Commentary on The Pope’s Message on Climate by Phil Cafaro
The following is commentary from Phil Cafaro, professor at Colorado State University that are germane to all of us who value wildlands, wildlife and a functioning environment. Below are portions of the Pope Francis speech and Phil’s commentary in italics.
Having just finished the first chapter (of six), I’d like to call your attention to several particularly intriguing paragraphs below. In response to Pope Francis’ appeal for “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet (paragraph 14), I also make some comments in italics):
11. [Saint] 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. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”.His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
The Pope here and elsewhere in his letter claims (correctly in my view) that our relationship to the rest of nature can and should involve love, appreciation and even “awe” at the beauty and mystery of life. A techno-managerial approach to the world is insufficient, in part because by itself it is “unable to set limits” on humanity’s demands on nature.
The Pope devotes a whole section of chapter one to the loss of biodiversity. Here are the first three paragraphs of this section; note that the second paragraph explicitly insists on other species intrinsic value and states that looking at other species solely as resources for human exploitation is part of the problem:
32. The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.
33. 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.
34. 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. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. 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.
Note the Pope’s insistence that all species have value, not merely the ones of most immediate concern to people. Note his awareness of how human impacts can set up a vicious circle that makes it harder to leave nature alone, pulling us further into an Anthropocene epoch of greater ugliness and diminished diversity.
In the paragraph below (and elsewhere), the Pope decries the tendency of new technologies to lead people to a more mediated experience of reality, interfering, he believes, with appreciating both other people and nature:
47. Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. 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.
In the course of affirming that reducing global inequality should be part of addressing global environmental issues, the Pope (unfortunately, I think) takes issue with global population stabilization efforts:
50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.
There are several problems with the logic of this paragraph. The Pope accepts that there can be problems with “unequal distribution of population and of available resources”, but this leaves unacknowledged the reality that there also can be too large a population vis a vis available resources, both nationally and globally–particularly if we are committed to leaving some resources for other species’ continued existence. He affirms that “demographic growth is fully compatible” with continued development, without acknowledging that there are likely limits to this compatibility (presumably the global human population cannot increase forever). He presents an implausibly absolute dichotomy between “extreme … consumerism”, which is bad, and continued population growth, which is neutral–as if the ecological impacts of consumption could be divorced from the number of consumers.
In all these ways, the Pope remains confused on population issues, a confusion which will likely ramify among his readers. That’s a shame, because he is right on in his recognition of the need to tame our economic behavior and recognize limits in order preserve nature and the ecological services it provides humanity, as shown in the powerful concluding paragraphs below. Pope Francis just doesn’t include limits on human numbers in his conception of necessary limits. Still, he is clear that “techno-fixes” will not be sufficient to deal with our environmental problems. We must change our way of life:
53. These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
56. In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.
59. At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
34 Responses to Commentary on The Pope’s Message on Climate by Phil Cafaro
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If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.
Yep, that pretty much sums it up, how we see the natural world now.
There’s a lot to read here, thanks George.
I agree with the majority of the Pope’s message, except birth control. His message to treat all beings a loved sister, which we have automatically as children, is very powerful and conveys the important message of Buddhism that all beings want to be happy and not suffer. As scientists study animals, they are finding more intelligence than previously anticipated. Things will not make you happy. I grew up poor, was very poor when I was first married, but then lost all my savings and had to retire because of multiple illnesses, major surgeries(25), and disability. My wife and I are much happier now, without a car, TV, new furniture or clothing. Nothing to have, little to lose. I am connected to nature, which has always been my savior, and would rather lose my life than know it will not be present for my descendants.
I can’t speak for others here Robert, but I believe your ideas on nature ring true with many in this circle. My greatest, most magical moments were experienced out in the elements and had absolutely nothing to do with money or acquisitions.
All life is suffering and there is a way out of the suffering may be the most important life lesson I personally have ever been taught. I only wish I had found the teachings of Buddha and Thoreau earlier in my own journey.
I think having the Pope on our side is huge and a real problem for conservative thinking who are used to having the church covering their backs no matter how egregious their crimes are. Population control should be fought on a different front. It doesn’t need the Pope sticking his neck out any further. All it needs is for all women to make their own reproductive choices and it will take care of itself.
