source: The Guardian
The pope links the destruction of the environment with the exploitation
of the poor. The world should pay attention
Last modified on Friday 19 June 2015 00.00 BST
Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, is the most
astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past
100 years, since it is addressed not just to Catholics, or Christians,
but to everyone on earth. It sets out a programme for change that is
rooted in human needs but it makes the radical claim that these needs
are not primarily greedy and selfish ones.
We need nature, he says, and we need each other. Our need for
mutuality, and for giving, is just as real as the selfish aspects of
our characters; the need for awe and stillness in front of nature is
just as profound as any other human need. The care of nature and the
care of the poor are aspects of the same ethical commandment, and if we
neglect either one we cannot find peace. The environment, in the pope’s
use of the word, is not something out there: nature as opposed to the
human world. The term describes the relationship between nature and
humans, who are inextricably linked and part of each other. It is that
relationship that must be set right.
Starting from that premise, he launches a ferocious attack on what he
sees as the false and treacherous appetites of capitalism and on the
consumerist view of human nature. For Francis, there is a vital
distinction between human needs, which are limited but non-negotiable,
and appetites, which are potentially unlimited, and which can always be
traded for other satisfactions without ever quite giving us what we
most deeply want. The poor, he says, have their needs denied, while the
rich have their appetites indulged. The environmental crisis links
these two aspects of the problem.
This criticism attacks both kinds of defenders of the present world
order: the deniers and the optimists. The document is absolutely
unequivocal in backing the overwhelming scientific consensus that
anthropogenic global warming is a clear and present danger. It blasts
the use of fossil fuels and demands that these be phased out in favour
of renewable energy. But it is also explicitly opposed to the idea that
we can rely on purely technological solutions to ecological problems.
This may be the most explicit break with the liberal and broadly
optimistic consensus of the consuming world. There will never be a
technological fix for the problem of unrestrained appetite, the pope
claims, because this is a moral problem, which demands a moral
solution, a turn towards sobriety and self-restraint and away from the
intoxications of consumerism.
In this he is drawing partly on the tradition of Catholic social
teaching, and partly on moral thinking popular in the 1960s, when moral
philosophers were first grappling with the implications of nuclear
weapons and the sense that humankind had not grown up but reached its
toddler stage, where the capacity for destruction far outweighed our
capacity for judgment.
Once again we find that we possess the power to destroy the planet and
most of the multicellular life on it, but this time there is no
argument from enlightened self-interest that is as clear as the
argument against nuclear warfare was in the days of the cold war. The
balance of terror no longer exists in the same form as it did when the
use of nuclear weapons would be punished by nuclear retaliation: the
poor world will now pay for the crimes of the rich, and our children
and grandchildren must pay for their parents’ self-indulgence. This is
what he means by an “ecological debt”. The sometimes apocalyptic tone,
with the threats of resource wars as well as the more obvious forms of
ecological catastrophe, arises from the sense that this debt must at
some time be terribly repaid.
Will anyone listen? The pope is scathing, and rightly so, about the
lack of action that has followed high-minded declarations in the past.
Why should this time be different? The answer, not entirely reassuring,
is that we cannot go on as we are. Self-interest alone will not avert
the catastrophe. Without a moral and imaginative structure that links
our wellbeing to that of others, so that their suffering feels as
urgent as ours, or is at least measured on the same scales, we will
render our planet uninhabitable. The pope is trying to change our
understanding of human nature. Many people will disagree with his
understanding. But he is right that no smaller change will do.