Last fall the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, declared that we human beings are “on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”.
And, guess what? Just about a quarter of a mile off that highway there is a really nice Franciscan mural, about “Laudato Si” and the environment. That mural features some nice astronomical imagery. (Click here for all “Art & Architecture” posts).
The Laudato Si Mural is on the Pump House Studio of the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts at Mt. St. Francis in Indiana, located about 10 miles northwest of downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The mural was created in 2021 by Friar Vince Peterson and Louisville mural artist Chris Chappell. Mt. St. Francis dates to 1885, when the actress Mary Anderson donated 400 acres of land she had inherited to the Conventual Franciscan Friars in memory of her uncle, Fr. Anthony Mueller. A group of friars settled on the land in 1896, and 1926 the Franciscans formed the Province of Our Lady of Consolation, centered at Mount St. Francis, to serve in the Midwest. It is a popular destination for both high schoolers on retreat and locals wanting to take a modest hike.
An informative plaque states that the Laudato Si Mural was “inspired by the Canticle of Creatures of St. Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis’ letter on the environment”. It goes on to describe what is painted:
The celebration of praise to God, our Creator begins with a recognition that all is gift and bursts forth from the heart and hands of a loving God who desires to reveal his very self. These hands open up to symbolize that all creation flows from a gesture of self-giving and sacrificial love. This movement of creativity explodes into a celebration of diversity and color. Every continent and ocean of the planet is represented in the various plants, animals and insects displayed. From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is praised by all creatures great and small.
The parade of creatures includes children and adults who symbolize every race, language and people of the Earth and even includes a Franciscan friar who was known to levitate when in prayer. Humanity joins with all creation in one song and artistic display of love and praise to God. Certain scripture verses come to mind as we see people swimming with dolphins and flying with cranes.
‘Bless God, heaven and earth … mountains and hills … trees and plants … and birds of the air.’ (Daniel 3:56-88)
‘I will bless you, Lord my God! You fill the world with awe.’ (Psalm 104)
‘Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.’ (Psalm 66)
The plaque concludes by encouraging its readers to “join in the celebration of praise and commit yourself to living more simply and caring for our common home”.
Mt. St. Francis is a nice place, as you can see from the pictures here. In the spring and fall of last year I did a couple of “Moon over the Mount” astronomy programs there. I got these photos when my wife and I were spending a few nights in its “Loftus House”—a really nice building, perhaps a century old, with large windows on the outside that look out over a small lake, and transom windows on the inside (those windows are pieces of rich and solid, yet unfancy, woodwork that fascinate me). At night the skies are dark….
Well, dark-ish. Even at the Loftus House, that “Highway to Climate Hell” is always present. A halo of light pollution rises over the trees in the direction of the highway. A steady, dull rush of road noise grumbles in the distance. Sometimes the rush is not so dull, like when a big truck goes by.
The highway is called US 150. The entrance to Mt. St. Francis is off it. If you want to see the mural, you will drive on US 150.
When the Mount was young, that highway was two lanes, and winding. The Mount was well-removed from the bustle of the cities at the Falls of the Ohio River: Louisville, on the Kentucky side of the river; and the much smaller New Albany, Clarksville, and Jeffersonville, on the Indiana side. The skies over the Mount were truly dark.
Following the Second World War, bridges were built. The small road that wound its way up into the hills northwest of the Falls Cities was reconstructed into a large highway whose smooth route now carves through those hills. The US 150 that passes the gate of Mt. St. Francis today sports four lanes, divided, with turning lanes, broad shoulders, and lighting. Over the years, nice subdivisions, shopping centers, and restaurants have grown up along it, and along the other roads that feed into it.
The Mount is not so removed now. It you leave it for Louisville in the morning, you might soon find yourself crawling slowly along US 150, in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
All that traffic with all those engines; all that lighting going up into the sky; all that square footage being heated and cooled—most all of it brought about in the last half-century in a metropolitan area whose population growth in that time has not been rapid at all—is why US 150 is the “Highway to Climate Hell”. There are roads like US 150 all over the modern world.
But if António Guterres, or the Franciscans, want to persuade people to get off that road, to live more simply, in a more climate-friendly (and dark skies friendly) manner that better cares for our common home, they face a real challenge. Many people who have the resources to do so are going to want to live in the area around the Mount. It is lovely there.
What is more, the “greener” and “darker sky” options for living are not so lovely. Ten miles away, Louisville is beset by trash, a homicide rate that has tripled in well under a decade, social unrest, and other problems. I live right in the middle of it.
From my home I can hear gunfire frequently. Often it is “celebratory”, directed skyward, and those rounds come back to Earth somewhere. I have one imbedded in the planks of my deck, and have found several more on the sidewalk and the garden. I can also frequently hear the revving of engines, as at night people take over sections of interstates or large intersections, blocking them off for drag racing or doing “donuts”—filling the air with racket, clouds of smoke from overheated tires, and exhaust. In the day, every large intersection I drive through features men holding cardboard signs saying, “anything helps”. Many of them create massive trash piles at those spots, or at encampments and hangouts nearby. In public parks near my home, men openly urinate, get drunk, and create need for “syringe disposal boxes”—no matter if kids are riding by them on bikes. These problems have all arisen, or worsened dramatically, in the past decade or so. There is no obvious light at the end of this tunnel.
This is what is faced by those who might want to advocate for a less energy-intensive life that better cares for our common home. In theory, a denser, more urban area can support such a life: commutes are shorter, and can even be by foot, bike, or transit; people can shop or go out to eat or visit friends on foot; children can meet friends and play in the neighborhood park, or go to the library; and with the population not spread out over the hills, there can be some dark skies, not too far away. Build in those areas some houses with those transom windows, designed to be comfortable without heating or cooling over a broader range of outdoor temperatures, and add some well-designed lighting that puts light where it is needed and not up in the sky, and you can imagine a lot less energy use. But given the reality of life in this denser, more urban area, moving up to the Mount makes all too much sense.
Discussions on how to solve the climate problem tend to focus on renewable energy, electric cars, and the like. Surely replacing more polluting things with less polluting things is good. But the climate problem, and the light-pollution problem which I see as closely related, are problems of consumption. I am skeptical that we can solve a consumption problem by creating more things to consume—by building batteries on a vast scale, for example, with all the resources needed to do that. It is only logical that consumption problems have to be solved in large part by consuming less—by living more simply and caring for our common home: you help solve the climate problem (and light pollution problem) right now by turning off a light right now.
If that logic is right, then the option of living more simply and caring for our common home has to be more attractive. The problems that make such living unattractive will have to be solved if the climate problem is to be solved. I am just about ready to move out to Mt. St. Francis myself, and thus do my bit to brighten its skies, to add to the traffic and noise on US 150, and to burn more energy—to do my bit to help build that highway to climate hell.
Would I prefer to live more simply and care for our common home? Yes I would. But I would also prefer to not find bullets in my deck. Recall that when the prophet Isaiah told the king Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:12-21 NSRV) that the wealth of the Jewish kings would be carried off to Babylon, and Hezekiah’s yet-to-be born descendants would serve as eunuchs in the palace of the Babylonian king (yikes!), Hezekiah responded that he would have to be satisfied with peace and prosperity in his day, and he worked at improving what he could in Jerusalem, building up its water works. There will probably continue to be dark skies in my day—somewhere further out US 150, well beyond lovely Mt. St. Francis and its cool “Laudato Si” mural.