Name it the “Book of Nature” and place it in the Bible just in front of Genesis.
I like that idea, Larry.
George, A big portion of his (pope Francis) was how Global Warming and abortion are interrelated. I think they call what Phil did “cherry picking” or was that just you cherry picking Phil?
Other Words from the Encyclical written by Pope Francis:
“It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.
Highways, new plantations, the fencing-off of certain areas, the damming of water sources, and similar developments, crowd out natural habitats and, at times, break them up in such a way that animal populations can no longer migrate or roam freely. As a result, some species face extinction. Alternatives exist which at least lessen the impact of these projects, like the creation of biological corridors, but few countries demonstrate such concern and foresight.”
I’m thinking the catholic church is growing up but then again they have a lot to atone for. A pity the pope can’t see the connection between overpopulation and the damage to earth’s ecosystems. They are the great promoters of conceiving and procreating, at any cost
“but then again they have a lot to atone for” Since this is an article on the pope I feel this question to be appropriate. What is it Louise that those Catholics have to “atone for”? There is nothing more nauseating than those that spread hate. Readers, just who is spreading the hate here today?
Jesus, the Catholics and their message are a good reason this world don’t live as they do where Mohamed message is prominent. This world NEEDS more people spewing Jesus’s message not yours or the message from those that put animals before people in any form.
To me it doesn’t matter who is carrying the message, various religions or none of the above. We all share the earth with the rest of the living beings here. To see no place on earth for some of the living beings is to first embrace hate. Seems to me to put animals on par as companions is not to put them ahead or behind us but to embrace them. You cannot put people ahead unless you foster some level of hate or at least contempt for others living with us.
Larry K, Your statement “You cannot put people ahead unless you foster some level of hate or at least contempt for others living with us.” is an interesting one BUT, ignorantly wrong. If it weren’t we could say that Larry K hates children other than is own. For, I would hope YOU put your children before mine…..do you hate my children. NO! But you put yours before mine and rightfully so. I put MAN for animals all MAN in all its forms before all animals. I don’t hate animals.
“I put MAN for animals all MAN in all its forms before all animals. I don’t hate animals”
Interesting ODFN. Still struggling with what verifies life or other species right to life?
Nance, “what verifies life” You were you well before you were born. You were the very same you 10 minutes before you were born as you were 10 minutes after. When do you think you became you?
“other species right to life” My grand parents (grandma) would raise 50 chickens every year. As the fall came they would start butchering a few weekly to where they butchered the remaining 30 or so and freeze them for the winter. As a teenager grandma would have me open up the chicken coop in the morning and “get two nice ones”/”erhalten zwei Netten” that she or uncle Jerry would butcher and have to eat for the week. Some here would say that grandma “hates chickens”. Because I had to pick “two nice ones” I have a different respect for animals than those that open up the 10 piece chicken nuggets at McDonalds and have a better handle on why animals are on this earth with us. It’s with that background that I have see things differently than some. The only contempt that I have are for those that exploit the types of people that open the 10 piece chicken nugget which have never had to pick two nice ones.
ODFN – my chickens have a retirement plan 🙂
ODFN, I believe you see the difference in the way your grandparents raised chickens with the way chickens are raised by the corporate chicken companies.
It’s been over ten years ago, but while I was at a training in Fayettvelle, AR I had an enlightening conversation with the son of a chicken farmer. With Tyson’s home office in AR there are lots of chicken growers there and in eastern OK. This young man explained to me how the corporation kept their chicken growers millions of dollars in debt. The corporation supplies chicks on credit but the grower is kept in a position where it is nearly impossible to pay off that debt. Once they reach the point where the debt is going down then inspectors show up at the chicken houses and require upgrades. More debt. It’s a cycle of debt. It’s an awful situation for the chickens, and it’s an awful situation for the chicken farmers that want out of the cycle of debt. There is a huge difference in the way your grandparents raised their chickens and the factory operations we now have.
Yes, +1 Yvette. One of your last comments was great too, I think about the Pope’s message.
