Pope Francis has provided us with what could be one of the most important documents of this century: his “Encyclical Letter for Care of our Common Home.” Let me first make it clear that I do not make this statement as a Catholic or even a “church-going” Christian, although I am a “spiritual Christian.”
The Letter is frequently referred to as the “Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change.” However, as he purposefully pointed out, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (Sec. 23). “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone” (Sec 93). Thus, he expanded the subject to “Care for Our Common Home.” There is no way I can do justice to his document in a piece of reasonable length for a blog. So, I will limit my comments to my “Top Ten Reason” for recommending reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical.
My first four reasons relate to ways of thinking about human relationships with the rest of the world, or worldview, that he suggests are essential for responsible care of our common home:
When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it (Sec 139).
This [integral] rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world (Sec 78). The biblical texts are to be read in their context… they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world [Gen 2:15]. “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving (Sec 67).
How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! (Sec. 84). Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous (Sec 65). It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves (Sec. 33).
The notion of the common good also extends to future generations… We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity (Sec 159). We cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation (Sec 48). The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development (Sec. 13).
My next four reasons relate to the specific ways of thinking that Pope Francis suggests are the root causes of the threats to the ecological integrity of the earth – our common home. He wrote This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor (Sec 2).
Never 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 (Sec 104). We have to accept that technological products are not neutral… Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build (Sec 107). The idea of infinite or unlimited growth… is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods (Sec 106).
The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. It often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant (Sec 110). Today’s technology relies on a “scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation” (Sec 106).
The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings… Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue… that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth… showing no interest in… a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations… We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth (Sec 109).
Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending (Sec 203). But… 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 (Sec 34).
My last two reasons for reading the Encyclical, beginning with the social and spiritual nature of being human, provide hope for fundamental change and a positive future for humanity.
Relationships: Giving priority to relationships – over domination, consumption, income, and wealth – is essential to nurturing the human spirit and achieving a more desirable quality of life.
Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself (Sec 66). Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others (Sec 70). When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one (Sec 92).
Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, and that we can always do something to solve our problems (Sec 61). Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability (Sec 207). May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope (Sec 244).
I must admit I may be biased in my assessment because the Encyclical tends to validate the ideas that a few of us have the thinking and writing about over the past 20 years. Perhaps we haven’t thought as clearly and certainly haven’t written with such authority, but we have nonetheless been sharing similar ideas. You can find similar ideas in my books, A Return to Common Sense, Sustainable Capitalism, The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, and A Revolution of the Middle, as well as many papers on my websites and a co-authored “white paper,” Deep Sustainability; The Essentials.
We often have been marginalized, trivialized, and sometimes berated as being unscientific, metaphysical, and thus irrelevant. We have been called unrealistic, naïve, and idealistic when we insist that authentic sustainability must be rooted in an ethical and moral transformation that begins within each of us at the very core of our being. Regardless, we have continued to call for a social and spiritual revolution. Thankfully, we now have a strong voice of moral authority to help validate our call.