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Monday, April 29, 2013

The price of disordered leisure

Two recent and seemingly unrelated news stories are of interest to Catholic ecologists. Their intersection speaks to a host of issues related to peace, love, and seeking both through far too much consumption.

First is the news of Pope Francis’s words on the topic of leisure. A story by the New York Times about the soon-to-be-published book “Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words” (Putnam; $24.95), draws attention to a compilation of interviews of then Cardinal Bergoglio. In it, he speaks about the human need to rest.
Responding to the question, “Do we need to rediscover the meaning of leisure?” Pope Francis replies: “Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.” In such cases, he concludes, “work ends up dehumanizing people.”
The second story is about a local issue in Goa, India. I’ve written elsewhere about how this Indian state struggles with mining but here we find another tension between nature and business. According to The Hindu, an island community in Goa is under pressure to be developed as an upscale tropical resort. The story notes that the island
Vanxim has about 120 houses with a population of 500 to 600. Fishing is the only source of livelihood. In 2006, much of the 800,000 sq meter island was bought by a private dealer and sold to a builders’ group that was eyeing this picturesque island to convert it into a resort. The residents are deeply divided over this controversial project and the issue has been hanging fire since then.
A former panchayat member, Manuvel Furtado, says that they want firm assurances that the resort will be constructed on the barren land only and none of the houses and other structures will be affected and none will be evacuated. The group opposing the move argues that the deal is illegal because the water bodies cannot be bought and nor can the mangroves be cut.
The developers have brought out a booklet wherein they quote a resolution of Sao Mathias Gram Panchayat, under which Vanxim comes, recommending an eco tourism project. The resort promoters have promised to develop infrastructure for basic needs, generate employment by tapping the local talent and has also assured that existing homes have not been acquired and no one will be evacuated. But there is an air of mistrust. In the nearby Divar Island, where the Divaaya resort hotel was constructed some years back, people say that the owners sold their land following an assurance that a spice garden and ponds for fishing would be developed there to generate employment for the local people. However, the promoters went back on their promise apart from employing some locals at the resort. Perhaps, Divar’s experience has made Vanxim’s residents edgy about the offer.
For the Catholic ecologist, the words of Pope Francis speak to the worries over Vanxim’s future because far too many of us in the developed world overdo and corrupt the concept of leisure.

Hyper-consumption is a curse rooted in Western thought and practice. A great many resources go to vacation homes that are rather large, resorts that are rather decadent, and cruises that are rather messy.

And all this is in the name of finding bliss on earth.

St. Augustine famously noted that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” This restlessness is of course the human desire to seek God. It is the natural orientation to reclaim Eden—to find the new heavens and the new earth that St. John prophesizes and Christianity proclaims. The human urge to rest in the beauty of nature is an echo of our natural desire to join creation—and in so doing to rightly give Him praise.

None of this is bad in itself. Indeed, it is innately human. But sin disorders this quest—these urges—much as it disorders sexual desires.

Nothing of this earth can quench our true thirst to rest. True rest comes only in and from the presence of God. As Pope Francis noted in his homily at the Confirmation of some two dozen youths last Sunday,
[t]he new things of God are not like the novelties of this world, all of which are temporary; they come and go, and we keep looking for more. The new things which God gives to our lives are lasting, not only in the future, when we will be with him, but today as well.
And so as we consider our holiday plans, perhaps we should consider that our quest for the things that last doesn't require extensive international air travel—that the things of God can be found more readily outside of artificial communities, which swallow large volumes of resources from the areas in which they reside.

Certainly, much can be said about the economic benefits of the travel and leisure industry—especially the jobs it provides to desperately poor people. But much more can be said about authentically building local economies based not on foreigners consuming local resources but on a foundation of authentic enterprise and the dignity of local residents.

As we see in Goa, there is an insatiable need for new and more luxurious locales for restless travelers to find something akin to peace. But true peace comes not by constant exploration of this world—which often comes at a hefty price to ecosystems—but from God's grace, which allows us to build small destinations of the Kingdom of God in the places we call home.

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