VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has published a sweeping condemnation of humanity’s treatment of the environment, blaming “unfettered greed” for increased pollution, inequality, and global warming, “mainly as a result of human activity,” and urging everyone to act quickly, as the Earth begins “to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
He ties environmental degradation directly to poverty — saying the continued abuse of the natural world has the greatest effect on residents of the developing world and serves to keep them at a disadvantage — and abortion, writing that a “throwaway culture” leads to a diminished respect for all human life.
The encyclical is particularly critical of unregulated markets and wealthy nations in the global north unwilling to sign on to global environmental accords.
Ending months of anticipation on Thursday, the Vatican released Laudato Si’, or Praise be to you, a sprawling, 184-page document touching on a variety of ways that human beings interact with their surroundings, from deforestation and unclean water to architecture and urban planning.
But all is not gloom and doom. The pontiff offers possible solutions to the problem of environmental deterioration, including:
- Reaching a global consensus to implement sustainable and diversified agriculture, develop renewable energy, manage marine and forest resources, and ensure universal access to drinking water
- Replacing fossil fuels that contribute to global warming: “Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.”
- Making better use of abundant solar energy
- Conducting environmental assessments before embarking on any local or national projects
- Preventing economic and technological developments from deteriorating people’s quality of life
Francis also lays responsibility at the feet of individuals he says “lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.” He calls for strengthening “the conviction that we are one single human family.”
In his characteristically down-to-earth language, he decries compulsive consumerism, calls for more environmental education, and asks people to make a “selfless ecological commitment” to improving the environment.
And he issues a strong plea to the world: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”
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The document, a draft of which leaked in the Italian press Monday, is divided into six chapters, and takes its name from a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century Italian saint known for his love of nature and the namesake of the current pope. Global in scope, the encyclical uses quotes from bishops’ conferences from every inhabited continent, as well as extensive citations of Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, both of whom issued strong pro-environmental statements during their papacies.
Francis begins his treatise with an examination of the current state of affairs, citing — and accepting — the scientific consensus on climate change and global warming, including the increase in greenhouse gases caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels.
“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption,” the pope writes, “in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” He writes that changes in the environment are wiping out entire species, as well as reducing access to clean drinking water for millions of people living in poverty.
“If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” he says.
During his two years as pope, the Argentine-born Francis has been especially vocal about social inequality and poverty, and his second encyclical continues this theme, especially when it comes to global warming.
“Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming,” he writes, calling for refugee status for those whose lives are uprooted by natural disasters.
Rich countries, Francis maintains, are in debt to poor ones for unleashing catastrophic changes in climate.
“The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming,” he writes.
Further, “developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development.”
The pope calls for a renewed sense of urgency for phasing out “technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas,” saying they must “be progressively replaced without delay.”
The global bully pulpit given to Francis since his election has allowed him to take his concerns about the environment to every corner of the earth, though he writes in the encyclical that elites are often blind to the problems posed by a sick environment.
He suggests that threats to the environment and accompanying poverty remain hidden because “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.”
The encyclical repeatedly talks about the earth as a connected system, with human beings “part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.” As such, Francis says no single challenge, whether economic, political, or environmental, can be solved in isolation.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation,” he wrote.
For example, access to clean water, which the pope calls “a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights,” is part of a complex system under threat even from things once seen as solutions to other environmental issues, such as fertilizers and pesticides.
The loss of biodiversity is also a serious problem, he writes, not just because of the elimination of potential resources and the ecological balance that results, but also because thousands of species destroyed by human activity will no longer give glory to God, and “We have no such right.”
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While much of the encyclical will be cheered by progressive activists, Francis is unflinching in his condemnation of abortion, population control, and gender theory.
Last month, the Vatican hosted a conference with leaders from the United Nations, raising eyebrows among some Catholics who are uncomfortable seeing Church leaders cooperating with activists who promote population control as a means of reducing poverty. Francis gives a nod to those concerns in Laudato Si’, dismissing concerns about overpopulation.
“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues,” he writes. “It is an attempt to 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.”
He said the belief that we “enjoy absolute power over our own bodies” leads to the erroneous belief that “that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”
“Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology,” he writes. “Valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.”
Many of the solutions to the earth’s environmental challenges will be found through dialogue and international cooperation, two areas in which Francis sees room for improvement, slamming “how weak international political responses have been so far.”
“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,” he writes.
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Although Francis addressed the encyclical to all people, he pays special attention to Christian beliefs, touching on biblical interpretation that has been used to justify environmental exploitation. Some secular environmentalists have blamed the earth’s degradation on a particular reading of the creation myth found in Genesis that gives human beings “dominion” over all the earth.
Francis dismisses this interpretation outright.
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us,” he writes. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
He devotes several pages to Christian spirituality and how it can “motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world” because it “encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.”
Several sections of the document discuss technology, and although the pope praises technological advances in travel, communication, and health care, he nonetheless condemns an understanding of the world based solely on technological progress without regard for its moral implications.
“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,” he writes.
He believes that a lack of respect for the environment has fostered a culture of relativism, allowing for a slew of social ills such as human trafficking, sexual exploitation, blood diamonds, fur trade, and slavery.
“Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?” he writes.
Throughout the encyclical, Francis condemns individual greed and excessive consumerism, and places much of the blame on the financial system.
“Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery,” he writes.
He says the world must “reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,” and instead find other ways to measure “progress.”
“A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress,” he writes. “Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes — by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources — in the midst of economic growth.”
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Though much of the encyclical is concerned with putting “healthy pressure” on those in positions of power to stop devastating environmental damage, Francis also asks readers to consider changes in their own lives, “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”
Ultimately, any success in combating environmental catastrophes will come through personal conversion, the pope writes, in how we view our place in the world.
This means rethinking how we build our homes, making sure good jobs aren’t lost at the expense of profits, and even saying grace before and after meals.
“Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history,” he says, “nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.”
And he ends with two prayers:
- A prayer for our earth: “Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth”
- A Christian prayer in union with creation: “Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.”