Today Pope Francis released his long-anticipated Social Encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’. I have had the privilege of spending the past three days immersed in this extraordinary document. The encyclical will require long, deep reflection – but here are my initial reactions to it.
You can’t read this encyclical and not be deeply moved. In his own, direct and ‘pull no punches’ style, Pope Francis presents a heartbreaking analysis of the various dramatic situations facing the world today – from the terror of climate change, to rapid biodiversity loss in every habitat, to the growing inequality of finite resources, against a backdrop of over-consumption and waste, which results in many people being regarded as disposable. It is a terrifying picture of a world on the brink of systemic collapse.
With a sense of urgency, he points to the deep ethical and spiritual roots of the current ‘socio-environmental’ crisis: a uni-dimensional paradigm founded on a blind faith in market-based technocratic solutions to resolve the world’s problems. He warns of the utter folly of seeking technical fixes to complex human problems, especially those which involve matters involving matters of human consciousness. In fact, he makes the point that we know very little about the interconnectedness of life – and often choose to ignore this fact. Overcoming this blindness requires an integral ecology – one that doesn’t try to solve problems in a piece meal fashion, but sees the deep interconnections between the different crises and seeks to resolve them in a holistic and interdisciplinary fashion.
The Pope dispels the common myths around the Judeo Christian tradition as being about domination of nature. He throws this out as a false interpretation – goes to great lengths to dispel this… need a new understanding of progress which embraces the ‘relationality’ of all things. A phrase that appears several times in the document is “everything is connected.”
In terms of what we can do, the Encyclical points to some very practical pathways for action. In this respect, it really gives hope! First, we each need to believe that simple actions make a big difference. We need to start by re-evaluating your own understanding of our place in the environment. He reminds us that we are made from the elements of the natural world. We do not sit apart from it. We are earth, and we need to re-find that deep connection. Reconnecting with our place in nature and refinding that “affectionate” relationship is the unavoidable starting point of an “ecological conversion.”
The Pope places a special focus on families and the role of parents in this regard. He makes a very simple call is for all families to start again to practice grace before meals as a sign of our appreciation of nature, and our dependence on God’s creation. It is a custom which has perhaps gone out of fashion. He also asks us to consider the Sunday day of rest – as a restorative day for nature and ourselves.
In our local communities, he affirms that integral ecology is central to the Christian message. He calls for an ecological spirituality – and asks us all to consider how we consume. He says that each act of consumption is a “moral and political act”. He reminds us of the power of boycott campaigns and the need to create a counter-culture based on ‘less is more’ and a new mindfulness, contemplation of nature. It calls for a new educational and spiritual awareness to ensure this happens.
It calls on NGOs like Trócaire, in particular, to continue to work for political change and to organise people to build political pressure for change. This is a strong endorsement of the work NGOs and social movements do to campaign and take political action on these issues.
At a political level, the Encyclical does not pull any punches. It highlights the way in which international finance has come to dominate politics at a national and international level, and how this is limiting and distorting our capacity to address common challenges. This is a failure of governance which requires a new way of governing the “global commons”. He says we need stronger, effective international agreements to combat environmental degradation, including climate change. In this respect, the need for a fair and binding agreement on climate change this December is essential to change course. Importantly, the encyclical stresses that poor countries should not have to bear the burden of this transition. They need to be supported both in terms of finance and technology transfers to make the transition to renewable energy.
At a national level, the Pope also has a timely message for Ireland, as we finalise our own climate legislation in the next few weeks. He points to the need for robust laws to protect the environment – and the need to ensure that they are enacted. These laws should not be subject to the whim of political cycles, but take the long view, thinking of the impact of their enforcement on future generations. In this regard, the need for addressing incoherences in Ireland’s climate legislation to be as robust as possible and to incorporate the principle of climate justice is very clear.
On the economic front, the Encyclical points to the need for macro-economic strategies and business plans in particular to integrate environmental costs. It points to the fact that the economy currently does not account properly for the use of natural capital – utilising it as if it were an infinite resource. We know now that it is not and that true natural capital accounting is essential. Similarly, all businesses need to implement Environmental Impact Assessments which take the full environmental impacts into account.
The most striking thing about this encyclical is the way it spans the simplicity of St. Francis example and the major problems of our time. In the end, the Encyclical starts and ends with a very compelling but simple message: we need to look at nature, and each other with new eyes. Before thinking about how we can use nature, we need to recover our capacity to contemplate it and give praise to God for its, and our existence.”