By Kathryn Allen
In June of 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical on our planet’s troubled environment. It is entitled: On Care for Our Common Home. He addresses it not just to the Catholic community, but to “everyone living on this planet,” and in it issues a request for dialogue with all people about the environmental deterioration of Earth, caused by humans. Its release came in a timely manner, just a few months before the UN climate talks begin in Paris on November 30th.
In six chapters he describes what has happened to our home planet in terms of a changing climate, pollution, a throw away culture, and the loss of biodiversity. He places much emphasis on the issue of water as a fundamental human right. Certainly an issue which can only grow in importance as aquifers are overdrawn, less falls as snow, glaciers disappear, huge reservoirs are ringed with deposits indicating high levels of years long past, severe storms deposit excess amounts in low lying areas and the expanding deserts are increasingly deprived of moisture. The litany has become all too familiar.
As a document of religious faith, he considers Biblical accounts of creation, and also the mysteries of the universe. He addresses the human roots of our ecological crises, including the power of the technocratic paradigm, and the destructiveness of humanity focusing only on itself as the center of just about everything. He writes of the magnificence of this world and insists on the importance of beauty over human-made ugliness; a reality he has no doubt witnessed many times during his sojourns among the poor.
He warns that unabated climate change will cause severe disruptions to ecosystems and human societies, and calls urgently upon world leaders to accelerate efforts to reduce green house gas emissions. He also affirms that no act of caring for the earth is too small, and encourages action at the individual level. Throughout the encyclical he integrates a focus on the poor and marginalized of the world who will be the first victims of and the most affected by climate change, but have done the least to cause it. He is clearly critical of the accumulation of excessive wealth, irresponsible development, out of control consumerism, a throw away culture, and the decline in the human social experience that these all reflect.
He speaks in support of indigenous communities, their cultural traditions, and their role as principle partners in the dialog about earth care. This affirmation is so needed at a time when aboriginal lands in Canada are being devastated by tar sands extraction for further fossil fuel profits.
While it is not a book filled with charts, graphs, and tables, Pope Francis basis his writings in science, and sought the consultation of the scientific community for this encyclical. He insists that climate change is the fault of human behaviors, and further insists that there must be a rapid conversion of our economies from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. He brings to science the moral imperative of having a habitable world. He does not claim to settle scientific questions, but urges an honest and open debate in the ultimate interest of the common good of all life on the planet.
He also honors the principle of the common good in extending it to multiple generations. The importance of significant, life changing dialog is encouraged at every level of human interaction, from the international to the local and personal. Relationships with one another and with the Earth are emphasized repeatedly. The encyclical finishes with a call to action including a radical change in lifestyle and a covenant between humanity and the environment. And in a way that we are coming to associate with this Pope, he encourages developing a capacity for personal joy and inner peace despite all these difficult challenges.
The encyclical is certainly far more than an argument for heeding the warnings and mitigating the damage already done or lying ahead. As Bill McKibben writes: “Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary….It’s both caustic and tender, and should unsettle every nonpoor reader who opens its pages” (New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015).
As we stand a few days away from the Nov. 30 – Dec. 11, 2015 UN climate talks in Paris, all the people of the planet that the Pope addresses would do well to insist, as he does, that the developed nations are morally obligated to assist developing nations in combatting the climate change crisis, and that we are morally bound to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
Unfortunately, the issue of a burgeoning and unsustainable growth in population is not addressed. However, I hope that the urgent need for action in so many areas will move us forward on the common ground we share. I found the Care of Our Common Home to be inspiring and compelling. It is an insistent call for putting words and understanding in to the active pursuit of change. Contained within the text, there are passages that speak to the heart, such as how the media and digital world can “…stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (Para. 47). And reminiscent of Sierra Club founder John Muir: “Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and constant distractions, or the cult of appearance?” (Para. 225). On Care for our Common Home is an unambiguous and urgent call to harmonious living on this generous Earth, and immediate activism on behalf of the planet and all its inhabitants.
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenmelkisethian/