When I was about 8 years old, I bought a copy of a slim book called 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. I ploughed through its pages and then immediately set out to enact its suggestions, like making birdhouses from milk jugs, trying to convince my parents to put a brick in the toilet tank (so it would use less water), and writing letters about saving dolphins from oil spills to President George H. W. Bush (this last one was my own idea).
In the years since, although I’ve recycled and tried to use resources wisely, I must admit that my fervor for environmental issues has dulled somewhat. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that our planet’s environmental problems can seem less pressing than the immediate needs of the poor of my community or my desire to binge-watch the new season of “Orange is the New Black.” But today another, somewhat lengthier volume has snapped me out of my complacency.
Today, we have “Laudato Si’”, Pope Francis’ deep, powerful, beautiful encyclical, which reminded me over and over again that our use of technology, love of the poor, and care for our environment are integrally connected, and that cultivating love and respect for all God’s creation is, in fact, a timely and timeless concern.
“Laudato Si’” is a hopeful document in which Francis asks all people to enter into a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (No. 14), and he draws on the wisdom of Scripture, bishops, philosophers and science to shape that conversation. But, perhaps most surprisingly, he also points to the example of young people today: “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded” (No. 13).
It is refreshing to see Francis identify the fact that many young people are living out the Gospel teaching in this way and possess a desire to make a difference. This acknowledgement likely will be appreciated by the young people he describes, many of whom fall into the millennial generation. A 2014 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that millennials named unemployment, resource scarcity, climate change/protecting environment, and inequality as the top four challenges facing society in the next 5-10 years. Fittingly, Pope Francis addresses each of these in “Laudato Si’” and in doing so both affirms and challenges this much-discussed (and too-oft maligned) generation (of which I am a member). For this diverse group of young people looking for solutions to these issues, the new encyclical offers ideas rooted in faith but accessible to the spiritual, the seekers and the religious alike. Here are just a few examples:
It urges us to recognize the power of true connection. Millennials are willing participants in today’s sharing economy. We share rides on Uber and rooms on Airbnb. We live in intentional communities and share our feelings with virtual communities. This careful use of resources is certainly in line with Francis’ reminder that “an ecological approach [to an issue] always becomes a social approach” (No. 49). Yet Francis also warns that while new media can connect us to others it also can “shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences” (No. 47). In “Laudato Si’” we are challenged to remember that “all of us, as living creatures, are dependent on one another” (No. 42) and that “[t]his experience of a communitarian salvation often generates creative ideas for the improvement of a building or a neighbourhood” (149). We are called to acknowledge the reality of the love we must have for one another if we are to face the real problems ahead.
It places a high value on diversity. The ethnic and cultural diversity among members of the millennial generation is unprecedented among generations in American history. We appreciate hearing the perspectives of a variety of cultures, and Pope Francis has certainly delivered a diverse array of voices on the topic of creation. The encyclical has an international flair that calls upon other faith traditions as well as the global church, citing Catholic bishops’ conferences from New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa and more. The document also emphasizes the importance of biodiversity and the need to protect endangered species. Francis writes: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (No. 33). Millennials are open to the understanding that the balance of our ecosystems and society depends on a respect for this diversity.
It expresses an appreciation for innovation. Millennials are likely the last generation that will have been familiar with both the sound of a 56K modem and the voice of Siri. We have seen how technology can change and how quickly it can change lives. We also appreciate the benefits of technology, which Francis reminds us, has helped us to survive and thrive in this world: “It is right to rejoice over these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us” (No. 102). Yet he also cautions that technology can lead to a tragic sort of disconnect, distracting us from what is important and separating us from nature and from each other. Too often, technology “proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (No. 20). Francis urges us to remember those times we felt connected to the earth: “Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square—going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves” (No. 84).
It offers a call to humility. Many may feel this an appropriate call for a generation often labeled entitled, narcissistic and sheltered. Others might say that we possess just enough self-confidence and self-awareness to make progress on tough issues. Still, Francis urges all of us to step outside of ourselves and to consider our part in God’s creation—as well as the ways in which we’ve destroyed it. “Laudato Si’” urges us to consider creation with reverence and a sense of stewardship rather than domination. The encyclical cites a 2008 address by Pope Benedict calling us to remember that “the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing but ourselves” (No. 6). We must follow St. Francis’s example of his “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (No. 11).
It urges greater efforts for equality and solidarity. “We require a new and universal solidarity,” writes Pope Francis (No 14). This might mean that some of us must learn to do with less. It might mean shorter showers and eliminating food waste. It might mean changes in public policy and international agreements. It can also mean that we work to find value in something other than profits, a concept with which many millennials are quite comfortable, as many seek meaningful work over big paychecks. “Once more, we need to 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” (No. 190). True care for creation, then, begins in our connections with others: “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and a unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (No. 91).
It reminds us that we’re in this for the long haul. For a generation accustomed to instant-streaming videos and free, two-day shipping, knowing we might not see the end results of our work for a cleaner, more peaceful planet can be frustrating. But that’s also part of the joy. Through our actions we are connected to the generations before us who cared for the earth on our behalf, and for the generations after us, who will inherit it. Francis writes that “we believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.” (No. 169).“Laudato Si’” makes clear that all of us must play a role in saving the earth from ourselves, and that these efforts should be prayerful, deliberate, and even joyful. “In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God,” Francis writes. “Let us sing as we go.” Thus, we are reminded, in the midst of our messy lives, that while our efforts to save the earth won’t always be simple, they’ll always be worthwhile.