Friday, June 19, 2015

The Papal Encyclical: On Care For Our Common Home

Sou | 6:15 AM Go to the first of 22 comments. Add a comment
The Encyclical from Pope Francis was released a short while ago, after a press conference. In some areas it is much stronger than I expected it to be. Even in the English translation the words are powerful. I expect they resonate even more strongly in the original Italian. In other parts it's almost schizophrenic. What seems clear is that there were multiple (teams of) authors.

These are just my first impressions, which may change if I study the document more closely. The letter is divided into six chapters. (I've added bookmarks to my version. It's not till you get to the end that you find a table of contents.)

First of all, the letter starts with a reminder that this is not the first pontiff to sound the alarm about how we are hurting our environment. There are quotes from preceding Popes, going back to 1971, more than forty years ago including Paul VI in 1971, John Paul II in 1979. and Benedict XVI in 2007. (You'd think from reading the outcry on denier blogs that no religious leader had ever spoken about the environment before. It's not so.)

Chapter One is hard-hitting. It's got very strong messages about the environment and what is happening. The language and imagery is powerful. It's the chapter that most climate hawks will go to if they are looking for a quote. I've listed some below. It covers pollution, climate change, biodiversity, and water quality as well as social order (over-crowded cities etc).

Chapter Two is for the religious. I skipped over it. Lots of Jesus-speak etc.

Chapter Three "The human roots of the ecological crisis" is about technology, which the letter blames for environmental crises.  It talks about the "dominant technocratic paradigm". The benefits of technology are not played down. It looks as if the purpose is to warn about the dangers. And it does paint a black and white view of the world almost like a Batman film - good vs evil:
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. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.
Chapter three links technology with power and control. It discusses globalisation and talks of the "technocratic paradigm".
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.
It's thought-provoking and has some good messages, like hitting on the head the notion of unlimited growth:
Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it 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....
...Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.
And it adopts a framing that I've long held, the concept of what it calls "modern anthropocentrism" - though not quite matching the way I think on the subject:
An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.
I'll have to read Chapter Three a few more times. On first reading I'm not completely persuaded. It seems to be missing something. Perhaps it's because the Christian view of the world still places humans front and centre. Or perhaps it's that the complexity of modern societies, given the sheer number of people alive today, hasn't been addressed adequately.

Chapter Four is called "Integral Ecology", which is sort of what it's all about.
It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected....
...When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.
This chapter seems to have had a few different people wanting to get their various messages across, which has tended to dilute the impact overall.
Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture.
That above passage could be read as meaning that we need to respect the right of indigenous people to hunt the Dugong to extinction. Hard to tell.

Chapter Five is meant to be about solutions. It starts off strongly, talking about the "spiral of self-destruction":
So far I have attempted to take stock of our present situation, pointing to the cracks in the planet that we inhabit as well as to the profoundly human causes of environmental degradation. Although the contemplation of this reality in itself has already shown the need for a change of direction and other courses of action, now we shall try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.
In contrast to some of the messaging in Chapter Four, this chapter talks about our interdependence and the need for a "common plan".  Among other things, it again touches on climate change:
We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition....Although 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.

Chapter Six is an attempt to combine the religious with the politico-social-environmental messaging. It talks about greed, consumerism and other flaws in humanity and how we need to change our habits. All good stuff I suppose, and will probably be used at the Sunday pulpit. Great for people who like to take guilt trips. (It brings out the cynic in me, if you can't tell.)

Some quotes, mostly from Chapter One

Here are some bits and pieces, mostly from Chapter One and mostly about climate - my bold italics.

  • The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.
  • The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.
  • A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.
  • Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. 
  • 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. 
  • Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. 
  • There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. 
  • We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
  • We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.
  • Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
  • Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.
  • The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.
  • It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims. War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons.
  • 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.
  • Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves.
  • Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself.
  • Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble...
  • When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.
  • We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy.
  • Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics.
  • The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. ...Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Beginning in the middle of the last century and overcoming many difficulties, there has been a growing conviction that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home.
  • We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.
  • As far as the protection of biodiversity and issues related to desertification are concerned, progress has been far less significant. With regard to climate change, the advances have been regrettably few. Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most.
  • Let us also mention the system of governance of the oceans. International and regional conventions do exist, but fragmentation and the lack of strict mechanisms of regulation, control and penalization end up undermining these efforts. 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”.
  • Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.

