Pope Francis’s planetary wake-up call

Thou shalt not kill the planet and the poorest on it


In his 200-page encyclical Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, the Pope grabs our often evasive gaze and forces us to stare into the belly of the world’s environmental woes. As he digs at the “throwaway culture” that’s turning the planet into “an immense pile of filth,” the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion earthlings gives us all a caring smack upside the head in the name of Mother Earth. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live,” he writes in his soul-stirring call to action. Here are a few hard truths and rousing requests from the Pope’s reality check. 

Thou shalt not kill the planet and the poorest on it

Believers or not, most of us can agree with some basic commandments like “Thou shalt not kill.” But what does that commandment mean, asks Francis, when “20 per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs poorer nations and future generations of what they need to survive”? Whether we like it or not, our lifestyles are causing “collateral damage.” 

Don’t blame overpopulation for the world’s woes

A lot of enviros peg overpopulation as one of the world’s fundamental flaws. No surprise Francis doesn’t see it that way. Yes, the man is clearly against abortion (and repeatedly reminds us of this point in the encyclical), but he also makes a damn good point: blaming overpopulation instead of our “extreme” consumerism is “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution.” He’s right – the poor aren’t the ones with the oversized enviro footprint. (That doesn’t negate the fact that women everywhere deserve access to birth control.)

Time to repay our ecological debt to the global South

Forget our national debt. We owe a true “ecological debt” to the global South, says the Pope, for all the natural resources we’ve pillaged over the centuries (think dirty gold mines), not to mention the toxic trash we export (hello, e-waste). And let’s not forget the two centuries of the North churning out climate-warming greenhouse gases “caused by huge consumption.” In short: the First World should stop whining about the poorest countries not giving up enough at global climate negotiations (he’s talking to you, Stephen Harper) and start forking over more financial support for those developing nations that had nothing to do with the current mess. 

Beware of cap and trade’s green guise

The Pope’s gotten some flak on climate policy for insisting the buying and selling of “carbon credits” won’t help reduce pollution worldwide. He calls the carbon credit market “a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.” Kathleen Wynne might not like it, but considering the EU’s notorious cap and trade failings, it’s little wonder the Pope has called the whole system out, saying it doesn’t “allow for the radical change required by present circumstances.”

It all comes down to Monsanto and your iPhone 

The root of the ecological crisis, says the pontiff, is ultimately that we’ve let science and technology take “lordship” over us. Nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, gene manipulation and many other abilities have “given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity…. Never has humanity had such power over itself,” he warns, “yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.” So, no, technology can’t save us from the mess we’ve made, including GMOs, which the Pope calls for out for shoving out small farmers and “destroying complex ecosystems.” He also says we’d be a lot happier if we unplugged a little and tried some genuine face time.

And enough with the me, me, me thing

Now we get to the real nub of our global demise: “rampant individualism” and “today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.” He calls it the culture of “relativism,” where everything is irrelevant unless it serves our own immediate interests. So we don’t really particularly give a shit when the invisible forces of the market trash society and nature to make us a new T-shirt or laptop (an attitude which, by the way, he says stems from the same “me first” mindset that spawns child abuse and slave labour – told you the man doesn’t mince words). 

Time for a bold revolution

So now that he’s splashed cold water on our faces, what next? “A bold cultural revolution,” says Francis. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but he says we need to slow down and look at reality in a different way. Besides ditching fossil fuels, signing “enforceable international agreements” and shifting to renewables, we need a massive cultural shift that values “less is more” and “spiritually detaches from what we possess.” He wants to see a revolution of consciousness seeded in the knowledge that we’re all interconnected. The Pope charts out a new way of thinking about human beings, politics, economy and our relationship with nature forged in global solidarity. No small task, but he says it’s time to start on the long path to renewal.

Don’t trash the small stuff

Revolution sounds daunting, but even reusing instead of throwing something away can be an act of love, says the Pope. Slashing our water, paper and plastic use, cooking only what we need, carpooling, using transit, planting trees: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread,” says the Pope. Plus, they can boost our self-esteem. But we can’t stop at upcycling and water conserving.

Spark up our civil and political love

Caring for nature, says Francis, is part of a lifestyle that includes the capacity for truly living together and caring about each other. “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…. Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care,” is, he says, also a civic and political act, and “it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.” That love for society and commitment to the common good, he insists, can transform the world. Cynics may scoff, but a growing army of theists and atheists alike are ready to roll up their sleeves and, heart open, give it a go. Are you in? 

ecoholic@nowtoronto.com | @ecoholicnation

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