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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2015

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The Legacy of the Papal Encyclical

The written word has changed the course of environmental history a number of times: John Hershey's Hiroshima; Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; the United Church of Christ's Toxic Waste and Race; the Meadows' Limits to Growth; the Brundtland Commission's Our Common Future. In each of these cases, the message and its power of communication resonated across the world and shifted the collective perception of environmentalism.

Will the papal encyclical Laudato si' recently issued by Pope Francis have a similar outcome? To help answer this, Environment magazine asked a range of scholars to address what they thought was the wider significance of this possibly fundamental document. Their contributions are included in this issue.

We do not attempt to summarize the eight contributions here, as they are far too diverse both in content and purpose. Rather, we seek to examine some of the possible outcomes, including those relating to the objectives of Environment magazine, raised by the commentaries as well as by the encyclical itself.

Our observation is that this particular encyclical, built as it is on predecessor credos, comes at a profoundly important time. The world is in turmoil. It is creating wealth at a scale and a breadth never before experienced. At the same time it is also generating poverty and overall inequality among the already dispossessed, in addition to many of the young of rich and once successful economies. Civil strife and desperation, fed by war and corruption, are mobilizing people in ways not previously experienced at this scale. Many people feel they have reached a crossroads where they recognize the conflict between continuing to consume on a scale which is knowingly damaging to the planet and to future generations, and their need to hold values that they feel deep in their consciences lead to consuming behavior that is good for them and for their descendants. As a consequence, some are searching for new forms of inner peace and anchored centeredness, which for a sizeable number of this group translate into charity and cooperation.

We also acknowledge that the Pope is not speaking only to his 1.2 billion Catholic followers. This is an analysis for all of humankind and for all faiths. The credibility of this pope, as well as his prominent history in championing the poor (as noted by some of our contributors), adds significant weight to this message.

The encyclical raises many deep and pertinent questions. What is the role of the individual in our society, acting in a “seedbed for collective selfishness” (para. 204) with its propensity for creating an empty heart and a diminished soul? The temptation is to consume, to create waste, and to indulge for immediate gratification with only passing thought for the distribution and composition of consequences. Yet surely every human has within him- or herself a sense of goodness, truth, and beauty, which offers pathways to collective and responsible stewardship and to personal dignity. As pointed out in one commentary, the Pope convened a meeting of mayors from around the world, recognizing that mayors may have more power to create such beneficial reflections and actions where people live, work, play, and socialize. By this action and others, he is signaling that though words may inspire, words alone cannot effect change. That takes propulsive political action by determined individuals connecting and uplifting both themselves and others around them.

Why is the encyclical so relevant now? Perhaps using climate change as his parable, the Pope seems to be saying that humanity is at a turning point, or at least that it should be so. This is not a technical matter of creating low-carbon enterprises and building adaptive governments and resilient societies in order to create a post-carbon economy that is both wealth creating and health providing (which we believe are also crucial and essential). For Pope Francis, confronting climate change is a profoundly challenging moral issue. The Pope calls for a process of “ecological conversion” (para. 218). This transforms sin and repentance for current modes of living and valuing nature into reconciliation and heartfelt love for the natural world, as well as for our neighbors of today and of tomorrow. God's will is done “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” intones the Lord's Prayer, suggesting that among Christian religions humans are responsible for carrying our God's will in his permanent home as well as in our temporary abode.

This is the essence of liberation theology. The freedom from avarice and the joy of simplicity are essential dicta of most, if not all, faiths. “An integrated ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness” (para. 230). This is the pathway to “social love” and to a “culture of care” (para. 231) that extends to all life. It is also of note that the Muslim faith is combining with the Christian faiths to find common cause over addressing climate change, and that the wonderful leadership of Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church is widely and approvingly cited in the encyclical (para. 8). Also this year, Islamic leaders issued an Islamic declaration on climate change calling for the world's 1.6 billion Muslims to phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and develop an energy strategy based entirely on renewable energy. Their collective statement makes detailed political demands for well-off nations and oil-producing states to lead the way in this process and to offer generous financial and technical support for poorer countries to help them similarly end use of fossil fuels.

The encyclical carries three overarching messages. The first and the most comprehensive is the theology of ecological and social integrity—of loving, sharing, and caring as a human manifestation of virtue. By approaching virtuousness, we approach the reality of godliness. The second applies to the dilemmas of modern humankind, namely, the trials of climate change, biodiversity loss, soil and water degradation, and universal health-sapping pollution. Here Pope Francis adopts the scientific mantle of the many contributions to this magazine. He castigates the character of political power and hubric technology in channeling individual outlooks and behavior toward the non-sustainable. He acknowledges that shifting non-sustaining behavior to a sustaining mode is a daunting task, but it is not an impossible one.