I get it that it's impossible to write a solution to all the world's ills in a 180 pages. I'm not convinced that the Vatican got quite the right balance. Overall, though, this is a powerful document, which will be used by various interests to further whatever ends they seek.


Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care For Our Common Home (pdf here)

From HotWhopper


  1. Overall, though, this is a powerful document, which will be used by various interests to further whatever ends they seek.

    I have added to quote below to my post advocating free and unrestricted sharing of climate data, which is my interest. ;-)

    Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself.
    Pope Francis

  2. I have only read your summary and a bit of Chapter 1 but it looks like a not bad summary of the situation.

    As someone raised as a Catholic, I think I see some 'very' firm language. The Pope is not pulling any punches and he is not giving his people ( i.e. the Church hierarchy including someone like Cardinal Pell) or some religious nutter like the American Santorum a lot of manoeuvring room. He is telling them that they are wrong (or more colloquially, full of crap)

    I am not quite sure what you are referring to as Chapters. Is III. Dialogue and Transparency in Decision- making your chapter 3?

    1. The Chapters are labelled as such in the document (link is at the bottom of the article). Chapter Three has the title: The human roots of the ecological crisis. It starts on page 75.

    2. Thanks Sou , My stupidity, I misread it.
      I still like the Pope's fu approach ,:)

  3. My first pass through the Encyclical reads pretty much the same as how you described it Sou, even down to Chapter 2's Jesus-speak and the consequent skipping over.

    I was disappointed by the lack of nuance that resulted in the apparent emphasis on the evils of technology. At the most basic level of consideration technology is just a tool, albeit an ever-more powerful one, but as a tool it is the manner in which it is wielded that is the issue. Of course, to be completely thorough in a consideration of this subject it is necessary to ask if there is a point at which the power of a tool becomes so great that there is a disintegration of our abilities to rationally and fairly (i.e. across societies, species, and generations) choose how to wield appropriately, and it is this nexus that I thought could have been recognised and addressed. Although that in itself may have required at least a chapter...

    The other shortcoming for me was the disconnect between the very appropriate recognition of the planet as a finite (= resource-limited) system and the insistence that population control is not a critical issue (paragraph 50). It seems that there are some Catholic tenets that they simply can't relinquish, and this is one of them. I don't know if it's because they believe that we need to maximise our generation of souls with which to fill heaven, or if it's an ingrained institutional ploy to increase the church's own wealth and standing, but they really need to understand that the weight of human numbers is a bale of straw on the camel's back just as are the other loadings of resource use, pollution, and species and ecosystem disruptions.

    I hope though that overall the encyclical might facilitate a shift in thinking in the hierarchy of the church, and in the minds of people who rely on faith rather than reason for their understanding of the world. Because the simple fact is that if this doesn't start the international pulling of the rip-cord, nothing will until it's too late for the parachute to open to any extend that won't result in a squishy mess on the ground.

    1. On the plus side, this will undoubtedly influence a lot of conservative catholics who were unsure about climate change.

      On the downside, the patriarchy seems unshiftable. Women are either a source of sin or put up on a pedestal - there's no in between. Some lives are valued more than others. The unborn are worth more than the living (and women are valued least of all).

    2. There is another plus - it's making deniers fall into more disarray than usual. They don't know what to say about the encyclical. Kind of hard on them having a conservative religion coming out in such strong support of science and the environment and the poor all at the same time. And couching it in terms of morality.

  4. People might be interested in this discussion of the moral imperative of action on climate change:


    It's actually an interesting vignette into the cultural shift that's happening at the ABC. Waleed Aly is supposed to be an impartial interviewer but he has a personal conservatism that seems to arise from his own religious background. He'll often tip his hat toward evidence-based considerations but he has a strong propensity to introduce logical fallacy into his arguments with the result that he subtlely shifts the debate to a particular conclusion. His conversations often end up a bit like a Counterpoint-lite...

