Pope Francis delivered his encyclical letter, the most formal of papal edicts, Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home in June of this year unto the collective conscious of 1.2 billion Catholics. In the simplest of terms, Pope Francis scolded the amoralism borne of consumerism. In the most complex of terms, the letter is a political, economic, ecologic, social, moral and religious document not only denouncing but condemning affluent cultures and those responsible for its perpetration, which have both destroyed the Earth’s resources and exploited the poor.
The other six billion non-Catholics in the world could very well have passed over Laudato Si’ like Pope Francis’ first encyclical two years prior. Instead, His Holiness called upon the precedent set by perhaps the most renowned papal encyclical, Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), in which Pope John XXIII addressed the entire world in the midst of the Cold War in 1963, calling upon the people, not just the powerful to end the violence. Similarly, Pope Francis desired to “enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home.”
In the ensuing 184 pages, Pope Francis laments, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth… We have forgotten that ‘man is not only a freedom that he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature.’ The ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with the symptoms.”
The issue of climate change has always been a battleground between logic and emotion. Scientists fight big business. Activists fight deniers. Government regulators fight protectors of individual freedom. But none are allowed to ally. Scientists cannot condone the practices of environment fanatics because it would discredit the hard science. Conservatives cannot align with protesters for fear that regulations could snowball.
But Pope Francis has raised his hand for silence and pointed his finger towards a mirror. The fault is not solely on the shoulders of groups, clashing investments, and recognizable names. As Pope Francis states, the power and proliferation of deterioration of the Earth stems from our “throwaway culture,” our exploitation of our dominion, and our ignorance. In essence, it is the choices that every single individual makes every single day, especially in nations of affluence, that give the corporations and politicians affirmation to continue on the same path until there is no turning back.
If it sounds like Pope Francis is fervent in his writing, it’s because he is. Which makes criticisms of his passionate plea to humanity, like presidential candidate and Catholic conservative Rick Santorum’s comment that Pope Francis should “leave the science to the scientists,” completely moot. Like Pope Francis, scientists and fanatics, why shouldn’t we be emotional about the evidence presented to us? When we commune with nature, do we not feel more alive? Have there not been entire tomes dedicated to the art, emotion, and spirit of the world? It’s easy to ridicule the bleeding hearts because, deep down, we know ignorance is an acceptable shield from blame.
But we can see the evidence for ourselves on our streets. Couches and mattresses and hardly-used furniture are thrown onto the sidewalks. When parents buy our cars, we choose the model that will give us the best status, and not the one that makes the most ecological and economical sense. Because it is simply too inconvenient for us to take responsibility or to even go without. Or worse, we choose not to think about it.
And the effects of our affluence that are hidden from us, in the landfills miles away, or in the invisible toxicity of the water, are inescapably present a few countries away. Like Senator Jim Inhofe bringing a snowball into Congress, we as a culture are in a snowglobe-like vortex of ignorance and denial of our own individual contributions to the problem.
But we no longer have the excuse to be ignorant. Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’ that fixing the earth is a crusade of the young. An overwhelming majority of Millennials believe climate change is a scientific fact, and that humans are to blame. The successful efforts of big individuals, like Pope Francis’ encyclical, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are testaments to our approval. But rarely do we evaluate ourselves when we are asked to look at the small strokes of the big picture, our individual actions. Our behaviors are not the involuntary acts of a lifestyle, but ethical and moral decisions, religious or otherwise, that ripple through every life.
Being better is as simple as educating yourself, understanding the world around you, thinking critically about options, committing to change, and investing in a better future. Because we shouldn’t, and probably can’t afford to push the change onto our children, like it has been pushed onto us.