The third is the emergence of the “common good.” Private property is not absolute but a shared responsibility exercised through a “social mortgage” (para. 93). The natural world is an extension of its creator, so it cannot be valued by the very means of pricing alone. Here Pope Francis is addressing the accounting limitations of business. The license to conduct business is a license to embrace social compassion and human betterment. Business cannot be excluded from this manifestation of faith. In extolling the common good, Pope Francis rests his case on poverty alleviation, on new forms of redistribution, on the rights of all humans to a decent life, on fully responsible business, and on a renaissance of the dispossessed into effective members of a shared humanity.

Each of these three themes is connected to the others, but the overarching motif is the change of heart and perspective through the process of ecological conversion. A character of virtue thinks and acts ecologically and socially and hence politically, for, and only for, the common good. In his treatise On the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith defined virtue in terms of prudence (careful planning), justice (widening rights to all living beings), beneficence (sharing and charity and philanthropy), and self-command (restraint). Individuals holding and demonstrating such values may appear rare in modern society. But surely the creative force carries virtue in all of us. It is a matter of social, political, and theological coordination boosted by awareness-raising education and compassion along with the scope for flourishing into overall well-being that offers the way forward.

Here the Pope is on familiar ground of what is usually referred to as the well-being cultures of happiness, eudemonia, compassion, empathy, and enterprise, which, in companionship, are broadly interpreted as social virtue. The most likely significance of his encyclical is his solidarity with this emerging social and political perspective, which is backed by an increasing body of social science evidence that achieving greater environmental sustainability requires addressing social, political, and economic inequality. A myriad of self-organizing sustainability movements across the globe are mobilizing around this perspective. It is to this transformational effort that Pope Francis is targeting his message, and where his encyclical could have lasting innovative social and ecological outcomes.

We say “could have.” There are many voices that disparage his message, as well as the role of the current Catholic faith, raising such contentious social matters as abortion, contraception, sexuality, and women's role in the church. Like many voices trumpeted in the aftermath of the publication of Limits to Growth, influential people seek persuasively to argue that capitalism with a human face can overcome scarcity and poverty, as well as inequality. Indeed, naysayers claim that “compassionate capitalism” has an enviable track record for doing just that. This is an open and incomplete argument, for the statistics can be massaged in a variety of ways, but nowadays are less confidently proven. This is especially the case for the plight of the burgeoning armies of the dispossessed and the oppressed. It also applies to a majority of women and a significant minority of young people right across the globe. Yet his critique of both capitalism and consumerism is broad-brush and sweeping. There is a case for a more nuanced interpretation, which hopefully this encyclical will creatively encourage.

The second group have a stronger case in that a critique of the Catholic faith can legitimately encompass elements of denial of the free expression of personal choice. So the sting in the encyclical may be drawn, unless (as is being hinted) the Pope will address these matters in the broader canvas of sustainability.

Yet what matters is what we collectively do with this statement. As the Pope makes very clear, it is people who will make the necessary changes. Although Laudato si' may be an important and timely document, how it changes people in their ecological conversion and their revelation to virtue will make the ultimate difference. Hiroshima helped launch a worldwide anti-nuclear-weapons movement; Silent Spring galvanized the modern environmental movement; Toxic Waste and Race marked the beginning of the environmental justice movement; Limits to Growth made us realize we could not grow forever; and Our Common Future brought sustainability to the world's consciousness. How can we use Laudato si' to inspire the world to change for better and where it should to be heading to?

The Pope is scheduled to speak in late September to the joint houses of the U.S. Congress and to the General Assembly of the United Nations. His efforts may well in turn spawn a thousand new sustainability initiatives across the planet, all geared to the three messages. It will be the “little battalions” who will have to take up the cudgel. The real flourishing will be the blooming of millions of initiatives encouraged by the simplicity and virtue of ecological and social goodness, which should be released in all of our inner souls. This is the central credo of Environment magazine with its championing of sustainability science.

The fundamental question, which we cannot answer at present, is whether “blocking forces” and dismissive mind sets will result from the reactive expressions of the single-minded lobbies of the corporate estate, the military hierarchies that cow even president and prime ministers, corporate-owned mass media, and certain elements of the “buzz” of social media. In essence, the test for the encyclical is whether these forces will wither on the vine or continue to grow in dominance. It is quite possible that these extraordinarily powerful forces of economy and technology (which also shape outlooks and forms of governing) will find ways to triumph through their unmovable and center stage settings. Indeed, the challenge for the rest of this decade is whether the heartening budding movements for truth and goodness, which are already shining, can gather momentum and credibility across the global stage.

We take a positive line here. Surely we can do it. The good news is that the world of the future need not be a continuation of poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation. Should we take seriously and transformatively the lessons presented to us in this inspiring document, it can be a glorious and sharing one. Let us all work together in this magazine and well beyond to make this vision come to pass.       

—Tim O'Riordan, Alan McGowan, Ralph Hamann, Myanna Lahsen and Linxiu Zhang

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