Pope’s Francis’ ecological encyclical “Laudato Si”

| 12.20.2015


The Most Important (but little known) Message for Humanity in 2015: Pope’s Francis Ecological Encyclical “Laudato Si”

By Miguel A. Altieri

The root cause of the unleashing ecological challenge that humanity faces lies in our socioeconomic system, and particularly in the dynamic of capital accumulation. The Pope clearly manifests that the planetary environmental crisis is aggravated by a model of development incapable of ensuring respect for the environment and the world’s poorest. It is important to be aware that climate change is merely one among a number of dangerous rifts in planetary boundaries arising from human transformations of the earth. Ocean acidification, destruction of the ozone layer, species extinction, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, growing fresh water shortages, land-cover change through expansion of monocultures for biofuels, chemical pollution, etc all represent rifts in the global ecological crises. In reviewing several aspects of this crisis, Pope Francis posits “ a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly” (#34). Further warning us that “ if present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedent destruction of ecosystems, with seriuos consequences for all of us” (#24)

Faced with such intractable problems, the response of the dominant interests has always been that technology, supplemented by market magic can solve all problems, allowing for unending capital accumulation and economic growth without impacting nature. Although the Pope expresses gratitude and appreciation for the progress brought about technology, he states …”they (technologies such as biotechnology, nuclear power, etc) have given those with the knowledge…an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world”(#104). Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that technological advances will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. The Pope questions technocrats, saying that blind faith in technology…”has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth”….This idea…” is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit” (#106).  In an economy designed to maximize overall waste, products are systematically made so as to no longer be repairable. Consumers are therefore compelled to discard them and return to the market and buy over and over again.

The world economy fueled by incontrolable market forces is clearly not sustainable to the point that…” it is not posible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of consumption and waste has reached unprecedent levels”(#27). The Pope is not shy in criticizing the throwaway society…” We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth”( #161). But the Pope is very concrete on who is most responsible for global destruction, explicitely refering to “ A trueecolog­ical debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time” (#51). He is even more specific by stating that “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive” (#95). ­He links such robbery to the export of raw materials from developing countries to satisfy the appetite in the industrialized north which causes so much harm locally and points to the North by saying “the warming caused by huge con­sumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world”. Behind the worldwide veil of capitalism and its promoters that show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations“(#109), lie hundreds of millions of poor and destitute people, that lack the most basic prerequisites of material existence—adequate food, water, clothing, housing, employment, healthcare, and a non-toxic environment. We all know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. Thus He calls on the developed countries…” 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 invites us to contain growth by setting some reasonable limits …”That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to ex­perience healthy growth”(#193). This would provide the opportunity “for poor countries…to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people”(#172).

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, a situation exploited by markets which promote ex­treme consumerism. Most people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending, because as the Pope says “

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The empti­er a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume”(204) and in this state of mind “ people are led to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed free­dom to consume” (#203). This is why the Pope exhorts us to ”to take an hon­est look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom”(#206).

After such a crude and realistic analysis of the state of our common home and our level of planetary consciousness, Laudato Si ultimately consists in an urgent call for concrete action…”The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now” (#161). The Pope does not put much hope in governments and international organizations whose responses have been weak… “The failure of global summits on the environment make it 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”(#54). The Pope is dissapointed on the outcomes of recent World Summits on the environment (this also applies to the recent COP 21 held in Paris) which…” have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment”(#166).

Given that the …”existing world order proves powerless to asume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference” (#179). One level of action is for us to join social movements which …” must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procesdures and controls. Unless citizens control political power-national, regional and municipal-it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (#179). “When social pressure affects their earnings , businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently” (#206). Among the actions that organized citizens should be demanding the Pope includes…”planning a sustainable and diversified agriculture, developing renewable and less polluting forms of energy, promoting a better management of marine and forest resources and ensuring universal access to drinking water” (#164)…while addressing the “problems of global hunger and poverty which cannot be resolved simply by market growth” (#109). More profound actions would entail a ban on coal-fired plants and unconventional fossil fuels, a vast shift to solar and wind power and other sustainable energy alternatives and a moratorium on economic growth in the rich economies in order to reduce carbon emissions. These and other key actions will depend of course on the rise to prominence of an environmental global movement capable of initiating a broad, counter-hegemonic struggle for the fulfillment of human needs in line with the goals of a world of socioeconomic equality and ecological sustainability.

The Pope also believes in the strength of community actions to promote the common good and to defend the environment. “Around these community actions, rela­tionships develop or are recovered and a new so­cial fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of sol­idarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home…” (#232). At the personal level we can also make huge contributions for a better planet by disentangling ourselves from needless buying and spending and embarking on little daily actions that bring about real changes in lifestyl which “can directly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, using public transportation or car-pooling, biking, planting tres, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices” (#211). “ We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, ulbeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they enable us to live more fully and to feel that ife on earth is worthwhile” (#213). In the end “ sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating” (#225).

The Pope believes that the ecological conversion of our planet should be guided by an integral ecology which is “also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms” (#230). He calls for the unleashing of social love, “overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and

it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and com­mitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also mac­ro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”(#231). The Pope ends this beautiful and powerful encyclical by saying that “ social love is the key to authentic development… social love moves us to devise larger strategies….to encourage a culture of care which permeates all of society”(#231).

I dont know of any other person in this world that has as Pope Francis explained to humanity in simple but clear and strong words the immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. He offers specific proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and organized in social groups to put pressure on the powerful and ultimately affect international policy for the good of the planet. As the Pope says throughout Laudato Si, many things have to change in the world, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack ten­derness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings….Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society (#91). )… “ Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good” (#225).