In June this year, the words of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in a document entitled Laudato si, argued that the time has come to consider protection of the Earth’s resources as a moral and spiritual concern much more than as an economic problem. In a passionate encyclical, which has been translated into eight different languages, he argues that the global market economy has plundered the Earth, at the expense of the poor and future generations. He puts the blame for climate change squarely at the door of a combination of hyper- consumerism and human greed, writing: “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain… As a result, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of the deified market, which become the only rule.” Of course, to most people this man is better known to most as Pope Francis, and whilst his writing may have come as a surprise (he has only published one previous encyclical), it will have been no shock that he has again put the concerns of the world’s poor at the heart of his thoughts.
In a list of the things we care most about, I would hazard a guess that caring for the environment and doing our bit to reverse climate change would probably figure quite low down. Somewhere a long way beneath putting food on the table for ourselves and our families, and slightly above putting the right bit of rubbish in the right bins. On that same list (I’m guessing again here), I reckon that making society fairer and redistributing the huge amount of global wealth collected by a tiny proportion of people sits much higher up as a concern. Not once in the recent election campaigning, which is usually a good barometer of which issues are in the public consciousness, aside from a brief mention by the Green party, was caring for the planet even vaguely alluded to. Instead, we heard endless rhetoric about economic competence, and making work more worthwhile for “hard- working Britons” (or insert whichever focus-grouped buzz word you prefer). The message was quite clear, we care about ourselves first and about our planet second.
Except that the Pope’s message to all of us, not just to Roman Catholics, is that these concerns are inextricably linked. Caring for the Earth is a matter of social justice, not an abstract concern for those who are wealthy enough to be able to afford the luxury of such anxiety. As such, if care for the poor is high on our list of priorities, then what is required is a change in attitude so that care for the planet is seen as part of that solution. Pope Francis argues that if we continue to make the pursuit of wealth our single goal to the exclusion of others, then both the Earth will suffer as we turn everything in it to a consumable resource, and the poor will suffer as they have always done whilst the rich get richer.
Part of the problem, is certainly apathy. One comedian has likened making environmentally friendly changes to our lives in the context of global consumption as like turning up to the aftermath of an earthquake with a dustpan and brush. It can feel like that sometimes.
And yet, such change is quite clearly possible.
Pope Francis, of course, is the first Pope to have taken his name from Saint Francis of Assisi, who was renowned for dedicating his life to care of the poor and respect for God’s created environment. Often depicted with a bird in his hand, Francis understood that nature and humans share a symbiotic relationship. Both are dependent on each other, both are vulnerable to suffering if they do not share this support together. St. Francis, through small acts, had enormous influence and was inspirational to millions of people. If everyone makes small gestures, such as sharing lifts when the car is used, not leaving the tap running forever, or trying to buy local produce, it would have a noticeable effect. If everyone made big gestures, like putting pressure on our elected officials to see climate change as a matter of social justice and equality, it would change the world. And the world needs changing, before it’s too late.