Religion, Science and Global Warming - July 2015

     It was American anthropologist Margaret Mead who once said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

     I was reminded of Mead’s famous statement last month after reading about Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si’, or “Praised Be.”  In his essay – which at over 180 pages long is more like a book-  the pope asks “every person living on this planet” to reflect on the dangers of environmental degradation  and how it impacts humans, especially the poorest among us.

     At the risk of stepping into what in many places is a polarizing and political debate, the pope chose to take a strong stand against how we are treating “our sister, mother earth.”

     The pope’s encyclical will hopefully engage faith communities in a problem that for years scientists have been telling us is a grave crisis. Francis, who in addition to being the pope also has a master’s degree in chemistry, is uniquely positioned to be a bridge between the scientific and the faith communities.

     The encyclical (available free online) makes for thought provoking reading.  I highly recommend you seek it out if you have an interest in either religion or environmental issues.  I found the English translation very readable and accessible for general readers.  It’s the kind of document you read and say to yourself, “I never thought about it that way before.”

     From the earliest pages, Pope Francis makes it clear that he does not intend to mince words.  “Climate change,” he says, “…represents one of the primary challenges facing humanity in our day.”  Of special concern to the pope is that fact that climate change will have the most profound effect on the poorest among us.  “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming,” he writes.  People living in underdeveloped countries and rely primarily on agricultural to earn a living suffer greatly when the climate changes and crop yields decrease.  

     The pope blames unfettered capitalism, individualism, and consumerism for both the climate change crisis and our inability to respond to it.   Radical capitalism, with its single minded focus on profit, has led us to become blinded to the deeper costs of our abuse of natural resources.  For example, in a capitalist economy, no one thinks about the broader results of deforestation; how it forces wildlife to migrate or how it changes the ecology of an area.  The timber company thinks only of the price the wood will demand on the open market.  This has led to a short sighted view of earth’s assets as solely something to be exploited.

     The pope also criticizes the developed world’s “throwaway culture” which wastes food and other resources while poorer people in underdeveloped countries go without.  Urbanization and huge inequalities in income and education have created a world where the wealthy, “are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems.”  Because of this the powerful make decisions without considering the effects those decisions have on the powerless.

     Wealthy postmodern people are very concerned about getting their desires satisfied as quickly as possible, but often do not take the time to reflect on those who get harmed in the process.  As the pope says, “we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.”

      Modern sensibilities and our consumerist culture give a shallow sense of happiness but don’t give us the deep sense of fulfillment that we crave.  As the pope says, “many people know that…amassing things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them.”

     Francis believes that the problem of climate change is spiritual and social as well as environmental.  “The human environment and the natural environment,” the pope declares, “deteriorate together.”

     To save the planet and our own souls, the pope beseeches us to embrace what he calls a “sobriety and humility” that rejects the notion that technology and the market can save us from all our ills. We must also once again take seriously our obligations to future generations when we use our dwindling natural resources. 

     Many scientists believe that global climate change is the greatest threat of our time.  Based on his newest encyclical, Pope Francis seems to agree.  If both science and religion tell us that global warming is a threat, isn’t it a betrayal of both reason and God to sit back and do nothing?