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Laudato Si is the papal encyclical about the environment published on 18th June 2015. The subtitle is ‘On care for our common home’. At 40,000 words it is a substantial document. I hope this post serves as a useful summary and commentary, and perhaps encouragement to read the whole thing.

On the whole I think it is excellent but I expect criticisms, mainly on two points.

Human nature

One is the amount of space it gives to human motivations and the failures of governments and the international economic system. Of course it also covers the ground we would expect of a document promoting action on the environment: the main threats, what has been achieved so far, what now needs to be done, how it can be achieved, what stands in the way. All this needs to be repeated again and again until real progress gets made, so at the very least by reaching a new audience it will serve a useful purpose.

This document, though, sets the practical issues within a Catholic understanding of what human beings are like. I see this as a constructive contribution. Since the 1960s the main proponent of environmental change has been the scientific lobby. Supporting them are now many voluntary activists and organisations working on one area or another – biodiversity, renewable energy, etc. The main decision-makers, on the other hand, are the governments of the most powerful countries, ‘developed’ countries – which mostly means they are the very people who have benefited most from the damage done. They are under pressure from big business, and the biggest businesses include the most environmentally damaging ones like the oil, air and car industries. So over the decades we have had a succession of international conferences and reports, with government ministers flying round the world to make speeches to each other. Compared with the bland statements we usually get from them, Laudato Si sounds more like what we would expect from Occupy protestors or the Green Party.

The critique is explained by the theology. As a papal encyclical it has much to say not only about environmental issues but also, like other papal statements, about biblical texts and previous papal statements. Here the genius of Roman Catholicism shines through. Of the church reports I have read, most are Anglican. They too contain strings of biblical texts, usually at the beginning. They function like the prayer at the beginning of a church meeting, a sort of irrelevant nod to God before getting down to the real business. In Laudato Si those texts build up a case for the substantial claims: how we and our environment were both created by the same God to relate to each other creatively in certain ways, but with limits that are now being transgressed. Whereas secular documents often pile up the statistics to stress urgency, Laudato Si reflects more deeply on what it means to be human, drawing out reasons for the failures and offering alternative visions of human well-being and the common good. Why we fail, and why we could succeed, are together derived from who we are.

As we would expect from a Roman Catholic document the theme of the common good is central: ‘The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all’ (§23). Other forms of life are of value in themselves, not just for the way humans can use them, but the emphasis is on human behaviour because humans activity is the issue. We have become too anthropocentric:

The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes (§116).

Appropriately, therefore, environmental concern is closely related to many other features of human life. Among other things the encyclical draws out connections with work, housing, transport, local communities, cultural diversity, technology and science.

Poverty

The other complaint I anticipate is just how much it has to say about the needs of the poor. The relationship between environmental issues and poverty issues has been much debated. Some people have been arguing that it is impossible to meet the needs of the poor without destroying the environment. Maybe this seems credible to those who cannot conceive of life without every family having its own car, but both the environmentalist and poverty lobbies argue that the two go hand in hand: to protect the environment we need to make sure that everybody has access to the essentials of life. Christian Aid, for example, was making the case decades ago. The encyclical agrees:

Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality… We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature (§139).

So poverty issues are an important part of the story. Environmentalists will dislike the criticism of those concerned about population growth (§50), presumably there because of the Vatican’s opposition to contraception. However it is brief, and firmly embedded in a substantial argument that human rights should override economic interests:

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. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity (§30; italics in original).

Similarly, there is no absolute right to private property:

The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property (§93).

Politics

Obviously very few government ministers will welcome these claims. From a political perspective they may sound socialist. There is worse to come for politicians:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected… The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented (§54).

In a secular report we would expect a string of footnotes with reference to studies justifying these claims. The references in Laudato Si, however, are nearly all to other Catholic statements. Nevertheless, it expresses a common view among those concerned with the lack of progress. Few would disagree with the following:

Worldwide, the ecological movement has made significant advances, thanks also to the efforts of many organizations of civil society… This notwithstanding, recent World Summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment (§166).

Lack of political will? Many environmentalists are already sceptical about government ministers and their experts flying to an endless sequence of international conferences, making speeches and achieving very little. To such people the following will seem entirely appropriate:

Generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage… This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems… This lack of physical contact and encounter… can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality… A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor (§49; italics in original).

Power

This of course is a question of power:

Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change (§26).

Most of us have less power than we think:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals… This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power (§203).

The present situation produces a feeling of instability and uncertainty:

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… In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears (§204).

Economics

Power in turn comes from economic control.

Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery (§189).

If it had not been so, more progress could have been made:

The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world. Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth (§189).

In any case we should not expect economic processes to solve our problems:

We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? (§190)

Technology

Humans have always intervened in nature, but in previous ages they were much more respectful of the powers and limits of natural processes.

It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand (§106).

Now, though, our ‘technological paradigm’

exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation (§106).

In this way new technologies

have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used… Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. (§§104-105).

New technologies create new possibilities, but they arise from already-held intentions and create new responsibilities.

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 (§114).

Cultural change

Overall, therefore, there are plenty of broadsides against the way we in the developed countries do our politics, our economics and our technology. Rarely do we hear a politician proposing such radical changes.

Nevertheless, behind all these criticisms lies a cultural point. Laudato Si is not proposing a list of disconnected changes, as though the world were a car with a broken fan belt and a flat tyre. All these issues add up to a culture which understands itself the wrong way. The change needed is a change to our whole culture. This point was also made by the Anglican report Who is My Neighbour? but Laudato Si draws out more clearly the changes needed.

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm (§111).

It can be done:

Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start… 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 (§205).

There is a growing sense of the need to change:

There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction… Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness (§113).

Humanity needs a greater sense that we belong to each other:

An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan (§164; italics in the original).
We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it (§229).

It will need leadership:

The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations (§53).

However great the changes needed, the message is a traditional Christian one:

Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures. Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them… Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer (§§222-223).

The common good

Finally, we could not have a Roman Catholic document on a topic like this without reference to the common good. We are given three paragraphs describing it. They ought to be nailed directly onto the brain of every government minister. Here they are in full:

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 fulfilment”.
Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development. It has also to do with the overall welfare of society and the development of a variety of intermediate groups, applying the principle of subsidiarity. Outstanding among those groups is the family, as the basic cell of society. Finally, the common good calls for social peace, the stability and security provided by a certain order which cannot be achieved without particular concern for 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.
In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but… it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good (§§156-158).

Conclusion

What, then, does Laudato Si offer to our environmental predicament?

First, it represents a big institution which stands outside the power elite. It views them as a whole, seeing the overall results of their efforts. It is all too easy for the environment minister of one country to feel that progress would have been made if it had not been for a particular other minister at a particular meeting, but the Pope stands outside them all and sees the result of all those processes. They have failed us.

Second, it rightly insists that we should not be looking for a series of disconnected solutions to disconnected problems. We need more radical change to the nature of modern western society. Our biggest environmental problems are caused not by the failures of politicians and economists, but by their successes. The things they have been trying to do have turned out to be the wrong things to do. We need to develop different objectives.

Thirdly, different objectives will need different lifestyles and different values. On this point the difference between a religious document and a secular one is at its clearest. Secularism cannot tell us what values to have, so it has no way to settle the conflicts between those wanting to protect the environment and those happy to destroy it.

In order to reach the conclusion that one person’s values are right and another’s wrong, you have to believe in an authority above both of them, competent to assess which of them is right. In secular discourse this role is exercised by governments because they have power. The Pope thinks there is a higher authority still.