the encyclical Laudato Si and the power of peoples to organize

On July 9, Pope Francis addressed the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia). In that speech, he built on his recent Encyclical letter, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, by emphasizing that saving the planet will require organized action from the bottom up. In Bolivia, he said:

People and their movements are called to cry out, to mobilize and to demand – peacefully, but firmly – that appropriate and urgently-needed measures be taken. … In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.

Laudato Si’ offers a deep and complex basis for this conclusion. I do not agree with all of it, and I think a serious response to the Pope’s call for dialogue across religious and ethical traditions requires us to share both our agreements and our dissents. But I believe Laudato Si’ is one of the most thoughtful, deeply rooted, and potentially powerful statements of our century so far. It does not reflect the Pope’s opinions alone, but–as the notes indicate–it summarizes a whole internal discussion that is valuable to people outside the church as well.

The title is a quotation from St. Francis, that “attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome.” My wife and I were just in St. Francis’ country for two weeks, visiting not only Assisi but a cell that he apparently built with his own hands in a remarkably verdant forest outside of Cortona. One sees evidence everywhere of the revolutionary early years of the Franciscan order.

Although not a believer, I have long acknowledged St. Francis as a world-historical figure, not only because of his theological and political (i.e., radically pro-poor) views, but also because he responded to a new sociological reality–the growth of cities–by building a new kind of institution/social movement, an order of mendicant friars. Unlike traditional monks, friars worked directly and daily in communities. The Franciscans and their rivals, the Dominicans, were primarily responsible for building the public-service institutions of the high middle ages, including universities, schools, hospitals, and charity homes. So Francis is an apt inspiration for the current pope, especially as he calls for new forms of civic organization.

In my own view, our current environmental crisis has many causes, but they fall into two broad categories. The first category involves rules and incentives. The global political economy is so organized that it pays to pollute. That is true for individuals (who benefit directly from releasing carbon and other pollutants and share only a tiny bit in the cost); for countries (which have radically different abilities to produce and use carbon and radically different vulnerabilities to climate change); and for generations (since exploitation today hurts those not yet alive).

As Francis writes, “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.” Collective goods must be governed in such a way that contributions are rewarded and exploitation has costs. For instance–I would argue–taxing carbon and spending the proceeds equitably would change the incentives so that people cut carbon consumption. The word “tax” does not appear in Laudato Si. I am not sure why the Holy Father doesn’t endorse taxes as part of his position. But I do share his view that all the talk about new rules and incentives hasn’t gone very far so far:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.

The failure (so far) of international political agreements is–unfortunately–very easy to explain. Just as individuals and nations have incentives to pollute, they have disincentives to enter agreements that would reduce their pollution.

That is why, in the absence of pressure from the public and from civic institutions, political authorities will always be reluctant to intervene, all the more when urgent needs must be met. To take up these responsibilities and the costs they entail, politicians will inevitably clash with the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominates present-day economics and politics. But if they are courageous, they will attest to their God-given dignity and leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility. A healthy politics is sorely needed, capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia. It should be added, though, that even the best mechanisms can break down when there are no worthy goals and values, or a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society.

The second category of problems (already hinted at above) involves subjective beliefs and attitudes:

Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.

Some (including an outright majority of members of the Senate of the most powerful country on earth) actually deny that humans are causing dangerous climate change. Others accept the evidence but don’t take it fully seriously as something that should affect their daily behavior and their political priorities.

Pope Francis recognizes both sources of problems: 1) bad rules and incentives, and 2) problematic attitudes and priorities of human beings.

The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.

The Pope is, however, much less focused on rules and laws than on the culture of denial and its spiritual roots in consumerism, scientism, selfishness, and human-centeredness. He cites the leader of today’s Orthodox churches, Patriarch Bartholomew, who “has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms.”

In fact, Francis is sometimes dismissive of practical reforms that I would endorse. For instance:

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.

I see this danger, but if a cap-and-trade system set appropriately low caps, it would provide incentives to reduce global carbon production. I don’t share the Pope’s view that the only truly “radical” change is spiritual, although I think his diagnosis of our spiritual condition is valuable and perceptive–and he is right that by treating nature better, we can improve our own inner lives. “Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.”

It would be unfair to the Pope to think that he is simply calling for changes in personal beliefs and priorities:

Self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.

He argues that spiritual transformation must manifest itself both at the personal level and in large, impersonal institutions such as states and markets. At the end of this sentence, he quotes Pope Benedict: “Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also ‘macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones.’” (See my post “friendship and politics” for some thoughts on that matter.)

Pope Francis recognizes the value of political diversity and debate; he does not want everyone to join one big social movement. “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” He is also open to a division of labor, in which some are more deeply involved in civic work than others:

Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges.

However, despite his (welcome) endorsement of political pluralism and diversity, the Pope does want all of us to organize–both to put pressure on powerful organizations and to change prevailing cultures and values. This is a powerful and timely message.

See also: the cultural change we would need for climate justice; where is the public on climate change?; and a different approach to human problems.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.