ODFN, I don’t think people have to feel that animals are equal to man, just not to harm them, treat them well and fairly, not exploit them and protect where they live. We always want to make it an either or thing, when it really isn’t. No matter where you stand on human’s place in the world, we can all agree that non-humans have a right to live, a right to a place to live, and the right to be free from us.
It’s all due to our multitudes now. In our grandparents’ day, some hunting and some agriculture didn’t threaten animals’ with extinction or undue suffering.
Yvette, watched this video years ago +1 – Food, Inc. Hope its the entire movie and not a trailer. For anyone concerned about factory farming, that’s ruining this country.
Here is a humorous clip that illustrates the not-so-humorous situation you describe:
Yvette, Do you really think that the chickens in the factory farm were/are in distress not being able have the run of the place? I don’t know chickens as well as well as a dairy cow BUT I have a sneaking suspicion that the relative “happiness”/comfort is probably about the same. I find it quite humorous that the protesters at “farm progress days” that “dumped milk” to protest abuse of animals last summer had bag lunches from Hardies and were protesting abuse of animals that were probably chewing their cuds the whole time the fools were there. Ya think any of the protesters had to “erhalten zwei Netten” for Grandma?
Thanks for that. For almost 40 years I have been ranting against the chicken industry atrocities. Yet it seems to be falling on deaf ears. Glad to see that just maybe things will start changing.
I wish you and your kids well whatever you decide to do.
I stand by my assertion they have a lot to atone for including annihilation of native cultures through forced acculturation programs missionary justice meted out mercilessly and up till now a determined intransigence to change
I think this pope created a wonderful document with many insightful and positive ideas that embrace conservation ethos
I wish the church could recognize the consequences of overpopulation as the root of many of the issues that are destroying the earth
Louise, you are correct on the atonement, though it is not only Catholics but most all Christian religions. The Catholics were especially brutal to the First Nation tribes in Canada. In America, it was more of the protestant religions. The aftermath of that brutality is still weaving through many Native communities today. This is part of the reason I’ve had a revulsion to religion, however, Pope Francis has helped me to soften my view. Reading the encyclical is like reading something closer to how many Indigenous people worldwide view living and working in this world. They get the connection of spirit, science, and planet’s ecosystems.
Quite a few years ago I thought that we needed to get the Christians on board. It would have to come from within their community and I’m not a part of that, so I was at a loss. It didn’t make sense to me that they predominately viewed the earth’s natural systems as only a means of extracting the bounties, and at any cost. It didn’t matter whether it was a living being or something like fossil fuels. If they believed that ‘God’ created this earth and all that is upon it and within it why would they support financial gain at the cost of that creation? There has to be a balance or we all lose. It just didn’t compute for me. So, I was especially glad that Pope Francis not only gets it, but prepared this wonderful encyclical. Granted, the position on birth control and population is wrong, but I knew that would be there. Catholics still have not changed their position on that issue, but with 1.5 billion Catholics worldwide? Maybe it turn the tide. If so, maybe protestants will follow.
A good video on religion as one means to saving what we have left. This one is about a forest in Cambodia, so it focuses on the traditional religions of China: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. It’s a good documentary and only 25 minutes long.
nice post Yvette, will watch the doc you posted.
sometime I’ll have an offline conversation with you about my personal reasons for “revulsion to most organized religions”
When I was a child living in Utah and part of the Mormon culture (by birth and not by choice), a distant relative had a young boy (early teens) from the Navajo Nation staying with them for several school years. I got to know him and found him to be one of the most interesting guys I’ve ever known. I always looked forward to my visits with him. I distinctly remember that other family members in the same household cautioned me to keep my distance, supposedly from his ways, influence and ideals.
Many years later Jimmie just stopped coming up for school and I felt cheated. When I inquired about him no one would talk about him and those that would said very little.
As an adult and more aware of different cultures, of course I learned about the Mormons and their insistence to civilize these “savages” and knew right away what the issue had become. I remember how silly and uncomfortable he looked and felt on Sundays all dressed up when he was forced to go to church. White man and their ways have haunted me ever since.