    One example from this particular interview is his questioning about the need to balance environmental protection with the need for housing, as if the needs to be a "balance" between how much we mitigate environmental damage with the requirements to build more houses. He ignores though that without maintaining a minimum absolute functionality of ecosystem service (which requires a minimum, and hence 'non-balanced' response) the eventual result of continuing development even at a reduced rate of growth will be that housing (or any other human right) will still be compromised.

    There's also the rather concerning notion that the lack of response to climate change is a failure of "liberalism". Aly's definitions, data, analysis and consideration of other parameters are grossly inadequate, but he manages to squeeze a good few minutes of discussion out of his proposition.

    Fortunately the international law expert roped in, Tim Stephens, tempered Aly somewhat with pointing out that action to mitigate is not a mutally exclusive tension between different interests. Aly's co-host on the other hand (Scott Stephens) seems to me to be a bit of a Michael Duffy (I wonder where he disappeared to?) - between the two of them the ABC really is descending toward non-empirical 'analysis'...

  5. Anyone who believes in sky fairies or other made up nonsense has a very hard time dealing with real evidence. This is because it conflicts with their deepest beliefs that are irrational and illogical.
    So any 'rational' discussion by these mentally retarded people looks stupid on the surface as this is exactly what it is. Bert

    1. Dr Katherine Hayhoe understands the science and the evidence of climate science. She has no problem with it conflicting with her faith as she realizes that it does not.

      I am talking about people of faith who use their beliefs to try to impose laws on the rest of us, such as abortion, homosexuality and inserting religious teachings into secular public schools. Just as the religious leaders in the Moslem countries do! These religious nutters also infest our Australian political systems with their medieval thinking

      These people now are stuck because the Pope basically like Dr Katherine Hayhoe gives the scientific evidence far more weight than magical thinking.
      The attacks from the conservatives are both idiotic and hypocritical. The GOP politicians in the US and Fox News are saying that the Pope should leave Climate Change to the scientists, the 3% of dissenting scientists of course. Australian conservatives are dodging the issue including our Prime Minister. I am sure that Tony Abbot will sing from the GOP songbook very soon. He always does.
      If the Pope had said that god will look after his creation (insert reference to ancient Middle East goat herder scratchings here) then they would be in total agreement and defend his tight to issue an Encyclical. Bert

    2. I agree with everything you just posted. I was reacting to your earlier very general statement: like Dr Hayhoe and the Pope, I believe in God but try to avoid the magical thinking and to accept the scientific evidence - despite the very painful reality that evidence reveals. I think there are a lot of believers like me who try our best not to be illogical or irrational. Sadly, I also think we are a minority among US "Christians".

    3. You shouldn't be too hard on the sky-pixie fan-club, Bert, as many of them are trying to cope with their cognitive dissonance, just as we all have to, scientists included. A shame that time is now running out for religious leaders to reach the inevitable conclusion, that only putting a brake on human population growth will pull our chestnuts out of the fire

    4. There is only one way to stop exponential population growth. Equal rights for women which means education rights in so called third world countries.
      This lowers the number of children women have to just sustain the population and even fall just like all major western countries. Bert

    5. Good idea, Bert. Except the Catholic Church's stance on birth control fights directly against that :-\

      Yossarian: "That's some catch, that Catch-22".
      Doc: "It's the best there is".

    6. Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. The Catholic Church's policy is not reflected in practice. Bert

    7. I forgot to say that Sir Humphrey Appleby was the one to say that Government Policy was at total odds with Government Practice! Bert

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  7. Is it just me or is there an astonishing cognitive scotoma amongst the Milloys, Watts, and others of this world who say not a peep when the Pope speaks on matters of (by definition, unevidenced) faith, but when he defers to highly-scrutinised and empirically-supported scientific analysis they foam like the classic 'elephant toothpaste' reaction?

  8. If the deniers had kittens over Francis' Encyclical, they're going to have sabre-tooth cats in response to the decision by Dutch courts:


    1. Re: Dutch courts - I'm just waiting for the frothing to begin...

    2. Here is two minutes of frothing.




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