25.06.20 Fifth anniversary of pope’s eco-encyclical Dariush Jones • 6 min.

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In May 2020 the Vatican announced the beginning of a year-long commemoration of Pope Francis’s encyclical on environmental protection published five years earlier, Laudato Si’: on Care for Our Common Home. Debate.Energy looks back at the pontiff’s message and its reception and ahead to the upcoming events.

Fittingly, the encyclical begins with words from the pope’s namesake and role model, Saint Francis of Assisi: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and
herbs” (1). This thirteenth-century chant contains, in nuce, the pope’s message: humanity has a fraternal relationship with “sister” earth and is “intimately united with all that exists” (11). Although in Genesis God may give humans “dominion” over the planet, He also, the pontiff emphasizes, specifically enjoins us to “till and keep” the earth’s garden (67). 

The problem: the technological paradigm 

Francis believes humanity is a very negligent keeper. He locates the problem in the technological and scientific paradigm that mediates our relationship with the planet. Under this paradigm, ta human subject uses logical procedures to gain control over an external object. One example is the scientific method itself, which the encyclical describes as “a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation” (106). The technological paradigm has made human beings relationship with nature “confrontational” and encouraged them to believe in the possibility of unlimited economic growth (106). For the pope, life has gradually become “a surrender to situations conditioned by technology”; the symptoms of this surrender are “environmental degradation, anxiety, a loss of the purpose of life and of community living” (110). 

The solution: integral ecology 

Francis wants to replace the technological paradigm with an “integral ecology,” in which “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach, … so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49). This has several consequences. One is that biodiversity and cultural diversity are equally important: “the imposition of a dominant lifestyle … can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems” (145). Another is that sustainable development must encompass both intergenerational and intragenerational solidarity: “we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, … since the world … also belongs to those who will follow us” (159) and because “today’s poor … cannot keep on waiting” (162). Finally, integral ecological presupposes “differentiated responsibilities” (52): developed countries—whose prosperity is built on heavy industrialization and thus more than a century of massive carbon emissions—must “accept decreased growth” so that developing countries have the resources to “experience healthy growth” (193). 

The reception: mixed 

Not surprisingly, the pope’s call to “care for our common home” was both lauded and lamented. The New York Times called the encyclical “revolutionary” and “deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.” The Guardian declared it “the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, by contrast, felt that the pope’s “one-sided” analysis of capitalism painted a “distorted image of civilization.” An author in the Seattle Law Review pointed out that capitalist countries with democratic institutions tend to be the most politically free and the most environmentally responsible and that technology is vitally necessary to protect humanity from some living things, such as Ebola and corona. Despite reservations about aspects of the encyclical, however, many critics conceded its importance as a “global wake-up call.” 

Recycling an encyclical: the anniversary year 

Pope Francis wants the Laudato Si’ Anniversary Year, which runs until May 24, 2021, to emphasize both the transition to integral ecology and social action. It began with the latter: on May 18, 2020, the Global Catholic Climate Movement announced that 42 faith institutions had pledged to divest from fossil fuel. More such declarations are expected. 

Commemorations beget conferences, and this one will have several: “Reinventing the Global Educational Alliance” (October 15, 2020, at the Vatican); the “Economy of Francis,” which will bring together 2,000 next-generation economists and entrepreneurs from 115 countries to explore approaches that foster innovation, environmental protection, and human dignity (November 19–21, 2020 in Assisi, Italy), and a final gathering (May 20–22, 2021, in Rome). There will also be a Laudato Si’ Action Platform, in which several Catholic institutions will aim to become fully sustainable within seven years, and annual Laudato Si’ Awards.  

The anniversary events of Laudato Si’aim to keep alive Pope Francis’s call for humanity to be caretakers of the earth, each other, and future generations. In short, to make the encyclical’s message of comprehensive sustainability itself sustainable.


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