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Enlivening a dreary environmental debate

Enlivening a dreary environmental debate

I have a confession to make.

I find the environment as a topic both extremely dull and morbidly depressing. I can understand the importance of the topic academically – unlike many critics of the encyclical I am no climate change sceptic. However, there's something about the impossible scale and hopelessness of the task, the dreary game of claim and counter-claim over what the evidence shows, the projections of planetary doom and the contrasting nauseating pettiness of so many green policies (the power of your vacuum, being told off for putting the wrong sort of paper in your bin etc.) that makes for an unappetising cocktail of a debate.

Needless to say the prospect of reading through a lengthy Papal Encyclical on the environment was not one I especially relished.  Fortunately, at least from my perspective, the Encyclical has far more to say than reheating those familiar stale debates.

For one thing it puts front and centre what most of the protagonists in the field somehow fail to miss – people (and particularly the poor). In the disputes over scientific measurements, or the best available carbon taxation method, environmental debates can very quickly become bogged down in mind-numbing technicalities that seem almost (call me cynical) tailor-made to exclude the layman from being able to meaningfully contribute. We are encouraged to leave it to the experts – invariably wealthy Westerners who, surely by an astonishing coincidence, benefitted the most historically from our abuse of the planet and yet today pay the least in subsidies to mitigate the damage.

The papal encyclical, by contrast, grounds its argument not primarily in such technicalities but in people and their relationship with the rest of creation and the creator. It is in the essential interwovenness of human existence, and our necessary and unavoidable relationality with the rest of creation that the Encyclical really focuses its attention. Our actions and our behaviour are never atomised or free from consequence. Instead how we act towards creation has direct and serious ramifications for everyone and especially “the poor” (some 60 mentions throughout the document). So the Pope draws the lesson from his namesake Francis of Assisi that shows how “inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS 10).

This is perhaps clearest in an enlightening section (passed over entirely in most secular reporting) on the Trinity. It is worth quoting a chunk of it in full:

“The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine
model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures.”

Therein lies the real key to Laudato Si’ – not the environment as such, but what it means to be human in a world created by the Trinitarian God. The fullness of humanity is achieved in relationships with God, other humans and creation in which we can find signs of the Trinity. Our obsession with technology as “progress” in itself, without a sense of what it is for, how it impacts on creation and our responsibilities towards one another is our real sin.  Pollution and environmental damage is just a symptom of a wider modern malaise.


Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos | @BenedictWRyan

Check out the next blog in our Encyclical series: Bishop David Atkinson argues that Pope Francis has pulled the rug from under political inertia on climate change

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