“Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. With these words from the Canticle of Creatures, Pope Francis wrote in the opening line of the encyclical, Laudato Si‘, to remind us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. It is a summons for all of humanity, believers, and non-believers, to address the urgent challenge to protect and care for our common home.
In essence, the encyclical echoes the Holy Father’s appeal addressed to every person living on this planet for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. Given the current state of deterioration of the global environment, Pope Francis is expressing his concern to bring the whole human family together to seek sustainable and integral development.
Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Plagued with obstructionist attitudes ranging from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation, or blind confidence in technical solutions, new and universal solidarity is urgently needed.
Confident, however, that “the Creator does not abandon us”, Pope Francis affirmed that “humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home”. Knowing that things can change for the better, Pope Francis is appealing to all men and women of goodwill to foster new and universal solidarity, on care for our common home.
What is Happening to Our Common Home
Looking back in history, Pope Francis points out that the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century triggered an economic transformation that radically changed not only ways of working and living but also transformed the socio-economic, political, and cultural milieus of society. Indeed, the miracle of economic prosperity fuelled by such advances in technology and science ushered in an era of further developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.
However, the rapid change brought about by such technological advances has nonetheless exposed several unintended consequences which have negatively impacted the world we live in. Hence, the Pope enumerates the following major problems that need to be carefully considered, namely:
Pollution and Climate Change
The world as we see it today is endangered by land, air, & sea pollution caused by a host of agents: industrial fumes, transport emissions, chemicals such as fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, agro toxins, industrial and toxic wastes from businesses and homes. The enormity of such pollution has escalated to such proportions that have caused significant changes in climate and the overall environment where we live in. Indeed, it has come to a point that quality of life is already declining. Sadly, the hardest hit by such environmental problems are the poorest of the country.
In addressing the problem of pollution, the Pope is exhorting the business sector and civic society to engage in an open dialogue aimed at curtailing the intractable accumulation of solid toxic wastes. Such a problem, which is closely linked to a throwaway culture could be remedied by limiting the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, reusing, and recycling them as well as the Pope would point out.
Concerning the disturbing warming of the climatic system, the Pope is saying in no uncertain terms that “humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”(no. 23) To arrest the great concentration of greenhouse gases, there is a need to seriously abandon the current model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Hence, the business community should intensify its efforts in developing renewable sources of energy.
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.Pope Francis, Encyclical, Laudato Si’, 25
The Need for Water
The economic miracle brought about by the Industrial Revolution has accelerated the rate of urbanization, which, in turn, has exacerbated shortages in the supply of fresh drinking water. The Pope warns us that “ït is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.”(no. 27) Such a situation has impinged on the poor, who lack access to safe drinking water, Again, industrial pollution is mainly responsible for the contamination of groundwater reservoirs.
Loss of Biodiversity
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. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.Pope Francis, Encyclical, Laudato Si’, 36
Undoubtedly, the ecosystems of tropical forests possess enormously complex biodiversity which when burned down or leveled off would render it arid wastelands owing to the loss of species.
Similarly, oceans including the immense variety of living creatures therein are threatened by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of marine species. Moreover, the indiscriminate dumping of non-biodegradable waste has accelerated the depletion of marine resources as well as the extinction of coral reefs.
Decline in the Quality of Human Life
Whilst the advances in technology and science have transformed the lives of the majority, on the one hand, so too it has made living in mega-cities unhealthy, unsafe, and ugly. The main reason for such dire circumstances may be traced to ecological deterioration. Pope Francis vividly captures the crux of the matter in point no. 46, as follows:
The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.Ibid, 46
Furthermore, the ubiquity of social media and digital transformation has added impetus to a global change in social behavior which is anathema to human development. To cite an example, the deluge of information and data on the internet has engendered a milieu of digital zombies living in isolation from the real world of personal relationships. Such isolation “at times also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.” (no.47)
The Gospel of Creation
Given the complexity of the ecological crisis, the Pope invites believers and non-believers to consider some nuggets of wisdom from the theology of creation. By sharing such, Pope Francis is hoping that “Christians in their turn “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith”. It is good for humanity and the world at large when we believers better recognize the ecological commitments which stem from our convictions.”
Man is a Part of God’s Creation
From the first chapter of Genesis, the reader would be awestruck seeing the whole panorama of God’s creation – the sun, the earth with all its natural resources and ecosystem – slowly unfold into reality, with humanity finally being created as the main protagonists. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.”(Gen 1;31)
As the main protagonist, it is good to take note of fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, namely:
- Dignity of Man – that ëvery man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness. (Gen 1:26) This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”.
- Respect for the Eternal Laws – that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationship: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.(no.66) The harmony between Creator, humanity and creation was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowlrdge our creaturely limitations. (no.66)
- Sin – the rupture of the harmony – sin- has therefore distorted our understanding of our mandate to “have dominion”over the earth (Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it”(Gen 2:15)
“The Earth is the Lord’s.”(Ps 24:1)
Given that man’s dignity has been elevated to that of being the main protagonist, humanity must recognize the importance of pursuing its God-given mandate to “till and keep” the garden of the world. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. (no.67)
As a caveat, this responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created, and he established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6).
