The cry of the earth and the poor

“Laudato Si” – the Papal Encyclical on the environment (“our common home”) – is, by any standards, an extraordinary document. A lucid, wide-ranging statement on the crises associated with from global change — habitat destruction, pollution, wars and mass migration driven by resource constraints — it outlines the moral choices needed if we wish to prevent “tyrannical anthropocentrism”, which has no basis in scripture, from overwhelming us. Published in anticipation of the next round of UN climate talks in Paris, six months from now, the 180-page text will likely stimulate a much needed reconsideration of environmental politics before the Pope’s joint address to the US Congress later this year.

Several of the Pope’s most striking opinions address the dangers of complacent trust in scientific progress. We are told that our technological paradigm “exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object… as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.” This sort of materialism lets us separate landscapes and resources from the people most affected by them as an abstraction.

Restoring the human presences swept aside by our indifferent materialism, Pope Francis emphasises that “[c]aring for ecosystems demands farsightedness since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” We also learn that “deep communion with the rest of nature” cannot succeed “if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

Instead of viewing environmental crises as abstract scientific questions, Pope Francis suggests that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach” and that we must “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

In a characteristically self-deprecating move Pope Francis avoids religiosity, acknowledging the importance of dialogue with many people who “view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated.” Scientific consensus on the gravity of global change ought to alarm us, independent of our religious beliefs, but religion can help us to structure analysis of the root problems. Greed is one such issue. The encyclical condemns “speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity.” The encyclical suggests that when these actions are restored to their proper contexts it is much eaiser to notice that “environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.”

Rather than issuing another environmental jeremiad the Pope urges us, collectively, to move past self-justifying political habits. He condemns the laziness of believing that “[s]uperficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious.” Shirking facts is how “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.”

“Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries,” writes Pope Francis, “it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations.” Global environmental summits make it increasingly clear that “our politics are subject to technology and finance” and “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.”

Crucially, when re-examining present injustices, we should avoid assumptions that “legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”

For Pope Francis, our hyperconsumption is increasingly evident in “the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities” and the ways in which omnipresent digital media “can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.” Instead of yielding to constant distractions, we should remember that true wisdom is “the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, [and it] is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution.”

What emerges most vividly from Pope Francis’s remarkable statement is the moral urgency of tackling global change, and the need for developed countries to reconsider their heedless materialism instead of preaching to the global south. Most publications about the environment, perhaps mindful of their audiences, downplay the need for the sort of moral reforms that Pope Francis would like. But it is hard to read his concern about the abstraction of our age of materialism, and technologies that “shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences” without feeling that something vital has been added to the often wearying and dispiriting discussions of the moral issues at stake in our response to global climate change.

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