Pope Francis Speaks Out on Poverty and the Environment

(cc) Tejvan Pettinger.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environmental crisis may be of as much interest to non-theists and naturalists as to Catholics and other theists. Laudato si (“Praise be to you,” a phrase from St. Francis of Assisi) describes interconnections among the problems in our world that I found valuable.

The lengthy document covers many topics, including climate change, biodiversity, the poor, our throwaway culture, and our profit-obsessed economy. But two themes stood out for me.

The first is a simple idea: that neglect of the environment and neglect of vulnerable people are essentially the same failing.

A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings. It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking. (paragraph 91)

We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. (92)

It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. 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. (139)

Like many people, I have tended to think about environmental destruction and poverty as problems that, although related, are in different categories. But Francis presses them close together, urging us to a wider compassion.

A second theme concerns how we have arrived at the dismal state our world is in. We have made the mistake of believing that every new technology is a step in human progress. And we have gone further: We have accepted technological thinking as our way of relating to nature and people. We approach natural and societal problems alike through the scientific method, isolating the problem, solving it rationally and experimentally, taking charge, looking for mastery over it. As a result, our views are narrow.

The technocratic paradigm 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. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue… that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. [Yet such people show] no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. (109)

The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant. (110)

Compelling as the Laudato si is, there are grounds for dissenting from its pessimism. After all, in recent decades the portion of global humanity living in extreme poverty has declined, not risen. The treatment of animals on farms and in labs in the U. S. has been improving. And the rate of human violent deaths has been dropping steadily throughout history. How are we to say whether things are getting better or getting worse for life as a whole on the planet? Would a reasonable answer be, some of both?

In the pope’s eyes, such uncertainty does not let us off the hook.

As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen. (59)

So what should we do? Francis’ recommendations include wider dialogue, the inclusion of a social perspective in every environmental decision, and at bottom, a change in our hearts. But I also found good advice in his brief mention of the importance of learning “to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously” (47).


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