By Paul M. Lewis
Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”
It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.
The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”
The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.
But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.
Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?
Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “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.”
This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.