Tearing down and building up

Dr Mick Pope reflects on the Pope's Encyclical.

As a climate scientist and budding eco-theologian, I’ve found the Papal encyclical encouraging, though time consuming to digest. It seems to me he does a good job of setting climate change in the broader context of what is now known as donut economics.

On the outer rim there are the planetary boundaries of what makes our world safe for humanity. While he sees that climate change “represents one of the principal chal­lenges facing humanity in our day,” he also addresses a number of other issues, including water availability, biodiversity loss and novel chemicals for industry and agriculture.

The inner rim is the need for human development and flourishing. For example, there are millions of people off the grid who “take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.” These same people are at risk from climate change because “many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming.” It simply won’t do to say, as some do, that we must let them burn coal and hope wild geoengineering schemes can fix up the mess. Instead, Pope Francis issues a radical call for us to pay our ecological debt to the developing world “by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poor­er countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”

But it isn’t enough to deal with symptoms with technology and the market. Instead, Pope Francis seeks to tear down the myths of modernism, which includes “individualism, unlimited progress, com­petition, consumerism, the unregulated market.” He critiques the implicit view of traditional economics, the “idea of infinite or unlimited growth” as being “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.”

Likewise, while science and technology have proven very useful, Pope Francis decries the worldview that makes “the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological par­adigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and so­cial, are seen in the deterioration of the environ­ment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological prod­ucts are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shap­ing social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” Powerful stuff.

This attack is broadened to multinationals who produce pollution “which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital.” Disconnection is the key idea: executives from the countries where damage is done, domestic decision makers from the people who “are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems,” people disconnected from each other with the illusion of digital connection.

The Pope seeks to connect all things into a cohesive whole through a holistic ecology. Our very bodies connect us to the rest of creation, something sometimes lost in classic Evangelical presentations of the gospel. Pope Francis states that “our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings.” I love this earthy theology, having written about it a little more graphically elsewhere.  Our connection is different to that of other animals, for we are moral creatures who can act for good or for ill for the rest of creation: “Human ecology … implies … the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.” While the Pope sees an excessive anthropocentrism in modernity, Christian thought still sees us as having a unique dignity, while the rest of creation has “its own value and significance.” Being a huge fan of Psalm 104, I was pleased Pope Francis laments species loss because “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. … give glory to God by their very existence.”

This theme of connection is, I think, behind the Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Frier’s conversations in Federation Square. The church cannot afford to hide behind the walls of its buildings, and having a voice in the public square can be used to attest to the unique dignity of humans, particularly as an integral ecology “is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” as Pope Francis notes. A connection between human and natural ecology begins first in the way in which we model relationships. More connected to climate and environment, the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne has pledged to divest from coal. This is a campaign the church can and should champion. Dare I say I felt rather proud to be Anglican when this motion was successful.

The Melbourne Cathedral hosts Science Week every year, and this year looks at health for the planet, cities and individuals. I’m excited to talk about this in a sermon on August 23rd. There is always more than can be said and done, but I’m confident there will be much more reflection in my tradition on the encyclical and the issues it has raised. It is essential that we do.

Dr Mick Pope works as Reviews Editor Zadok Perspectives, as an Ecotheologian at Ethos Environment, and is an ISCAST Fellow. You can find out more about him at about.me/mick.pope

Creation & Climate Justice