Reaction on Laudato Si': the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years
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.