Sunday 21 June 2015

“The Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor”: Pope’s Climate Encyclical Strong on Moral Language, Weak on Mobilizing Struggle

Written by Michael O'Neil and first published at Hot Indie News

Pope Francis released a much-anticipated encyclical today that outlines a morally powerful account of the danger that anthropomorphic climate change presents, especially to the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities. Entitled Laudato Si’, with the subtitle “On care for our common home”, the 184 page letter combines visions of communion with God-given Nature, a hard-hitting critique of inequality, mundane municipal policies (Pope Francis has some very strong opinions about environmental impact assessments!), and an ultimately insufficient call to action that obsesses over “sobriety” and “lifestyle changes” in lieu of collective struggle.

Though Pope Francis’ taking a stand on the environment has been treated by media as nigh-unprecedented for the church, the Holy Father himself begins by citing Pope John the XXIII’s 1962 encyclical Pacem in Terris, which was an appeal to avert nuclear war. Laudato Si’ eventually inveighs mightily against the “deified market”, the predations of financialization on the real economy and treatment of “private property as absolute”, but the letter proscribes largely individualistic action early by citing the Patriarch Bartholomew’s’s call to “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.”

The most interesting parts of the encyclical are those that provide insight to the degree that environmental matters and poverty are linked in the mind of Pope Francis. Much of the text reads like something straight out of the Environmental Justice (or “EJ”) movement. For example, the section

“Pollution and Climate Change” begins:
Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.
It is telling that Pope Francis makes special note to inform the reader that his namesake, Francis of Assisi, is not only known for his works among the poor, but is also the official patron saint “of work in the area of ecology.”

Using the striking metaphor of an “ecological debt between the north and south”, Pope Francis highlights the “differential responsibilities” for averting climate change between advanced countries that have benefited from centuries of fossil fuel use and countries whose economies and infrastructures are still developing. This placement of responsibility on wealthy countries like the United States to not just lead the way to 100% clean energy, but also take drastic action to subsidize other countries’ transition, is a swipe at the White House and other administrations whose resistance to such remedies have obstructed bold international agreements to avert environmental catastrophe.

Pope Francis goes on to compare this “ecological debt” to the way monetary debts are handled internationally, indicating that if there was any environmental equivalent of the IMF or European Central Bank then the core capitalist countries would have carbon transition terms dictated to them, rather than expect the rest of the world to abide their procrastination.

The Pope is right in line with groups like the Green Party and System Change Not Climate Change when he writes “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” and expresses deep skepticism that markets are willing or able to provide stewardship in this area. He never actually calls for a carbon tax or seizing of hydrocarbon assets, but he does provide an outline to justify expropriating the fossil fuel economy (or the profits thereof) to the end of saving civilization:
"…every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”.The Christian tradition has never recognized the rights of private property as absolute or inviolable and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property."
(emphasis added)

The letter also presents a nuanced analysis of genetically modified foodstuffs, arguing that GMO technology itself may not present a risk to humans, but that excessive and widespread application may create unintended environmental consequences and “following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to ‘the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production'”.

When criticizing consumerism, overproduction, inequality and even “(s)aving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price”, the Pope writes with a convincing moral authority. But as he transitions to what should be done the letter falters and grows muddled. Francis writes that lack of regard for the environment is deeply linked to lack of regard for the unborn, and uses scare quotes around the term “reproductive health”. Though he is right that humanitarian aid should not be linked to population control measures, the point is that women should have control over their reproductive destinies.

The letter constantly invokes “conversations” that must happen regarding the climate change and what to do about it. While transparent public debate is necessary, people having been “conversing” about climate change for decades and both governments and global capitalism are unmoved. Pope Francis misses a huge opportunity here to tell Catholics that it is their moral duty to struggle together and with other communities to demand that those in power begin the transition to 100% clean energy. This was the moment to call for a “Climate Crusade” of sorts, or at least make ending fossil fuels as high a priority as protesting at abortion clinics.

Much as been made of the encyclical’s call for a “cultural revolution,” but it’s difficult to say what is meant by that. Francis’ diagnoses of big picture economic ills seem to be an appeal to the better angels of elites, while his recommendations for slower, simpler and less hedonistic consumption are directed to the little people. But what would happen if Pope Francis directly addressed working people and the poor as agents who have the power to change the big picture? The word “democracy” does not appear once in the 184 pages of this letter.

Instead we get “small is beautiful”-style entreaties about “rejecting the dynamic of dominion and the accumulation of pleasures” and the liberation of “sobriety.” It’s fine advice for how to live a decent life, but as a plan for change it falls sickly into the neoliberal logic of individual, moralistic, internal change over collective struggle in solidarity to demand justice from those who will not deliver it otherwise. It’s a shame, because Pope Francis so clearly sees the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

And what of the Catholic Church, itself, which owns massive swaths of property? Will it endeavor to put solar panels on every cathedral, school and rectory, and to help set up solar co-ops in communities? Will it be receptive to the requests of parishioners to make such projects a priority?
Time will tell if we really needed a Pope to affirm the reality of climate change. We certainly need leaders with the resources and moral authority of Pope Francis to motivate concrete changes, and to organize masses of constituents to fight for justice when the powerful refuse to deliver it.

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