Pope Francis’ Encyclical issued in May 2015, entitled “Care for Our Common Home,” inspired me deeply. The document is well-researched, thoughtful, and thorough in its exploration and recommendations about the environmental and related social issues facing us today, including climate disruption, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, global inequality, technological dominance, poverty, and more. His critique of “carbon credits” as a solution to our need to cut emissions and pollution struck me as especially challenging to mainstream assumptions.
Of course, I would like him to take a strong position on population control and challenge the Church’s policies on birth control and abortion. However, I understand that even the Pope has limits to his ability to transform age-old traditions overnight. I see his Encyclical as a major step in the right direction.
I have written four articles on the Encyclical for a sustainability column in our local weekly newspaper, which I offer here. I hope they will inspire you in turn to read the whole document and use it to support your activism on behalf of life in Earth.
Ethical Reflections on Climate Disruption
Pope Francis issued an Encyclical in May 2015 entitled “Care for Our Common Home.” An Encyclical is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church; it indicates high papal priority for an issue at a given time. I am not a Catholic, yet I have admired Pope Francis and many of his actions since he took office. And now his much-heralded Encyclical provides us all with a moral perspective on the most critical issue of our time: how we care for our common home, our planet Earth.
Pope Francis wants to reach far beyond the Roman Catholic community with his message. “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (14).
The Encyclical is comprehensive in its reach, well informed and intelligent, yet written in language anyone can understand. I copied out 87 quotations I thought were particularly relevant and powerful; it’s going to be hard to chose among them for this and future essays. The numbers following the quotations here refer to the paragraph number in the document.
I strongly recommend reading the whole 91 page Encyclical for yourself; you can find it on-line as a downloadable pdf on many sites. There are also web sites offering summaries and key quotations. I think you will find it both inspiring and informative.
Some have said the Pope should confine himself to religious teachings, not matters of science and the larger society. Personally, I agree with his counter argument: “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it” (63) So let’s listen with respect to the perspectives and wisdom of this thoughtful, caring religious leader.
“Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (19). It may be that we won’t make the necessary changes in our economic, social, and energy systems until we allow ourselves to feel the pain of our world, until we feel the suffering of people and ecosystems as our own. Perhaps only then will we find the determination and creativity to transform our society into a life-sustaining one.
“There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means an increase of ‘progress’ itself … as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that … our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience… We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (105). How then shall we develop our collective responsibility, values, conscience, and ethics?
Access to Water as a Universal Human Right
Part II of the Encyclical addresses “The Issue of Water” and begins:
“Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (30).
All over the world, as the planet warms and droughts threaten huge regions, water has become the new gold. Multinational corporations see its potential as a moneymaker, and are buying up water rights wherever they can. In Lagos, Nigeria, the World Bank is trying to convince citizens that privatization is the answer to their water problems. The former CEO and now Chairman of Nestle declared that water is not a human right, and should be privatized. All over drought-stricken California, corporations are extracting water, bottling it in individual plastic containers, and selling it to consumers at huge profit. There is good reason to suspect these corporations are not just thinking about bottling water now, but also looking to gain control of water supplies in the ever-more thirsty world of the near future. We could find ourselves needing to pay those same corporations for the water that comes from our taps—and not just for its delivery systems as we do now.
The Encyclical goes on to address what might happen then:
“.… it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century” (31).
We are already squandering money and lives in wars to control the world’s supply of oil. Will control of water be the root cause of new wars in the decades ahead?
It’s very tempting for local governments to pay more attention to the promised economic benefits of an industry than to the longer-term environmental damages it might inflict. However, as Pope Francis points out:
“Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained.…” (36).
Our challenge as citizens, then, is to act responsibly in our own lives, conserving water and boycotting products and companies that threaten the environment and human rights. However, individual action is not enough; we also need to take action to ensure that our government at all levels:
“…carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s [or community’s] environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious … international interests.” (38)
Consider the Common Good
Let’s consider the idea of the “common good,” which used to be a foundation for our collective actions, but is largely ignored today in favor of profit and personal ambition.
Pope Francis writes, “Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (156).
He points out that the common good includes future generations—they, too, are part of our human commons. “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others” (159).
Today’s timeline tends to focus on the next quarter’s profit margin, rather than the welfare of our grandchildren and beyond. It seems increasingly difficult to take the time and effort to consider how our actions will affect the generations to come. However, “we need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us” (160).
Pope Francis asserts that “rampant individualism” and a “self-centred culture of instant gratification” are at the root of our ignoring the common good. Moreover, “a politics concerned with immediate results… is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment” (178).
Our global economic and climate situation leaves most of us feeling unstable and uncertain, which Pope Francis believes engenders collective selfishness. We think we must first look out for old Number One. Yet, “when people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears” (204).
However, the Pope also asserts, “We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other… Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society” (208).
Here in Siskiyou County, we are fortunate to live in small towns; when we go to the post office or the local grocery, we encounter people we know and can share information about local concerns. In this atmosphere, it is easier to build a sense of community and caring for others. Our small towns have turned out many times to support our neighbors in need. In the challenging and uncertain times ahead, however, we will need to come together even more strongly to safeguard the common good: our air, water, soil, and ecosystems, our common sources of food and other necessities, and our democratic processes.
After all, “inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good… together with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life” (225).
The Ethics of Assessing Environmental Impacts
Pope Francis takes on the specific issue of “environmental impact assessment” in his Encyclical. He states emphatically, “Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.”
Furthermore, “it should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety” (183).
Pope Francis then warns us, “The forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favours, usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate” (182). Consequently, “the local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest” (186).
Moreover, “honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions; these should not be limited to the issue of whether or not a particular project is permitted by law” (183). Far too often, self-serving interpretations of the law get in the way of full and honest assessment of environmental impacts. “The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information” (184).
I am afraid that our county and city processes for assessing the impact of a corporate venture fall quite short of the Pope’s recommendations. He proposes questions to be addressed “in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how? In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right, which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.” How often do our city and county officials sincerely and thoroughly address these questions, concerns, and priorities?
Many thoughtful people now support the application of the “Precautionary Principle.” The Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development, Principle 15 (June 14, 1992) states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” which prevent environmental degradation. The Pope explains that this “makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof” (186).
Sadly, we rarely use this ethical guideline in evaluating business ventures. We need to take several steps back and redefine our notions of progress. After all, “a technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be consider