea

Part three laments that, having ruined every paradise in the continental U.S., some now set their sights on Lahaina (in Hawaii). Yes, you too can sail to a far-off land and destroy it the way the Catholic Missionaries did to California! They just had to get in an anti-Catholic jab. To radicals, the Catholic Church is a mortal enemy. Protestants and unbelievers get a pass; somehow was Catholic missionaries that brought “the white man’s burden,” the “white man’s reign.” Catholics are also mocked for singing in our parishes of a paradise “up there.” We’re so awful, though, that apparently if we ever got there, we’d ruin that too just by being there. The lyrics are tinged with the lament of Jean Paul Sartre in his play No Exit: “Hell is other people” So, in this final part of the song, we have all three of the favorite whipping boys of the radical left: humans, white men, and Catholics:

You can leave it all behind
and sail to Lahaina
Just like the missionaries did
so many years ago
They even brought a neon sign
‘Jesus is Coming’
Brought the white man’s burden down,
brought the white man’s reign

Who will provide the grand design,
what is yours and what is mine?
’Cause there is no more new frontier,
we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs
and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny
and in the name of God

And you can see them there
on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about
what it’s like up there
They called it paradise,
I don’t know why
You call some place paradise,
kiss it goodbye.

Things have only gotten worse severe since this song was written in the 1970s. For too many environmentalists, mankind is the problem; like a plague of locusts, we must be limited or even removed completely.

As I have written here before, Catholics should be aware that radical environmentalists, including climate change extremists, have “solutions” that no Catholic can countenance. Many of them are advocates of abortion, euthanasia, and forced sterilization. They support government involvement in the economy in ways that contravene the principle of subsidiarity, violate the natural rights of the human person, and disproportionately harm the poor and developing nations.

Another problem with the radicals’ stance is that they see can little or nothing positive in man’s role in the environment. We are viewed as an unnatural interloper. We have surely transgressed in some ways against the natural world, and it is right that we work to reduce pollution and waste. However, I do not believe that there is a “climate emergency.” I’ve been hearing similarly dire predictions all my life, but we’re still here! But I digress; I’m neither a politician nor a scientist.

The point is that for all our errors or excesses, humans have also improved and even helped to advance the potential of the natural world. We have increased agricultural yields, driven back diseases, and made many parts of the world more productive and beautiful. We seldom clear-cut forests anymore. We carefully harvest trees, which are a renewable resource, and we replant them. Why is a city or a suburb inherently bad or ugly? Farms are beautiful, too, and collectively they feed billions. Humans have done some wonderful things to unlock nature’s potential and, as Scripture says, to subdue its unrulier dimensions. The Catholic and biblical view is that we are supposed to be here; we are to oversee the world as stewards and extend, in a way, the work of creation.

Contrary to the songwriters’ allegations, we do not necessarily destroy paradise just by being there. We often improve on the created world through human ingenuity, making use of its resources to feed, clothe, and shelter human beings, each beautiful one made in God’s image. We are not enemies of paradise; we are part of it. God gave it for us to enjoy in moderation and with care.

For all the finger-wagging that so many in the environmental movement do, they also drive cars on paved roads and live in homes with electricity, heat, running water, and air-conditioning. They have wood in the structure of their homes, which built on land that likely once belonged to indigenous people. They eat of the fruits of modern agriculture and fly on planes to business meetings and vacation destinations.

All of us can help by polluting less and wasting less, but human beings are important; we are not a plague on planet Earth. God gave us this earth to use with care and reason. Catholics should not accept the radical environmentalist vision in toto. The Catholic understanding of our role in the natural world is stated well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of “subduing” the earth and having dominion over it. God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers and their sufferings. They then fully become “God’s fellow workers” and co-workers for his kingdom (CCC # 307).

Anti-human attitudes have no place in Catholic thinking. Our summons is to live up to what the Catechism so beautifully states. Whatever your views on the condition of the environment and the climate, stay Catholic, my friends, stay Catholic.

I still like the song for its melody and arrangement. The words I can live without, except that they illustrate well the problems we face today in upholding human dignity and understanding our proper role with respect to the environment.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Anti-Human Themes in Modern Environmentalism