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Environmentalists: stop being embarrassed about values

Environmentalists: stop being embarrassed about values

There’s no doubt that we are facing huge social and environmental problems globally, which will only be addressed if we have sustained public concern underpinned by a rebalancing of our culture, with a greater emphasis placed on ‘intrinsic’ values like a sense of community and concern for the weak, affiliation to friends and family, and connection to nature. The overwhelming pressure in the other direction - of appeals to consumerism, power and status, in our everyday lives - makes this seem like a massive change.

Many commentators have questioned the validity of the Pope’s entry into a highly technical and politically charged area such as the environment. The environmental movement itself has had a problematic relationship with religion over the last fifty years, increasingly seeing itself in a quasi-scientific, economic and technical role, and thus reluctant to ally itself, work with, or take account of religion. And at the same time, in many ways, the religions have absented themselves from real engagement in many of the most difficult environmental issues of the day. There are of course noble exceptions to this, as individual programmes and organisations bridge these two worlds, but we are a long way from where we need to be if environmentalists and religion are to be true allies.

What on earth could values, emotions, and spirituality have to do with real world problems? And why should the non-Catholic world – whether Muslim, Protestant, Atheist, Hindu, Jewish – take any notice of Pope Francis? The Pope argues that values are at the heart of our crisis; and our environmental problems are interlinked with and caused by other issues like poverty, consumption and waste. And he specifically calls on us to reject purely technological solutions. Of course his message is rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition, and is rich in theology, but he explicitly calls out to all people in his message.

He is quite right: we need a revolution in values, if we are to achieve the changes we need. The Catholic Church needs to embrace this message and be active in its communication and changes in behaviour. The environmental movement needs to get over its embarrassment about talking about values.

And of course some hard headed research is needed and some misapprehensions need to be challenged - chief of which is a widespread impression that (other) people care less about values such as helpfulness, creativity or environmental protection than we each do ourselves. It’s not true - a recent survey that we at Common Cause have commissioned shows that most people hold ‘self-transcendent’ values to be most important - but feel that others hold self-enhancing values to be most important. And maybe that is one of the reasons why many institutions - including the Catholic Church - can often behave in ways that seem to emphasize extrinsic over intrinsic values.

We don’t need environmentalists to become religious, and we don’t need the religions to become scientists; but we all need to combine in a concerted effort to rebalance our values, to make the changes we need in the world and tackle issues like climate change; we have Common Cause.


Oliver Smith is Co-founder and Co-director of the Common Cause Foundation

Check out the next blog in our Encyclical series: Bishop Richard Cheetham sets out the four radical approaches that need to shape our response to climate change

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