The pope’s climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human
by Stephen P. White on June 24, 2015
What makes this encyclical controversial is its reading of contested questions of science, economics, and politics. What makes it radical — in the sense of going to the root — is the pope’s reading of the profound human crisis that he sees underlying our modern world. Abuse of our environment isn’t the only problem facing humanity. In fact, Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis. These two problems are related and interdependent. And the solution is not simply to eliminate fossil fuels or rethink carbon credits. The pope is calling on the world to rediscover what it means to be human — and as a result, to reject the cult of economic growth and material accumulation.
Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the “pope fights climate change” narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an “integral ecology,” which “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human.”
Most of what Pope Francis has to say about climate change — and pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of access to water, etc. — is in the first chapter. This section has garnered the most headlines — along with a later chapter, which looks at practical solutions — because it touches most directly on contested questions of science and policy.
The pope’s assessment of the current environmental crisis is grim: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” On climate change, he writes, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” He goes on to warn: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
Pope Francis sees the ecological crisis as a symptom of a deeper crisis — a human crisis
As for who is responsible for all this, he places the burden at the feet of the developed world: “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.”
Francis warns especially of the damage that our “culture of waste” does to the poor. He dismisses attempts at population control while levelling broadsides against financial markets, inequality, and the indifference of the rich. Moreover, he sees all these disturbing trends as interconnected. A casual attitude toward material goods leads to a casual attitude toward people. A willingness to exploit creation is deeply connected to a willingness to exploit human beings.
The limits of technology
While much has been said about the pope’s embrace of the scientific evidence of climate change and the dangers it poses, the irony is that he addresses this crisis in a way that calls into question some of the oldest and most basic assumptions of the scientific paradigm.
Francis Bacon and René Descartes — two fathers of modern science in particular — would have shuddered at this encyclical. Bacon was a man of many talents — jurist, philosopher, essayist, Lord Chancellor of England — but he’s mostly remembered today as the father of the scientific method. He is also remembered for suggesting that nature ought to be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.” Descartes, for his part, hoped that the new science he and men like Bacon were developing would make us, in his words, “masters and possessors of nature.”
At the very outset of the encyclical, before any mention of climate change or global warming, Pope Francis issues a challenge to the Baconian and Cartesian view, which sees the world as so much raw material to be used as we please. Neither Descartes nor Bacon is mentioned by name, but the reference is unmistakable. Pope Francis insists that humanity’s “irresponsible use and abuse” of creation has come about because we “have come to see ourselves as [the Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”