Birth control should be promoted more, so the drastic step of abortion isn’t, or is less, necessary.
I’m still very, very impressed by the Pope’s environmental message. It’s a very big step in the right directions, and may not be what some may want to hear from him.
Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudito Si, is a beautiful document. With the power and influence carried with the position of Pope and, since Catholicism is one of the largest religions in the world, I hope this encyclical will be a game changer. I’m in the process of reading this 72 page document and there is more in it worth embracing than not. I think people should read the entire document. Pope Francis cuts no slack for capitalism and ‘the market’s’ role in our our degraded planet. He even addresses how ecosystems are important for their intrinsic value, not just because we humans can gain some service from them. I never thought I’d see a day when the highest position of a mainstream organized Christian religion would take that stance.
Recently I’ve started gathering information on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and how TEK might be utilized in conjunction with empirical science….in some instances. I can only study it in my spare time and am not that far off into it yet, but one major difference with TEK is the spiritual component and connection to everything else on earth. I was struck when I started reading Laudato Si that the tenet is more closely aligned with the basic ideas that have been with the many different Indigenous peoples millennia. Yet, the encyclical does not ignore empirical science. Ralph recently posted an essay on TWN about whether we humans were a part of nature. I think it’s worth rereading. Our empirical science disconnects us from the natural world; from the species of the world. Our subjects become only numbers and facts. Of course, there is a justifiable reason for the scientific method, but at some point we must reconnect in some spiritual way or the science that helps us understand a process or function for the way something works becomes meaningless.
There is just too much in this encyclical to quote all the passages that I like, or believe are important points. But, this paragraph is worth quoting.
Chapter One: I. Pollution and Climate Change, par. 42.
Since the encyclical goes to all of the bishops, my hope is the tenet of the document gains as much prominence in the church’s teachings as some other issues have in the past, like abortion.
I like “which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature”. I have always sought knowledge of nature. It is so interesting and important. It is impossible to be bored (if you have health). And with new technologies we have now, in at least my small field, I can drink it from a firehose, and really lucky people get to do that about fish or coyotes or fungi – I’m so envious. But the young people I met have little interest in having knowledge of the land. It’s just a subject for specialists.
Wayne Pacelle (HSUS) on “Pope Francis’s unreserved embrace of animal protection” (wherein he asks a professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham U. and the author of “For Love of Animals” for insight into the significance of this encyclical):
I suppose it was too much to hope that he would call for an end to industrial animal agriculture not only for its tremendous cruelty but also for its sizable contribution to green house gasses, deforestation, and pollution…and end by saying, “I’m going vegan. Please join me.” *sigh*
The Pope’s message is essential reading regardless of religious/spiritual affiliation. His call for reverence and love of nature, for recognizing the intrinsic value of the natural world, is a breath of fresh air in the stale debate over which app will better enable us to “buy green.”
Can we possibly compare Francis’ message with the pathetic offerings in the so called eco-modernist manifesto? It would be akin to comparing a priceless piece of art with absent minded doodling on a fast food napkin.
There is much to admire in Francis’ message. Perhaps more than anything I feel buoyed by the emphasis on reverence, awe and wonder, a far more attractive perspective than the cold calculus offered by the (momentarily) predominant assumptions of neoliberal economics. Francis’ inspirational message should encourage all of us to speak out, acknowledge the harsh moral and ethical realities of the current system, and push for needed change.
Yes, well said. 🙂
“Francis’ inspirational message should encourage all of us to speak out, acknowledge the harsh moral and ethical realities of the current system, and push for needed change”
Kyle, an example of someone speaking out for a needed change:
This funny and very thoughtful guy, doesn’t touch on the injustice committed to non humans/wildlife but, the implications are there, never the less.
Got idiots who come to my area (locally and from states away) just for the chance to shoot ground squirrels.
How pathetic that they have nothing better to do with their time/lives.
I’m guessing the Pope would endorse this very clever and compelling video on rampant consumerism, mining, and the trashing of our planet.
There is another good article on the Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical. This one focuses strictly on the Pope’s message toward human’s treatment of other species. The author summarizes her take away which was pretty much what I got out out of the encyclical.