Escaping the Spiral: Chapter 5 of “Laudato si”

(Crossposted from Points of Inflection by John Roe)

In this series of posts I have been blogging chapter by chapter through Pope Francis’ encyclical “on the care of our common home”, Laudato si.  We’ve now arrived at the fifth chapter, which begins, “So far I have attempted to take stock of our present situation… [Now I will] try to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.”

The activist might read this as suggesting that the Pope is finally getting to the point!  After all the theological talk, time for some action!  But that would miss one of the central ideas of Laudato si, namely, that how we respond to environmental crisis is, ultimately, a function of how we see and celebrate creation.  I nearly wrote, how we think about creation, but that is too cerebral.  What lies behind activism (according to the Pope) is not just a way of thinking, but a way of allowing creation to impact our lives – to be seen – which is itself part of a personal relationship.

Our activist will soon also realize that the word dialogue in the introductory quotation is meant seriously.  Each of the five “paths” outlined in this chapter is explicitly a call for dialogue; and though they contain concrete proposals, they also express a hope that in dialogue we will enhance our ability to truly see and be seen.  The five sections are

  1. Dialogue on the environment in the international community
  2. Dialogue for new national and local politics
  3. Dialogue and transparency in decision-making
  4. Politics and Economy in Dialogue
  5. Religions in Dialogue with Science

Section 1 has some very direct things to say about international negotiations on climate issues:

We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.

Although the Encyclical does not explicitly say this, it’s hard to doubt that the forthcoming negotiations in Paris (COP21) are what the Pope has in view.  He criticizes what he calls the “internationalization” of environmental costs, which seems to mean the idea that the burdens of decarbonizing the economy should be borne equally across the world.  On the contrary, he argues, those nations and cultures which have most benefited from industrialization and the attendant carbon emissions should also bear the lions’ share of the “cleanup”.

The Pope is a skeptic about emissions trading:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.

This comment is of a piece with the Encyclical’s overall message: a change of relationship to creation is what is required, not merely an adjustment of incentives within the overall marketized and commodified paradigm.  British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (incidentally, an early and effective proponent of action to curb climate change) notoriously insisted that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal social order in which the market is the judge of all things.  How a reader responds to Laudato si is likely to depend on the extent to which she sees the Catholic social teachings of the encyclical as providing just such an alternative.

Earlier posts in this series: