Gordon Campbell on the Pope’s encyclical on climate change

The spread of market mechanisms into every facet of life – as health, education and the environment get treated as mere commodities – has seen economic efficiency worshipped in its own right as a totem, and as a substitute for morality. The Laudato Si encyclical issued today by Pope Francis on climate change and the environment goes some away to restoring a sane balance. With careful logic and drawing on sources and commentaries both within and beyond the Catholic tradition, the encyclical begins by describing the damage that unchecked market forces have done to the world of creation. The Pope makes a distinction between human needs – which are limited and can be managed – and human appetites which are boundless and destructive, if unchecked.

The 180 page encyclical treats environmental policy as a human rights and justice issue. Given the current state of environmental degradation – we have created an immense pile of filth out of the world that we inherited, Pope Francis says at one point – we are morally obliged to try and redress the balance, and protect the world that God created and placed in our care, for our use. Interestingly though (at para 67) the Pope flatly rebuts the interpretation of Genesis that claims ‘dominion’ over the Earth as a licence to exploit and to pollute:

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.

The encyclical also squarely places environmental policy in the context of Third World debt repayment and income inequality. Forcefully, it points out that climate change is having its most severe impacts on the poor, and in undeveloped countries. The encyclical is eloquent in denouncing the evils of careless commercial exploitation of the environment – and the political reluctance to make polluters pay and desist. As others have pointed out, the encyclical is at times, unexpectedly precise in its criticism (at para 174) of emissions trading schemes:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.

Hmmm. So, the Key government’s Emissions Trading Scheme is not only ineffectual, and a virtual green light for polluters, it is also… sinful. True, some would join with John Key in saying that if there is no current scientific method of dealing with the farm-related emissions that comprise half of New Zealand’s emissions footprint, then farmers should be morally (and economically) absolved of the consequences. Yet that would only be the case if all possible mitigating steps were being taken – which they patently are not. Moreover, it still doesn’t absolve the polluter from paying compensation, out of the returns being made from the polluting activities in question.

In his encyclical, the Pope traces the links between (a) care for the environment (b) respect for animal rights (c) the need to protect plant and animal bio-diversity and (d) the respect for human life which – in accord with Catholic doctrine – he treats as entailing a duty of care that begins with conception. (eg Para 136 warns against unchecked experimentation on human embryos.) The range of issues that the encyclical manages to coherently bring together is astonishing. Everything from wars over resource shortages to urban planning and social housing to genetic modification is covered in some detail. Personally, this sidebar on digital media (para 47) seemed as eloquent as anything in the text:

True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

And what solutions does the encyclical have to offer? As the Pope says, the Church’s role in the modern world is not to replace science or politics but to encourage debate, participation, and action. At paragraph 190-191, this passage is as good a way of starting that debate as any that I’ve read lately:

Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.

Whenever these questions are raised, some react by accusing others of irrationally attempting to stand in the way of progress and human development. But we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development. Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term. If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable. It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels.

Amen to that.

And a word now, from Black Francis

Talking of God, our animal friends and our animal natures, and environmental waste… the best song ever to combine all those facets would have to be “Monkey Gone To Heaven” by Black Francis and his band the Pixies, back when they were good.

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