To read part one of my reflections, click here.
On with Part II!
Chapter One is the more controversial chapters in the encyclical, because it is here that the Pope examines scientific diagnoses for the Earth’s problems. Pope Francis agrees that man-made climate change and pollution are big problems. The pope makes a profound point: the throwaway culture that leads to pollution also leads to throwing away human lives. In such a culture, as populates the developed world today, what is useful is used and what is not useful is discarded. It’s the classic utilitarian philosophy that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, reheated for a new generation of oppressors. The Holy Father examines this further in the encyclical, connecting disrespect for the environment with abortion and euthanasia, as they are symptoms of the same spiritual disease.
Many commentators have noted that Pope Francis uses incorrect scientific data to argue that man-made climate change occurs, that we are responsible for rising oceans, destroying food chains in the oceans, rising carbon dioxide levels, etc. Such commentators, however, often miss the purpose of the Holy Father’s discussion. He is seeking to encourage an “honest debate … among experts” (61) on the issues and their solutions. We are responsible for some changes to the planet. The pope is requesting that the human family step back and examine what role we’ve played. We must admit that we’ve done something to the planet. What cannot happen is a wistful glance at the planet and assume we can still live the way we have for far too long (see 59).
Francis focuses on climate change in paragraphs 23-26, referring back to the topic in a few other occasions later in the encyclical. The majority of the discussion, however, is not over whether we caused the change (Pope Francis notes that, while the majority may have come from human causes, there are some natural reasons for a changing climate, such as volcanoes and solar influences); the focus is on the effects of the change, particularly for the poor in developing countries. When we break the planet and ignore our needy brothers, we break civil society. Mankind has affected the planet, sometimes for the worse, and we need to recognize our responsibility towards the planet and towards each other. What Pope Francis is pointing out is that, no matter how you view the scientific data, all must understand that we have a role in tending to this planet. Tending is the right word, because we have the same responsibility as Adam and Eve; the Earth is our Garden of Eden.
Whenever the Holy Father addresses an ecological issue in this chapter, he includes in his discussion how the environmental changes affect human society. For example, in his discussion about water shortages, the Pope looks not only at how the loss of fresh water affects species living in areas near water, but in particular at the affect such shortages have on people. He notes,
Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet 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. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. (30; emphasis in the original)
Likewise, in his discussion of biodiversity, Pope Francis looks at a theme which he will address throughout the encyclical, one which becomes the backbone of the entire work: the interconnectedness of all of Creation. Over-fishing, for example, hurts food chains and the livelihood of local people. We lose who we are when we lose respect for the planet.
The Pope also has a warning concerning excessive uses of the digital world: “When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” It is a teaching which I have tried to emphasize with my own students. We cannot ignore those who came before us. This is not merely a matter of Faith; it is a matter of who we are as human beings. To isolate ourselves in a digital world formed by “tweets” and “likes” is to separate ourselves from true human interaction and, ultimately, interaction with the created world, prepared for us by God.
Also in Chapter One is one of the passages that many (politically) liberal readers do not like, and so tend to ignore in their praise for the encyclical. Pope Francis condemns using population control to solve environmental issues:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’ . . . . To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. (50)
The Holy Father’s comment about pressure from countries that make economic aid “contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’” should leave a sour taste in the mouths of certain politicians in the USA. That seemingly essential liberal link between birth control and helping the poor has always befuddled me. The starving people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas cannot be fed by condoms and abortion clinics. Such efforts might remove the mouths to feed, but it does not feed the still hungry mouths. It is a true international scandal.