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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The author of environmental encyclical Laudato Si'

Part 6. Dawn of Hope 2015: Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as his apostolic name set the tone for his papacy, reminding all of the 13th century friar who wrote canticles to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” and talked to songbirds and wolves. The name also presaged the contents of his summer 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Certainly the document, an official church teaching, had been the subject of debate for months before its issuance. Environmentalists worldwide eagerly awaited it; conservative Catholics, particularly in America, denounced it in advance, sternly advising Francis to “stick to religion, and we’ll stick to politics,” in the words of Republican (and Catholic) then-Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

When the encyclical finally arrived in June 2015, it proved to be everything that had been hoped and feared—and more. Francis’ analysis was thorough and in depth; the proposed solutions ranged from the theoretical to the practical, sparing no institution or entrenched power. The document was radical, and spawned a torrent of shocked criticism, exemplified by the fulminating right-wing radio ideologue Rush Limbaugh pronouncing the Pope “a Marxist,” about the most damning adjective he could muster short of “the devil.”

An Arizona congressman boycotted the Pope’s address to the U.S. Congress on 24 September, declaring that he was “a proud Catholic,” and convinced that “earth’s climate has been changing since God created it, with or without man.” “The Pope does seem to be enamored with solutions that are not pro-American in the slightest” declared a Philadelphia radio talk show host, perhaps a bit unclear on the Pope’s job description.

Let us see what Laudato Si’ has to say. Francis boldly states the problem. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth...We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries...where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits.”

More: “A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention (in the natural world), often in the service of business interests and consumerism, (is) actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey...We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

Francis sounds very much like Muir here, and even more so when he considers the world’s cities, home to half of humanity. “Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water...We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

He adds his voice to those recognizing a key human input to global warming and frequent intense weather events: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications...We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels-especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

The situation has become dire, he claims, echoing the laments of the most discouraged environmentalist: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

Unlike mainline environmental organizations, however, he does not follow all this with an appeal to donate funds to hurriedly “save” this or that. No, this is a Jesuit addressing the issue, and he methodically proceeds to an analysis of the problem.

First, the immediate factors driving the situation. Prominent is the relentless promotion of “extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some...closely linked to a throwaway culture...where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.”

The worship of profit and faulty bookkeeping of the costs involved in economic activity also contribute. “Profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account” when evaluating economic activity. “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved.”

Frank as it is in placing blame on consumerism and the primacy of profit, Francis’ analysis goes further, plumbing the very roots of the problem in a sophisticated and insightful consideration of the paradigm underlying the whole of modern economic and political life. In a brilliant section of the encyclical entitled The Globalization of the technocratic paradigm, Francis claims that “The basic problem goes even deeper; it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This (technocratic) 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...

“Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that ‘an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed’...

“The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable...The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy.”

Though he nowhere uses the term “capitalism,” it seems clear that Francis is leveling a harsh critique of just that economic system, with its exaltation of profits and consumerism, “the lie” upon which it is based, and its “false notion... that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.” For those who believe pure, free-market capitalism is the “end of history” (as Fukuyama put it) and the final possible word in economic systems, Francis’ analysis is deeply threatening. Un-American, yes, if America is defined by its economic system of the late 20th century. (The very notion that America could be defined by an economic system at any particular point in its historical development may, itself, seem rather “Un-American,” but that consideration is surely a digression.)

Francis then proposes a second factor working in concert with the technocratic paradigm to create our present dilemma, a factor prominently remarked upon by John Muir a century earlier, and one closely related to Roman Catholic teachings. “Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism...An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted care about. Instead, our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the case of responsible stewardship.”

Ever the theologian—this encyclical, after all, is an official teaching of the Church—Francis delves into Genesis to elucidate his point. “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth, has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.

“Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. 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”—responsible stewardship.

We can only marvel at the breadth and depth of Francis’ analysis of the dilemma facing humankind and the earth, his incisive focus on the technocratic paradigm, the failings of the capitalistic economy, the “excessive anthropocentrism” at the root of the problem—and how these mesh to generate extreme consumerism, the worship of profits, faulty bookkeeping when evaluating economic activities, and the destruction of the beautiful Creation given us by its Creator.

What of his proposed solutions? Francis begins by lauding the efforts of environmental organizations and the good they have done, but like Shellenberger in 2004, and Klein in 2014, insists that it has not been enough, not nearly enough, in the face of the ruling technocratic paradigm and dithering national and international leaders. “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective...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...The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests...People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption.”

