Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology delivers a strongly worded indictment of the global economic system’s “compulsive consumerism,” and warns that catastrophic consequences can only be avoided through “ecological conversion” at every level of social life.
Throughout the text of Laudato Sì (Praise be to you), the pope emphasizes that a true understanding of Christian ethics – as developed from the Old Testament right on through the recent teachings of popes – demands a change from a modern lifestyle that, in many ways, has become unsustainable and unjust.
The document lays down stark challenges to both policy-makers and individuals, and is particularly tough on the architects of global finance. It is the first encyclical solely authored by the Argentine pope, and the perspective of the global South comes through in every page of the 41,000-word text.
What emerges in high relief is that the pope sees environmental degradation as a consequence of economic excess and exploitation, a result of profit-driven abuses that will not be resolved simply by free market forces or advances in technology.
On the contrary, he argues, ecological remedies so far have been piecemeal and ineffective precisely because of this “dominant technocratic paradigm.”
“We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth,” he states. Effective responses must respond to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
The pope says moderating the production-consumption model and slowing the “constant flood of new products” is key to restoring ecological balance in the world. The prevailing economic system, he says, has led to destruction of rain forests, over-fishing of ocean waters, industrialized farming and loss of local biodiversity, and mining techniques that strip developing countries of resources and leave behind only problems and pollution.
The pope blames wealthy countries for their disproportionate use of natural resources, and says that while the world’s poor are often mentioned in international discussions, their struggles seem to be an afterthought. “Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile,” he says.
Radical economic change is needed to fix the situation, he says.
“It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress,” he states.
The encyclical carefully builds on the words of his predecessors, but in its economic critique and its elaboration of an “ecological spirituality,” Pope Francis stakes out new ground. Along the way, he makes his points with characteristic bluntness (emphases are mine):
-- “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”
-- “All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution…. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”
-- “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
-- “We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”
On the issue of climate change, Pope Francis cites the “very solid scientific consensus” that global warming has been produced or aggravated by human causes. Technology that relies on fossil fuels, he says, needs to be replaced by sources of renewable energy “without delay.”
He says the effects of climate change, including desertification, rising sea levels and destructive weather patterns, strike the world’s poorest populations most directly. And he warns that more dire consequences may lie ahead.
“Our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction,” he says.
The pope dismisses the strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it can simply become a “ploy” that allows richer countries and sectors to maintain excessive consumption. Carbon trading is widely used in Europe and is supported by the International Monetary Fund.
The pope devotes particular attention to shortage of safe drinking water in many parts of the world. He assails attempts by businesses to “privatize” access to safe drinking water, which should be a basic human right.
On the much-debated topic of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, the pope says that while there is no conclusive proof that they pose a risk to humans, their safety should continue to be carefully studied. He cites one problem, however, saying widespread use of GM crops tends to diminish the diversity of production and concentrate agricultural land in the hands of a few owners.
In one section of the encyclical, the pope examines the Christian tradition, which views human life as grounded in three fundamental relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. He says the biblical reference to man’s “dominion” over the earth has been misinterpreted by some to justify unbridled exploitation of resources. The biblical text is more correctly understood as a call to care, protect and preserve creation, he says.
He emphasizes that safeguarding human life, including human embryos, should be a priority of any true ecological movement, and says concern for protection of nature is “incompatible with the justification of abortion.”
The pope argues that the Christian spiritual tradition, in encouraging a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, is not really compatible with the modern “obsession with consumption.”
“We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more,’” he states.
The title of the encyclical comes from the opening of a canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, which reminds people that the earth is like a sister and a mother. This spiritual approach to ecology cannot be written off as mere romanticism, because it affects choices that determine behavior, the pope says.
In a closing chapter, the pope encourages individuals and communities to take steps immediately – even small, daily actions that have the ability to spread and do much good, such as modifying consumption, separating waste, taking public transportation and turning off lights.
He also encourages political engagement, saying individual action alone cannot solve the problems of ecological damage. The Christian response, he affirms, must go deeper than the “false or superficial ecology” that believes these problems can be managed by merely tweaking the system.
“Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen,” he says.
The encyclical includes an interesting reflection on the Internet. Pope Francis appears to believe that online media have contributed to an overload of superficial information and “contrived emotion” that have little to do with real experiences of nature or other cultures.
“Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences,” he says.
The full text of the English translation of the encyclical is here.