Pope Calls for Swift Actions to Save the Planet from Environmental Ruin
“The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe”.
Pope Francis, June 18, 2015
In his long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change publicly released last week, Pope Francis called for swift action to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” He called for a change of lifestyle in rich countries steeped in a “throwaway” consumer culture, and an end to “obstructionist attitudes” that sometimes put profit before the common good. Pope Francis said protecting the planet is a moral and ethical “imperative” for believers and nonbelievers alike that should supersede political and economic interests.
A major theme of the encyclical is the disparity between rich and poor. “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet,” he said.
“Our house is going to ruin, and that harms everyone, especially the poorest. Mine is therefore an appeal for responsibility, based on the task that God has given to man in creation: “till and keep the garden” in which he was placed. I invite everyone to accept with open hearts this document, which follows the church’s social doctrine”, the pope said.
In a transcript of the pope’s encyclical on the DemocracyNow.org website, Pope Francis said protecting the planet is a moral and ethical imperative, for believers and nonbelievers alike, that should supersede political and economic interests. He also dismissed those who argue that technology will solve all environmental problems and that global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.
A major theme of the encyclical is the disparity between rich and poor. “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, we destroy the planet.”
Climate change is already happening, and its effects have already been disastrous on the poorest countries and the poorest people, who don’t have the means to defend themselves from it. They are also part of the human population who have the least responsibility for what is happening, being that they consume less fossil fuels.
Author Naomi Klein said on Democracy Now Thursday that “this encyclical, we can’t overstate the importance of it, the impact that it will have. It’s hard to respond to a document that runs close to 200 pages, when it was just released in non-draft form a few hours ago. We’re all still digesting it, Amy. But it is very clear that a door has just been opened, and a gust of wind is blowing through, where it is now possible to say some very powerful truths about the real implications of climate change, really the root causes.”
“And I think a lot of the discussion about the encyclical in the U.S. media cycle has focused and will continue to focus on the impact on Republicans and on climate deniers, many of whom are Catholic. And it is certainly a challenge to that demographic in the United States, because the pope is coming out so clearly on the side of climate science in saying this is real and this is happening. But I think that it’s too easy to say that this is just a challenge to Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush. Frankly, it is also a challenge to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and to large parts of the green movement, because it is a rebuke of slow action. It very specifically says that climate denial is not just about denying the science, it’s also about denying the urgency of the science. The document is very strong in condemning delays, half-measures, so-called market solutions. It very specifically criticizes carbon markets, the carbon offsetting, as an inadequate measure that will encourage speculation and rampant consumption.
“And I think probably the most significant part of it, the big picture, is the foregrounding of the culture of frenetic consumption in the wealthy world and among the wealthy. And this is really significant, because I think large parts of the climate change discussion tries to have it all ways and say, “No, we’ll just have green growth. We’ll just have—we’ll consume green products.” And, you know, this goes a lot deeper than that and says, no, we need to get at the underlying values that are feeding this culture of frenetic consumption that is entirely unsustainable.”
In the encyclical, the pope states that: “In a corrupt culture, we can’t believe that laws will be enough to change behaviors that affect the environment.” Naomi Kline responds: Well, I think, when he’s referring to corruption, I believe he’s referring to the influence of polluting companies, of multinational corporations, which he also goes after in the encyclical. And I think this is one of the most significant things about the document. One might expect of a religious document about climate change to erase difference, right? to say, “Well, we’re all in this together,” and certainly it talks about the Earth as our common home. But it also recognizes explicitly the power dynamics in capitalism, which is to say that there are forces within the system that are actively working against change. And that is probably what he’s referring to when he’s talking about how there may be laws, but the laws aren’t enforced. And, you know, indeed the laws are also inadequate, which is also addressed in the document, and it has some very specific calls for another level of environmental law, which is a part of the document that I haven’t been able to look at, you know, closely enough.
And another thing I have to say is, you know, I am—I have accepted this invitation to speak at a conference which is about digging more deeply into the document, because there’s an understanding that it does take time to digest a document of this length, this multilayered, and it requires that kind of deeper analysis. And I think that this intervention, five months ahead of U.N. climate conference in Paris, is tremendously significant. It’s going to push political leaders to go further. It’s going to be a tool for social movements.
A lot of the language of the climate justice movement has just been adopted by the pope—I mean, even of phrases like “ecological debt.” The pope is talking about the debt that the wealthy world owes to the poor. I mean, this is a framing that comes originally from Ecuador, from the movement against drilling in the Amazon. And, you know, this is a phrase that was never heard in mainstream circles until just now, actually. I mean, I’ve never seen such a mainstream use of that term.
So, it is very important in that way. But, I mean, I have to say, on a personal level, that as thrilled as I am that the Vatican is leading in this way and that this pope is leading in this way and bringing together the fight against poverty with the fight to act on climate change, that doesn’t mean that there’s a complete merger between the climate justice movement and the Vatican here. I mean, obviously there are huge differences that remain over issues like marriage equality, reproductive rights and freedom, to name just a few.”
Nathan Schneider, columnist with the Catholic weekly, America, who has been covering Catholic engagement with climate change, talks about what the encyclical means for the Catholic community and the number of languages it’s been released in and how large the document is: “Well, this is really the first Third World encyclical. You know, this is coming from a pope who was shaped in really significant ways by economic crises during the Cold War in Argentina and being in the middle of a battleground between the First and Second World powers. It was drafted by a cardinal from Ghana. So this is coming from the side of the world that we don’t normally hear from. And it’s very much in line with things that popes have been saying for decades, you know, going back to Paul VI, then John Paul II, Benedict XVI. So, a lot of the content is actually not so new for Catholics, but the emphasis and that—the language of climate debt, the language—the recognition that there is a divide here between the rich countries and the poor. And this is a cry from the developing world, from what has been labeled the Third World, for change.”
“The pope is calling here for us to change how we live, how we—what we do with our resources. You know, this is not just moving from one kind of consumerism to another. This is a kind of spiritual renewal and also a material renewal, that—in which we turn ourselves toward an economy that’s sustainable, that’s life-giving, both for humanity and the rest of the world.”