What is needed, Francis says, is a radical change in human culture, an overthrow of the technocratic paradigm and distorted anthropocentrism. He quotes Pope Paul VI in 1971: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation,” giving rise to “the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity.” In fact, claims Francis, “a great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal...Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.”

At the end, then, Francis’ solution to our current dilemma is the same as that of Klein, the earth-centered worldview of southeast Europe villagers, indigenous peoples, and radical environmentalists: “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society, and our relationship with nature.” The hidden Muir’s Earth Wisdom, in other words, with education tabbed as the key to spreading this new worldview.

Regrettably, Francis does not formally name and describe much about the new paradigm to replace the technocratic paradigm he limns so well. Doubtless he is handicapped by the encyclical having two very disparate audiences: the community of the Roman Catholic Church, committed to the revelation of Christ, and the (non-Catholic) world at large. In the last several sections of the encyclical, addressed narrowly to the Church community, he speaks of an “Ecological conversion.” To the world at large, Francis recommends an emphasis of education in “integral ecology”-- the workings of the planet and the proper place of humans in it—providing an analogous “ecological conversion” in humanity worldwide. “We are faced with an educational challenge.”

Not content with this thorough-going analysis and ringing declaration of the challenge, Francis drives on to catalogue the practical consequences of the adoption of what we might term his new paradigm of integral ecology. In effect, Francis is describing the parameters of the new economic system that must replace the currently-enshrined free-market capitalism. “The principle of the maximization of profits...reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy...profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account” in any economic transaction. “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.”

The concept of private property likewise must be reevaluated. “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.”

Under the new paradigm, full employment becomes a requirement. “Any approach to integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour...We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment...It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that ‘we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone’, no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.”

Land, in the new paradigm, is of great value, particularly to indigenous peoples: “For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to main their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.” Under the integral ecology paradigm, these mining and agricultural projects would yield to the interests of indigenous peoples.

Most difficult, Francis realizes, will be the re-thinking under the new paradigm of the notions of progress and growth. “Whenever these questions are raised, some react by accusing others of irrationally attempting to stand in the way of progress and human development. But we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development...We need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late...That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

Francis understands that these profound changes in the economy and culture of humanity will require a fundamental shift in the current exercise of power in the world, and does not shy away from stating it. “Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power.”

The shift in power must even cross borders. “The twenty-first century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political. Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.”

And the final challenge to those dependent on the old economy and power structures for their security and riches: “Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan...A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.”

Upon its release to the world, Laudato Si’ in one day of June, 2015 dramatically recast the world’s environmental movement. The virtues and strengths of Laudato Si’ are impressive. The document powerfully describes the ecological challenges facing the earth and its human inhabitants, brilliantly analyzes the role of “distorted” anthropocentrism and the technocratic paradigm in bringing about today’s excessive consumerism and worship of profits and growth, and issues a clarion call for a new paradigm of what may be called integral ecology, “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an education programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.”

As many in America correctly perceived, including Catholics in the governing elite, Francis’ analysis is a strong critique of free-market capitalism and its failures, as well as the failures of national and world leaders in studiously avoiding decisive steps to avert the looming climate catastrophe. Much of what his encyclical says had already been said by Naomi Klein and others—by John Muir, for that matter—with markedly little effect. Yet Laudato Si’ made a splash that Klein’s This Changes Everything did not. Francis threw the entire weight of his uncanny “star power” behind the document and its radical conclusions, summoning and mixing with a plethora of world leaders in various platforms prior to and after the encyclical’s release.

It is this wholehearted, headline-generating support of his new integral ecology paradigm, with its call for “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature,” that renders Francis and Laudato Si’ such landmarks in the history of Muir’s worldwide environmental movement. The encyclical is clearly a giant step forward, one which pushes world leaders to embrace an energetic, radical responses to the climate crisis. In a sense, Francis provides cover for national leaders around the world: it the Pope can think this, then maybe I can also—or something similar to it.

It must also be underlined that in its basics, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ declares a message remarkably similar to that espoused by Klein a year before, by Shellenberger a decade before, by Muir a century before, by the Taoists two millennia before. Integral ecology—the recognition that all life is interconnected and important—must be fundamental to our thinking and acting. The earth is our home and must not be subjected to destructive exploitation by humans. Harming the earth is harming ourselves. Any economic system encouraging—mandating—infinite growth and harsh exploitation of the natural world for human profit must be abandoned or fundamentally changed. That message of integral ecology is radical, and implacable. And devilishly difficult for the governing elite to accept, in any era of recorded human history.

But would it make any difference in the upcoming U.N. conference on climate change in Paris at the end of the year?

Next Week: Part 7. Hope Blossoms: Paris, December 2015

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