Ordinary people sense that something is wrong. As we witness extraordinary increases in natural disasters (storms, floods, droughts, fires, glacial melting, ocean acidification), we know that our home planet, Earth, is undergoing severe environmental stresses.
We know that ecologically destructive economic practices exist, but people become personally conflicted because we may receive economic benefits from, or are otherwise comforted by, such practices. To help solve this conundrum, many seek advice from their stockbroker; others may look to their pope.
"The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” Pope Francis said. “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. ... Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”
That quote, from Section 23 in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter, “Laudato Si” (“Praised be You”), was made public in Rome on June 18. Its title is from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures (“Praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures ...”).
An encyclical is a papal teaching letter usually addressed to Catholic clergy and/or laity. Occasionally, on matters deemed extremely important to society, it is directed to all peoples. Pope Francis began his letter, “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet ... I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”
Subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home,” Francis’ dialogue contains 40,500-plus words within 246 “sections” that are spread in an introduction and six chapters. It not only addresses ecological and economic aspects of climate warming, it also emphasizes the ethical, moral, philosophical, theological and spiritual dimensions of natural resource use as it affects creatures and people, especially the poor. A recurring sub-theme could be “everything is interrelated.”
Justice to the entire document cannot be done in this space, so I’ve chosen to quote a few sentences:
“Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market.” (Section 30) “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” (36)
“Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (42)
“Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” (48)
“The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them ...” (52)
“A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” (101)
“This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.” (106)
“There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” (111)
“All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” (114)
“Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (139)
“A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity.” (144)
“The 21st century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political.” (175)
At Cal Poly, I taught courses on human ecology, resource conservation and world food politics considering ethics, but not theology!
Pope Francis is calling for an “integral ecology” that addresses multiple environmental issues and inequality in resource distribution through the lens of ethics, ecology, morality, theology and spirituality. Were I still teaching there, I think gathering faculty from a dozen or more departments to teach a multidisciplinary course about this encyclical would be timely and stimulating to faculty and students.
In September, Francis will address the U.N. and the U.S. Congress. In December, he will address the critical climate talks in Paris. Hopefully, his dialogue will nudge the current political debate from disagreeable denial to action with meaningful commitments to save both the Earth and human dignity.