By John Lawrence
Add Pope Francis to the world’s leaders who are calling for immediate action to combat climate change. In the Pope’s own words the earth has become a pezzo di merda, a piece of you know what. He has also described unbridled capitalism as the “dung of the devil.” Popes are not often given to scatological imagery to describe the predominant American economic system.
However, the Pope’s words are very important because he wields enormous moral authority. Would that the leading moral authorities from the world’s other major religions had the gumption to stand up and add their voices in the fight against climate change.
The Pope blames human greed for exploitation of the environment and an economic system that is geared to profit making rather than to rational development of natural resources which would benefit all mankind rather than just those at the top. The Pope’s 184 page encyclical is a radical statement: a condemnation of business as usual and a call for a restructuring on political and economic priorities.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.
The vision that Francis outlined in a 184-page papal encyclical is sweeping in ambition and scope: He describes relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment and says apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness are to blame.
The most vulnerable victims, he declares, are the world’s poorest people, who are being dislocated and disregarded.
The Pope places most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity, while warning of an “unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us” if corrective action is not taken swiftly. Those mostly responsible, the developed, industrialized countries, are obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis.
Some see the Pope’s encyclical as an attack on capitalism. There is no doubt that it is exactly that. Unless there is a moral and spiritual impetus to renunciation of profit making enterprises that despoil the environment, there is no hope for a habitable earth for our children and grandchildren. Already, lives are being destroyed from extreme weather events. Thousands have died in India and Pakistan from extreme heat. Hurricanes and tornadoes have destroyed entire towns in the US. Flash floods have immiserated and inconvenienced thousands.
The Plight of the Poor Should Be Considered First, Not as an Afterthought
Catholic teachings (full disclosure: I am not a Catholic) are not afraid to take on the economic system we live in and point out its moral and spiritual inadequacies. They teach that economic development, to be morally good and just, must take into account people’s need for things like freedom, education and meaningful work. And they don’t just mean the upper 1%.
The “preferential option for the poor” means that the interests of poor people must be taken into account first and not just as an afterthought. Isn’t this what Jesus taught? The Pope is merely interpreting Jesus’ words in a literal manner. If Christianity has any meaning at all, it means that society must help the poor and vulnerable not as an afterthought but as part and parcel of that society’s bedrock philosophy.
By the same token the interest of sustaining a planet Earth that nurtures life must be given top priority. Technology is not something that can fix the planet after it’s been raped and exploited by profit seeking corporations who dump their waste into the environment and don’t bother to clean it up.
For instance, all kinds of animal excrement is stored in “ponds” where it leaks into rivers and ground water. “Pork is cheap and cheap to produce in large factories because they don’t pay for cleaning up the Des Moines water supply and they don’t pay for the asthma neighbors get, they don’t pay for polluting downstream water that used to be potable and they don’t pay for the loss of property values,” said Steve Wing, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill epidemiologist.
Citing the scientific consensus that global warming is disturbingly real, Francis left little doubt about who’s to blame. To name a few: “big businesses, energy companies, short-sighted politicians, scurrilous scientists, laissez faire economists, indifferent individuals, callous Christians and myopic media professionals.” Scarcely any area of society escaped his withering criticism.
The Pope’s encyclical recycles some of the now-familiar themes of his papacy: an abiding concern for the poor, a scorching critique of the idolatry of money and a facility for using evocative language to describe complex conundrums. The problem is that capitalism extolls the value of money above all else. Wall Street demands that the bottom line is the sine qua non of business activity. Nothing else counts for anything. In Christian terms that pretty much makes Wall Street the devil.
As the first Pope from the developing world, Francis brings a moral vision shaped not in the seminaries of Europe but in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Francis calls for a drastic change in “lifestyle, production and consumption” from unsustainable habits to more mindful means of caring for “our common home.”
What Kind of World Do We Want to Leave to Our Children?
“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Francis asks. “The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal.” Nothing short of a “bold cultural revolution” can save humanity from spiraling into self-destruction. Our care for the environment is intimately connected to our care for each other, he argues, and we are failing miserably at both.
“We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social,” Francis writes, “but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The rich and powerful shut themselves up within self-enclosed enclaves, Francis argues, compulsively consuming the latest goods to feed the emptiness within their hearts, while ignoring the plight of the poor.
The problem is “aggravated,” the Pope said, “by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels.” If present trends continue, Francis argued, the changing climate will have grave implications for poor communities who lack the resources to adapt or protect themselves from natural disasters.
His most stinging rebuke is a broad critique of profit-seeking and the undue influence of technology on society. He praises achievements in medicine, science and engineering, but says that “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.”
