I doubt you missed last month’s release of Pope Francis’ powerful “encyclical” on the environment. It’s sure to be considered a very important document in the history of sustainability – perhaps a turning point in the debate on climate change.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing. But it is a 180-page pdf (albeit with smallish pages and large font), and contains nearly 40,000 words (part of the reason this blog is a few weeks late). My goal here was to pull some critical and fascinating quotes, perhaps cutting the reading by 80 to 90% for you. But first, a few key takeaways and what I see as his big themes.
The Pope is trying to appeal to everyone. I can’t say I read a lot of papal proclamations, so maybe this isn’t unusual, but the language here is extremely accessible and fairly secular (or at least Judeo-Christian). Yes, “God” appears frequently (with a third of the mentions tucked into the final chapter), but “human” is the top word. Other biggies include world, all, life, nature, environment, and social. And Jesus doesn’t make the top 50.
The essay is not remotely only about climate. Leading up to the release, much of the news coverage talked about an upcoming “climate declaration.” Yes, this is a core part of the discussion, but the Pope is clearly concerned with environmental conditions overall, including biodiversity and the sanctity of life in all its forms. And, importantly, he spends a great deal of time discussing the poor and issues of inequity.
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It’s a sustainability manifesto, but without using the word. Ok, he says “sustainable” a handful of times, but only uses “sustainability” once, and that’s in quoting someone else. There’s a fascinating mix of modern views on our mega-challenges, with a serious theme of systems thinking (again without calling it that), and a bit of a dated view on the consumption side (everyone can just change their habits in the everyday choices). In total, the big themes of the encyclical come out very clearly. Here are some of the largest of the Pope’s views with a bit of my perspective on how it comes across.
The Pope’s messages
Climate change science and impacts are clear. The Pope obviously believes that we know more than enough about the science (climate change is happening and humans are responsible) to act, and he calls out people for their denial (see section 59 below). This will be one of the most lasting impacts of his call to action – putting to rest the idea that there’s any real uncertainty on the major aspects of climate change. We may move quicker past debating the existence of the problem (at least in the U.S.) and start talking about solutions. Some pundits (and presidential candidates) have suggested the Pope should not wade into scientific debates, but that’s ridiculous given (a) his role, for 1 billion Catholics, as a spirit guide on how people should lead their lives and (b) the fact that the man holds a graduate degree in Chemistry.
We have serious equity problems. In keeping with the Pope’s core mission in his tenure thus far, he focuses like a laser on the challenges of the poor, and makes it clear that the environmental and social challenges are deeply intertwined. We must deal with them all as a system.
A modern technological society has some important drawbacks. Some critics have decried the encyclical as being anti-progress and technology. I have some quibbles in some places (such as his dislike for cities and contention that they are resource hogs), but overall the Pope does not really call for an end to progress. He’s asking us to reimagine of what we mean by progress, and suggests we take into account the health of the planet and of all its inhabitants in our investment and consumption decisions. This is another way of saying we need to value more than just short-term profit maximization.
The root of most of these environmental and social challenges is consumption, greed, and desire for stuff. Again, people may be uncomfortable with what sounds like an anti-progress, anti-modernity message, but it’s more balanced than that. And most of the language around this theme (mostly in the last chapter) fits the self-help, Oprah-like messages of simplicity, enjoying what you have and finding joy in the people and experiences in your life, living in the now, and so on. It’s clearly a message for those who have the basics (and then some) in life already, and it doesn’t sound radical.
We’re all connected (including nature and animals), which has profound implications for how we live our lives and build our economy and society. At core, this essay is about the interconnection between our big environmental and social issues, as well as their deep connection to our economy and ability to thrive. It’s about the systems thinking we need in our lives and policies. It’s really about the common good, which the Pope notably extends to “future generations.” He uses this interconnectedness theme to criticize modern economics and its element of selfishness, so this not-so-subtle call for “distributive justice” may make many readers uncomfortable. He’s launching a frontal attack on the powerful trend, especially in the U.S., of an “every man for himself” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” view of the world.
