Addressing “every person on the planet” in his groundbreaking encyclical released today, Pope Francis speaks frankly and with passion about the “global environmental deterioration” of “our common home” and urgently appeals “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet," (No. 14).
By using the expression “common home”, he skillfully makes environmental degradation comprehensible to the vast majority of men and women that will not comprehend the scientific complexity of global warming but will understand that our home on planet earth is deteriorating. And, writing with clarity, he uses concrete examples with which people can easily identify, such as heating, water, food, migration.
He expresses the hope that his letter, known as an encyclical, “can help us to acknowledge the appeal, the immensity and the urgency of the challenge we face” because “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. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas,”(No. 24). He’s thinking of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Hong Kong.
“We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” Francis states in the 183 page letter that he wrote in Spanish. He emphasized the need “tobring thewholehuman familytogethertoseekasustainableandintegraldevelopment,forweknowthatthingscanchange.”
Francis expresses confidence that this is possible because, “theCreatordoesnotabandonus;heneverforsakeshislovingplanorrepentsofhavingcreatedus. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home,” (No. 13).
The letter reflects the man in its global outreach, deep analysis, the imagination with which it sees ways ahead, and its profoundly spiritual call to humanity to change course before it’s too late. Another distinguishing feature is the way it encourages families, religious and Church communities, and civic organizations to play their part in caring for “our common home.” From Buenos Aires, Francis knows the important role organizations of civil society can play, also in getting politicians to work for the common good. He urges everyone “to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”, and to respond with action.
As a Jesuit, as bishop in Argentina and now as leader of the Catholic Church, Francis has always opted to face problems in a direct, honest way. He refuses to sweep any under the carpet or to use the language of political correctness. He’s a free man, not beholden to any lobby or interest group, and speaks fearlessly. All this comes through clearly from the very first chapter where he discusses “What is happening to our common home”, and deals with climate change.
Noting that rapid changes are taking place in society, he says that while “change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of concern when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.” By “much of humanity” he means the poor, the majority of the world’s population. Francis views the world through their eyes, and in the encyclical he returns again and again to “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet,” (No. 16).
From this optic too (in chapter 3), in the analytical core of the encyclical, he powerfully challenges the tendency today “to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society,” (No. 107). He challenges the mentality of technocratic domination that leads to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of people and the most vulnerable populations, and the technocratic paradigm “that tends to dominate politics and economic life,”(No. 109). He notes that “humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads” because never before “has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used,” (102).
At the October 2014 synod, Francis used the inductive method to analyze the problems of the family. Likewise in the encyclical, in presenting the problems of “our common home”, he uses an inductive and inclusive method that touches upon climate change, biodiversity, water and the depletion of natural resources. He reads “the signs of the times”. This insulates him from the charge of being an idealist opining in a doctrinaire manner about realities he does not comprehend. And it enables the encyclical to have enough specificity in its analysis to offer definite doctrinal and policy conclusions.
Last, but by no means least, he invites people – at all levels of society and in their different roles of responsibility - to be part of identifying and taking the next crucial steps in caring for “our common home.”
In his insightful presentation of the problems of “our common home” Francis not only uses the best scientific data available so as to provide “a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual journey that follows”, he also draws on the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew. Significantly, he takes input too from Bishops Conferences in 17 countries, mostly from the southern hemisphere.
Francis portrays planet earth as “poor” and “suffering”, like the majority of its inhabitants. Some of the suffering is caused by pollution, much produced by residue, including ‘dangerous waste.” Last July he saw such pollution from waste as he flew by helicopter on his way to Caserta, southern Italy, and it made a big impact on him.
In this context, the Pope who once studied chemistry notes that unlike the natural eco-systems, “ourindustrial system,at theendofits cycleofproductionandconsumption,hasnotdevelopedthecapacitytoabsorb andreusewasteandby-products,” (No. 22). He sees scope for much progress here.
Since Francis is the foremost moral authority in the world today, many want to hear what he has to say about climate change, particularly after his experience last January in the storm at Tacloban, in the Philippines. His encyclical leaves little doubt: climate change is happening, and is mainly man made.
He points to “solid scientific consensus” of “a disturbing warming of the climatic system”, accompanied by “a constant rise in the sea level” and, it seems, “an increase of extreme weather events”. While “other factors” play a part, Francis says “scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases” that are “released mainly as a result of human activity.” Furthermore, “the problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system”, and “deforestation for agricultural purposes,” (No. 23).
In addition, climate warming “has effects on the carbon cycle” and this affects the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.
His conclusion: “Climate change is a global problem with serious implications, environmental, social, economic, political, and for the distribution of goods; it represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.” It will hit the poor hardest since many of them live in areas particularly affected by climate warming. Like the prophets of old, Francis warns that the situation “will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption,” (No. 26).
From his experience in Latin America, he’s long been critical of how the world economy is run. That criticism comes out too in the encyclical when he observes that “economic powers continue to justify the current global system, where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.” He underlines the fact that “environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked,” (No. 56).
The Argentine Pope has never been one to let problems get the upper hand; he’s always looking for ways to address them. We see this too in the second half of the encyclical. Affirming that we face “one complex crisis” which is both social and environmental, he says “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combatting poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature,” (No. 139).
He perceives the ecological crisis as a spiritual one too. He emphasizes “the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution”, and advocates an “ecological conversion”. Moreover, in contrast to the “excessive anthropocentrism” of our day, Francis proposes (in chapter 4) “integral ecology” as a new paradigm of justice, an ecology “which respects our unique place in this world and our relationship to our surroundings,” (No. 15). He insists, to begin with, that “we need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” (No. 52).
The Jesuit Pope is universally recognized as a spiritual leader, and one of the most striking features of this encyclical is the profound spirituality that permeates it from beginning to end. On his election as pope, he chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, and the spirituality that is found here is truly Franciscan, starting with the title – “Laudato Si “ (“Praise be to you”). The spirituality of St. Francis is the soul of the encyclical; it brings out the overwhelming spiritual nature of the world and all its creatures. It is this profound spirituality which gives the encyclical real power in generating a true moral conversion on the environment.
Explaining what this conversion entails, Francis says it’s morally imperative that we human beings take responsibility for what we are doing, act to slow down and reverse the trends, and make every effort to prevent further damage. He says this requires a change of heart and lifestyles, and establishing new ways of producing, distributing and consuming, in order to take better care of our common home and its inhabitants and, in the first place, the poor.
In regard to climate change, Francis emphasizes the “urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy," (No. 26).
He believes everyone can play a part in helping address the problems, including the world of politics. From his experience in Argentina and his meeting with world leaders as Pope, he understands how the political world functions. In the encyclical he points to the hitherto “weak international political responses” to climate change and other environmental matters, and remarks that “the failure of global summits on the environment make 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," (No. 54).
He clearly hopes that leaders at this year’s world summits in New York and Paris will change course by taking decisions for the common good. He intends his encyclical as a contribution to those summits, by making the whole world aware of what is truly at stake. It is a wake-up call.