To cite an example, each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. (no.67)
However, this does not mean that man can claim absolute ownership of the land.
Everything is Interconnected
In the quest for harmony between humanity and nature, Pope Francis invites us to look further into the laws found in the Bible, which dwell on relationships among individuals as well as other living beings. In essence, we are called to respect creation and its inherent laws. This implies that man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things. (43)
Moreover, from the ancient stories of the Bible, we can easily infer that “ëverything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others.” This is clearly demonstrated in the story of Noah, where God threatens to do away with humanity because of its constant failure to fulfill the requirements of justice and peace.
The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety “come from the intention of the first agent” who willed that “what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another”, since God’s goodness “could not be represented fittingly by any one creature”. Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships. We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan. As Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”.(no.86)
Universal Destination of Goods
Concerning the fundamental rights of the poor, the Pope affirms that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate the social principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods. Thus, the right of everyone to their use must be recognized as the golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. In other words, for Christians, the right to private property is never absolute or inviolable.
The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis
Over the course of two centuries, the world has witnessed enormous waves of change that have benefited humankind. Clearly, technological advances starting with the invention of the steam engine, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology, and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies, have contributed greatly to the progress of modern man. Indeed, we have much to be thankful for, the Pope says.
Rise of Technocratic Paradigm
Yet, amidst such progress, Pope Francis postulates that especially among the ranks of those who possess the proprietary technologies, especially in nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, scientific knowledge of our DNA, they have built up enormous power in dominating the whole of humanity. Such a situation should give us reason to worry in the absence of development in human responsibility, values, and conscience. In short, the Pope is saying that “we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”(no.105)
Furthermore, the basic problem goes even deeper: humanity has embraced the technocratic paradigm, which is dominating the socio-economic and political life. As an example, the economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impacts on human beings. In fact, the lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. (no.109) In the meantime, such a situation has reared “a ‘sort of superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation.”(no.110)
Given the dominance of the technocratic paradigm, Pope Francis proposes the development of ecological culture. In essence, there needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle, and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. (no. 111) In short, such a culture will put a limit on technology and direct it at the service of the social needs of man.
The Pope goes further to say that “liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does ïn fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation, and community.
The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism
By asserting the belief that man is the central entity in the universe, modern anthropocentrism has ruptured the harmonious relationship between God, man, and nature. Pope Francis gives an ominous warning:
“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.(no.117)Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centesimmus Annus, 840
Culture of Practical Relativism
Another worrisome situation is the rise of relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. Some of its deadly manifestations may be seen in the “disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking that leads to sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests.
Sadly, the Pope goes on to say:
“It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, 123
The Need to Protect Employment
Quite essential in the pursuit of integral ecology, the value of labor needs to take relative importance. This is underpinned by the principle that “man is the source, the focus, and the aim of all economic and social life.”(Gaudium et Spes, 63) Thus, the goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. (no.128)
Pope Francis continues to say:
“The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence”. In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”. To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.Ibid, 128
Today’s problems call for a vision that takes into account the key components that contribute to the common good. This approach stems from the basic tenet that everything is interconnected. Thus it stands to reason that interventions that are sporadic in nature will only end up with more harm to the environment.
The “Whole is Greater Than the Part”
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Pontiff stated quite clearly that:
“We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part”.Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, 237
Ecology of Daily Life
As they say, “charity begins at home.” Hence, any effort in improving the environment should start from one’s place of residence. And so, one begins to assess the quality of life within the settings of ordinary day-to-day living i.e. your room, your home, your workplace, your neighborhood, your daily commute, etc.
To start with, It is vital to do a self-assessment of both the external environment and one’s own internal state – physical, mental, moral, and social health. At the core of this exercise, one should take cognizance of the basic tenets of social ethics, which include, among others, the following:
- Respect for the dignity of the human being including your own family, your neighbors, office-mates, civil authorities, and other living creatures;
- Relationship between the human life and the moral law;
- Solidarity with civil society for the improvement of quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, personal encounter and mutual assistance.
The Principle of the Common Good
The main driver for the development of an integral ecology hinges on the principle of the common good. By definition, 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”.[GS,26) Its primary object is directed towards the overall welfare of society and the development of a variety of intermediate groups, applying the principle of subsidiarity.
Furthermore, the common good calls for social peace. This refers to the stability and security provided by a certain order that promotes distributive justice. Whenever this is violated, violence always ensues. Society as a whole, and the state, in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good. (no.157)
As a corollary, an extension of the common good is the notion that future generations are entitled to share in God’s gift to humankind. Hence, in pursuing a vision of integral ecology, the Holy Father emphatically states that “we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”(no.159)
The Road Ahead
Finally, whilst the road ahead is fraught with the dangers of ecological deterioration, there is hope. On this note, it is good to reflect upon the words of Pope Francis:
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si”,205