Saving the environment is good economics, but it’s about morals. The Pope tackles the contentious religious issue of humanity’s “dominion” over nature head on and makes it very clear that it’s core to spirituality and Catholicism to care for the environment. But for me, the bottom line of the essay is a quote that’s almost a throwaway line buried deep in the 5th chapter (of 6). Talking about the potential expense of bringing the clean economy to fruition, particularly in the developing world, the Pope throws this out there (in section 172):
“The costs of this would be low, compared to the risks of climate change. In any event, these are primarily ethical decisions, rooted in solidarity between all peoples.”
In other words, yes, we can do this all economically and it makes sense in terms of both risk reduction and prosperity. But in the end, we need to act because it’s the right thing to do for the common good.
In general, I found the Pope’s essay to be profound and on target. I don’t agree with every statement, and I certainly believe we need the scale of modernity and business to tackle our challenges, but I’m not going to have the audacity to pick apart the Pope’s essay line by line. Overall, this manifesto syncs well with my thinking in The Big Pivot. The topline logic is clear: we have some mega challenges – such as climate change, resource constraints, and inequity – and we need new thinking and life/business models to tackle them (such as circular, inclusive economies). So I for one – an American raised (mildly) Jewish – am thrilled to see this important, historic addition to the sustainability quest.
The remainder of what will be a very long blog (with 1 or 2 more to come over the next few days) will be mainly quotes. I’ve tried to put them into big themes (many of which the Pope established in the structure of the piece), and provided some thoughts in a few places. Each excerpt includes the paragraph number the encyclical uses (from 1 to 246). Enjoy.
A. CLIMATE SCIENCE, IMPACTS, AND DENIAL
23. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon… a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases…released mainly as a result of human activity.
25. Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.
59. ...we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.
161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.
163. …the profoundly human causes of environmental degradation. But…
188. …the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good. 199. It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. 200. Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.
B. BEYOND CLIMATE
Nature and human impacts
- …our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother.
2. …the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her…the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.
5. Saint John Paul II…warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.”
21. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.
Natural resources, waste
27. Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.
106. …easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.
50. …we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”
28. Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance
30. access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights [italics in original]
185. …we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.
Biodiversity and inherent value of nature
AW comment: This strikes me as a kind of 50-plus-year bookend to Silent Spring. The Pope could drive a jump in consciousness on these issues like the historic book in 1962.
32-3. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses… It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves…The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity…We have no such right.
34. …many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful.
39. The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity…
Oceans and coral reefs
40. Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures…
41. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline.
174. The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges. What is needed, in effect, is an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons.”
C. MODERN TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY
32. The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.
36. Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation
178. A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth.
181. Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term…politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics.
Consumer/Throwaway culture and self-centered culture
22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.
55. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.
90. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.
162. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification
230. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.
Progress, Power, and Ethics – The Good and Bad
AW Comment: I have some disagreement here. The Pope celebrates progress, but mostly worries about it’s impacts, which is fair. But saying that science/tech progress is not progress of humanity (113), or completely irresponsible (165), is not quite accurate. We have brought billions of people out of poverty with modern life. Yes, our mode of living and doing business must change, but we have seen immense improvement in quality of life.
102. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.”
103-4. Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life… Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world… In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.
105. …as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience…we cannot claim to have…clear-minded self-restraint.
106. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral…Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.
109. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration.
113. …scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history
114. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way…
136. …technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.
165. …the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.
Value of people and work in modern society
128. …the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines…to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.
129. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
159. The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity…[which is] not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us…“The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next”. An integral ecology is marked by this broader vision. [italics added]
Scale of modern society (population, cities, agriculture, etc.)
AW comment: This is an area where I mainly disagree. The Pope is not a fan of cities and sees them as a cause of our environmental challenges. But cities usually are, and certainly can be, very efficient on a per person basis. We share infrastructure – in many cities, people don’t need cars at all, for example. And it’s not clear that small-scale food production alone will be enough. We can do sustainable agriculture at scale, and given the Pope’s commitment to avoid population control of any kind, we’ll need to.
44. the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water.
149. In the unstable neighbourhoods of mega-cities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence.
129. …there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels…civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.