When Pope Francis' encyclical letter that focused on climate change and care for our common home was published on May 24, 2015, it generated an incredible amount of global interest. Of course, this was not at all surprising given that the Pope highlighted how humans are responsible for causing climate change and wrote, "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day."
I paid some attention to the Pope's thoughts when his encyclical first appeared, went on to other things, and recently decided to revisit his encyclical because of my own interests in the rapidly growing multidisciplinary fields of compassionate conservation, conservation psychology, and anthropology, all of which focus on human kind's relationships to nature, including other animals, and the role of science in helping humans along in very challenging times.
Among the numerous topics on which the Pope writes, he focuses on the importance of integral ecology (his Chapter 4 is devoted to this topic), the topic of an excellent wide-ranging book by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman titled Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. Consistent with the Pope's eclectic encyclical, the description for this book reads, "Today there is a bewildering diversity of views on ecology and the natural environment. With more than two hundred distinct and valuable perspectives on the natural world—and with scientists, economists, ethicists, activists, philosophers, and others often taking completely different stances on the issues—how can we come to agreement to solve our toughest environmental problems?"
"Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise."
The Pope's entire encyclical is available online and I'm glad I decided to revisit it. It's impossible to cover all of the topics on which the Pope writes, so below are some snippets related to human relationships to nature and the role of science in helping us along to whet your appetite for more. (The bracketed numbers refer to his references.)
On Saint Francis of Assisi the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.
Concerning our common home the Pope writes:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. ... I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. 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.
On the intrinsic value of animals and of "visible species" and consumerism the Pope writes:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation.
But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
The Pope also notes how the 'Intensified pace of life and work which might be called "rapidification" and our "throwaway culture" are also major parts of the problems at hand. He also calls the Amazon and the Congo basin the "lungs of our planet." On oceans he writes, "Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons. What is more, marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population, is affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species." And, he also notes, "The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion."
On media, the Pope notes:
Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.
Consistent with current views on conservation science, the Pope writes, "Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."
On the role of science the Pope writes:
It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things. I would add that “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons… Is it reasonable and enlightened to dismiss certain writings simply because they arose in the context of religious belief?” It would be quite simplistic to think that ethical principles present themselves purely in the abstract, detached from any context. Nor does the fact that they may be couched in religious language detract from their value in public debate. The ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language. ... Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.
The Pope's views are not anti-science, but rather are consistent with others who note that while science is important, it alone will not save us or our magnificent and fragile planet (for more discussion please see, for example, Lynn White Jr.'s classic essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," a complete version of which is available here, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age).
Concerning the role of believers, the Pope aptly notes:
The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity. Dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, since each can tend to become enclosed in its own language, while specialization leads to a certain isolation and the absolutization of its own field of knowledge. This prevents us from confronting environmental problems effectively. An open and respectful dialogue is also needed between the various ecological movements, among which ideological conflicts are not infrequently encountered. The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that “realities are greater than ideas”.1
The Pope also asks us to tap into our inherent goodness when he writes:
Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.
We need much more humility rather than self-centered hubris.
Clearly, I could go on and on, so I'll end with this passage that captures much of what many others also have written about. Concerning humility the Pope writes:
Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.
Our fragile and tired world—our common home—is tired of being wantonly abused and needs all the help it can get.
All in all, I found the Pope's encyclical to be well-informed, extremely interesting, and very important, regardless of whether I agreed with him about his or others' religious views. Believer or not, there is an incredible amount of food for thought in his essay, and I encourage everyone who can to go through this wonderful piece, regardless of their attitudes toward religion.
I cherry-picked some passages and ideas for further discussion and so too can you. I'm very glad I did, and I've had numerous interesting, important, and some surprising discussions with a wide variety of people about our complicated relationships with nature and other animals in a very challenging world, our common home, that is tired of being wantonly abused.
A lot of work has to be done to heal our wounded world, and compassionate conservationists, conservation psychologists, anthrozoologists, religious scholars, and others in numerous academic disciplines will have to work together to solve the daunting problems at hand. So too will non-researchers who deeply care about our magnificent planet. I can easily see the Pope's encyclical forming the basis for many different courses of study. Agree or not with some of what Pope Francis writes, his wide-ranging and eclectic encyclical is a goldmine for further discussion and debate.2
1Along these lines, the Faith Outreach program of the Humane Society of the United States "seeks to engage people and institutions of faith with animal protection issues, on the premise that religious values call upon us all to act in a kind and merciful way towards all creatures."
2For an interesting discussion of the Pope's encyclical as a document of the Church, please see Dale Jamieson's essay titled "THE POPE’S ENCYCLICAL AND CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY: Theology and Politics in Laudato Si’." Dr. Jamieson notes that Pope Francis is a biocentrist and concludes,"If we read Laudato Si’ in the way in which it is intended to be read, with open-hearted humility, it cannot help but forward the discussion of our 'interlocking' crises of environment and development."
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.