Many will be forced to leave their homes, while the economically and politically powerful “mask” the problems or respond with indifference, the Pope said. The poor may get a passing mention at global economic conferences, Francis says, but their problems seem to be merely added to agendas as an afterthought. “Indeed, when all is said and done,” the Pope said of the poor, “they frequently remain on the bottom of the pile.”
“We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that the problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals,” he said. What’s more, the Pope called the idea that the “invisible forces of the market” can adequately regulate the economy the “same kind of thinking” that leads to the “exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests.”
In one particularly searing section, Francis compared laissez faire economists to mobsters, drug lords, illegal organ harvesters and human traffickers. All are part of a “throwaway culture,” the Pope argues, that treats human beings as just another commodity to exploit. The Pope’s attack on the “myth of progress” is more surprising. But he connected his critique to a “worshipping of earthly powers,” where humans have usurped the role of God, imposing our own laws and interests on reality with little thought to the long-term consequences.
Pope Francis has criticised capitalism as a system that sacrifices “human lives on the altar of money and profit.” It was the second time during his trip to South America that Francis used a major speech to excoriate unbridled capitalism and champion the rights of the poor. In Paraguay, the Pope called on world youth to rise up against global capitalism.The address marked the end of Pope Francis’ week-long pilgrimage to Latin America, during which he also assailed the prevailing economic system as the “dung of the devil,” saying that the systemic “greed for money” is a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves men and women.”
California Governor Jerry Brown met with the Pope on July 21 at a Vatican conference on climate change. He blasted climate change deniers, called them “troglodytes.” Brown threw his weight behind Pope Francis’s encyclical in which the pope linked poverty to creeping climate change and urged action to alleviate both. He said he had no faith in Congress and urged Mayors to take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Brown and the other local leaders signed a declaration stating that ”human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its effective control is a moral imperative for humanity.”
The Dalai Lama Speaks Out on Climate Change
The Dalai Lama has also added his voice to the need for taking action to combat climate change. On July 6, in a celebration of his 80th birthday, he joined prominent climate change scientists and activists in a panel discussion at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center on “The Effects of Climate Change and Taking Action to Resolve this Global Issue.”
This is from the Buddhist Climate Project:
The Dalai Lama told US diplomats last year that the international community should focus on climate change rather than politics in Tibet because environmental problems were more urgent, secret American cables have revealed through Wikileaks.
The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader told Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador to India, that the “political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau” during a meeting in Delhi last August.
“Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that ‘cannot wait’, but the Tibetans could wait five to 10 years for a political solution,” he was reported as saying.
Though the Dalai Lama has frequently raised environmental issues, he has never publicly suggested that political questions take second place, nor spoken of any timescale with such precision.
Roemer speculated, in his cable to Washington reporting the meeting, that “the Dalai Lama’s message may signal a broader shift in strategy to reframe the Tibet issue as an environmental concern”.
The Dalai Lama has endorsed Pope Francis’ speaking out on climate change and said more religious leaders ought to do so.
Several Republican politicians have criticized the Pope for speaking out about environmental and economic issues, including Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and James Inhofe. But at the Glastonbury panel on climate change, the Dalai Lama said Pope Francis was “very right,” and he appreciated him releasing the papal document. The Dalai Lama called on fellow religious leaders to “speak out about current affairs which affect the future of mankind.” He also called for increased pressure on governments around the world to stop burning fossil fuels, end deforestation and transition to renewable energy sources, reports The Guardian.
The Dalai Lama has also proclaimed himself a Marxist:
The Dalai Lama called himself a Marxist in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt in 2009, asserting:
I still believe I am a Marxist monk. I don’t see a contradiction here either. In the Marxist theory the focus lies on the just allocation of wealth. From a moral perspective this is a correct claim. Capitalism, on the other hand, values the accruement of wealth – the allocation of it doesn’t matter here initially. In a worst case scenario the rich will keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer.
He reiterated his claim that he is a Marxist in 2015, stating, “As far as socioeconomic theory, I am Marxist … In capitalist countries, there is an increasing gap between the rich and poor. In Marxism, there is emphasis on equal distribution.”
Now that the Pope and the Dalai Lama have chimed in, it is time for other religious and moral leaders to do the same. In particular religious leaders should emphasize not only the need to stop extracting fossil fuels and speed up the conversion to renewables but also they need to condemn a political/economic system that produces great wealth for some and poverty and misery for most. Great minds must come up with alternatives to capitalism, systems that distribute the world’s wealth in a much more equitable measure and at least do everything possible to alleviate the suffering of the majority of the world’s population including the 50 million refugees who barely have a life worth living.