Sister, Mother Earth

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi

One of the most important Christian documents to do with the Age of Limits is, in my opinion, Laudato Si’  (Praise be to You), written by Pope Francis I in the year 2015.

Summary

The following are the key points in the encyclical.

  • The science of climate change is clear.
  • Humans are the cause of climate change.
  • We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
  • The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
  • Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
  • It’s time for a change.

His message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.

Style of Language

Abandoned car
Source: Angelic Warfare Cofraternity

The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.

Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”

This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports, which rarely actually never use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document. Francis is looking at the challenges we face in moral terms.

Morality

Francis tells us that it is not just that people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 he states,

These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

In paragraph 229 we find the following,

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.

The Challenge

Paragraph 102 reads,

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. 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”.

The challenge that Francis has set for himself, and for all of us, is to marry the advances and benefits of modern technology with the “awe-filled contemplation of crea­tion which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi.

In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. The atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted.

Brooks himself states,

The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

Neither Brooks nor Pope Francis tackle the physical limits that are the theme of this series of posts. Neither seems to be willing to accept that our standard of living is likely to decline. Brooks says,

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Concerns

Although I believe that Laudato Si’ is a vitally important statement of Christian faith, there are two areas of concern. They are population pressure and the concept of “sustainable development”.

Population

For many, the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.

World-Population-1
World-Population-1

The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

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”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the envi­ronment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”

The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.

The Second Law

Although I have great admiration for Francis’s message, there is one aspect of the document that bothers me greatly, and that is the sub-title of the document, On the environment and sustainable development.

What is meant by the term “sustainable development”? If Francis is referring to spiritual and moral development then I am hugely supportive. But if he believes that we can continue with our material “development” in an Age of Limits then the holy father needs to brush up on the second law of thermodynamics.

A Papal Encyclical
A Papal Encyclical

 

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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