In his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ or ‘Praise Be’, delivered at the Vatican on 18 June, His Holiness Pope Francis made a withering criticism of compulsive consumerism that has pushed the planet to a perilous “breaking point”. In his 182-page document the pontiff reflects on mankind's moral responsibility to act as custodians of the environment.
Underlining the need for global action, the encyclical, a letter traditionally addressed from St. Peter’s Square to more than one billion Catholics around the world, called on “every person living on this planet” to heed the call of mother Earth. The pope pointed out that all sections of society were to blame for the plight the planet was in today. Big businesses, short-sighted politicians, laissez faire economists, indifferent individuals, callous Christians and myopic media professionals, all came up for criticism by His Holiness.
As the first Pope from the developing world, Francis brings a moral vision shaped not in the seminaries of Europe but in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina. "I would like to enter a dialogue with all people about our common home," the Pope said, calling for drastic change in “lifestyle, production and consumption” from unstable habits to more mindful means of caring for “our common home.”
"The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," said the Pope. "In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish." With an eye toward several key climate change summits scheduled for later this year, the manifesto published in eight languages and subtitled ‘On Care for our Common Home’, drew on the work of dozens of scientists, theologians and scholars from various fields.
Noting the scientific consensus that global warming is disturbingly real, the pontiff asked, "What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?" He added that nothing short of a “bold cultural revolution” could save humanity from spiraling into self-destruction.
Citing deforestation of the Amazon, the melting of Arctic glaciers and the death of coral reefs, Francis rebuked “obstructionist” climate doubters who “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.”
“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,” he said.
Our care for the environment is intimately connected to our care for each other, he argues, and we are failing miserably at both. "We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social," Francis writes, "but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."
The pope accused the rich and powerful of shutting themselves up within self-enclosed enclaves, compulsively consuming the latest goods to feed the emptiness within their hearts, while ignoring the plight of the poor.
Also, in a broad and uncompromising indictment of the global market economy, the pope accused it of plundering the Earth at the expense of the poor and of future generations. Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms," Francis wrote of the impact of climate change.
The poor, meanwhile, find themselves on the run from natural disasters and degraded habitats, shunted to the bottom of the world's pile of problems with decreasing access to its natural resources.
If present trends continue, Francis argued, the changing climate will have grave implications for poor communities who lack the resources to adapt or protect themselves from natural disasters. Many will be forced to leave their homes, while the economically and politically powerful "mask" the problems or respond with indifference, the Pope said.
He called on humanity to collectively acknowledge a "sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded." And he wrote that climate change "represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."
A “very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system,” contributing to a “constant rise in the sea level” and an “increase of extreme weather events,” he wrote. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he added.
While acknowledging natural causes for climate change, including volcanic activity and the solar cycle, Pope Francis said that a “number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.”
The pontiff goes on to argue that there is “an urgent need” for policies to drastically cut the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases and promote the switch to renewable sources of energy.
Francis said that developing countries, as the biggest producers of harmful greenhouse gasses, owe the poorer nations a debt. "The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of nonrenewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development."
“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur,” he wrote.
Even months before its publication, the encyclical drew criticism from conservatives and climate change skeptics, who urged the Pope not to put his moral weight behind the controversial issue of global warming.
However, the encyclical was praised by environmental groups. In a statement from WWF International, President Yolanda Kakabadse called the pope's voice "a much needed moral approach to the climate debate. Climate change is no longer just a scientific issue; it is increasingly a moral and ethical one."
"Yet all is not lost," Francis said. "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."