The Pope’s encyclical is a landmark.
We are in the presence of much more than just a response to climate change. That is accorded the significance that it deserves, but in the context of the whole gamut of environmental challenges – pollution, recycling, water, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, the oceans, urbanisation, economics and food. This is a magnificent agenda, treated with authority and grace. All of it is well assimilated and finely nuanced, understated if anything.
Echoes of Rachel Carson and Hugh Montefiore, of ‘Only One Earth’ and Stockholm, the Two Rio summits and Brundtland – all of these, and much more – can be found in Laudato Si. But it brings extra dimensions to our reflections upon them – the poetic and the spiritual, theology and Christology, sacrament and service. Above all, humanity and love.
I find little to disagree with. I do not agree that unconstrained population growth is compatible with equitable and sustainable development; I do not accept the ethic that animal experimentation (on vertebrates at least) can be justified by any benefit to human beings. And it is not in my tradition to exalt the Virgin Mary, in the way this document not surprisingly does. But what unites us exceeds what may divide us by several multiples! Moreover, I perceive here a new openness and receptivity in the discourse of the Holy See, which clearly yearns for a new partnership between different traditions, insights and faiths. This Pope is open to the wisdom of the ages, not only that of the Vatican. He quotes the aphorism “Less is more” which comes from Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, but is implicit in the Buddha and St Paul. He advocates universal love and fraternity. In this he might have appealed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Mo Zi, as much as to St Francis. We should respond to all of this with open hearts and arms.
We are directed by the Patriarch Bartholomew ‘to look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity’. Pope Francis has linked arms with the Patriarch. “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.” “We need to experience an ecological conversion.” Pope Francis is neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric – nor even wholly theocentric. He believes in the inherent value of created things. Nothing and no-one, no living thing, should be commodified. He celebrates the interconnectedness of all things. There is something Tolstoyan about his ecology of place. Countess Sofya might have been his mentor as much as Lev: “The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places, and revisiting those places does us much good.”
There are so many choice and pregnant phrases and paragraphs, but we should look beyond the language – well aimed though it is, much of it trenchant – towards a tangible programme of action. We must listen as much as talk, we must act and we must act together. “A true ecological approach always become a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” He is for localism, whilst acknowledging its limitations. He is fearful of the power of multinationals, but not dismissive of them. He is mindful of the importance of business and enterprise (‘a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world’), of society and culture and the law (and its enforcement). He sees a role for new international institutions. A multi-dimensional response is essential.
We need waste little time on refuting the sceptics and deniers in the US Congress, and the UK media. Pope Francis listens with respect to sound science. He bids us adopt the point of view of the universe, and of the future. As one of his expert interlocutors, the climate campaigner Naomi Klein, has put it: “This changes everything”.
Brian Cuthbertson is Head of Environment and Sustainability in the Diocese of London
Check out the next blog in our Encyclical series: David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK, shows that Laudato Si is all about the common good and justice
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