The scientific community, particularly ecologists and economists have praised Pope Francis for his leadership in the discussion of the environment and the dangers of climate change. Laudato Si has addressed scores of topics related to the common good, with a more intense focus on human life, not only the lives of the unborn but the lives of the vulnerable and of human generations yet conceived. Humans dwell within a hospitable environment which, if guarded, will harbor our indefinite existence. However, recent environmental stewardship has lapsed through tolerance of air, water and soil pollution, and the destruction of unique life forms and the communities in which they and we had lived.
For example, economic and political forces have extracted wealth from the land and sea, leaving in their wake ecological damage and human poverty. Pope Benedict XVI proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunction of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” He asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behavior.
For over two hundred years, the industrial revolution of the northern hemisphere consumed much of the wealth and laid waste to vast portions of the southern hemisphere. Pope Francis, as a native of South America has witnessed the destruction of natural and civic communities in his home continent and its effect on the poor who were displaced by disruptions such as deforestation.
While those with an economic interest in preserving their present advantage have resisted limits on greenhouse gas production and the imposition of safeguards for biodiversity, the poor of the planet continue to suffer the effects of their inertia. The wealthy ignored health hazards such as air and water pollution that inflicted millions of premature deaths especially among the poor. They ignored the plight of those who once worked in harmony with the environment, but who were displaced by deforestation. These economic migrants often settled in chaotic mega-cities, basically slums, where they were exposed to toxic emissions, overcrowding, violence and exploitation by criminal organizations.
These blatant acts of exploitation may be ignored, but they cannot be denied. Climate change was another matter. Pope Francis agreed that the scientific process can predict but cannot provide immediate certainty about the causes of climate change. For over fifty years scientists have warned of an impending environmental cataclysm. Some have chosen to ignore this warning because of its lack of infallibility. The Pope believes that humanity should heed the overwhelming agreement among scientists. Nations should prudently prepare for the near certain possibility of a disaster rather than wait for it to arrive, thereby confirming the scientific predictions from the wreckage of the world as we know it.
Promptings that the world change its behavior 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 problems to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technological solutions.” In response, the bishops of southern Africa stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.”
Pope Francis has invited the faithful to adopt a new lifestyle that will reduce their carbon footprint and move them into an economic position to pressure the polluters and help the poor. He suggested that “since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism…leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume… The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume… In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears… Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”
“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production.”
Pope Francis frequently mentioned St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up his possessions, becoming a homeless worker who accepted food and construction materials but not money. He used the building materials to repair churches about Assisi. In the long run, the Franciscans improved the economic fortunes of Europe. Lay members of the Third Order of St. Francis were both numerous and exempt from military service. Without them, warlords could no longer gather armies to fight each other. Feudalism declined and the middle class emerged.