South America deforestation

Deforestation of rainforest in Guyana to make way for gold mining

Our Fragile Planet

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to the causes related to human and social degradation.
Laudato si’ (LS) no. 48

Causes related to our suffering planet so often are the same causes related to our suffering poor. Therefore, “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” is a recurring theme in Laudato si’. LS no. 16. Hence it is taken up immediately in the first chapter of this groundbreaking encyclical issued by Pope Francis in 2015.

Saturday is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. This starts the month-long Season of Creation, an annual ecumenical celebration of the world God made. During the Season of Creation, I will post articles on Laudato si’, one on each chapter. Each article will include a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of the chapter, followed by a focused reflection on a particular issue.

First of all, I begin with the prologue and Chapter One. Francis surveys the problem. As he discusses the environmental problems we face, social issues keep intruding. Violence against the earth reflects violence against the poor. “This is why the earth herself … is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor, she ‘groans in travail’.” LS no. 2. So the same causes related to environmental degradation often cause social injustice as well.

Summary of the Prologue

“Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” LS no. 1.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.

LS no. 2. As a result, the world is faced with global environmental deterioration. It is time “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” LS no. 3.

Every pope since Paul VI has expressed concern for a deteriorating environment, with a progressive sense of urgency. LS nos. 5-7. Also, leaders of other Christian communities have spoken up. LS no. 8. Most noteworthy is the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. LS no. 9.

We are inspired by Saint Francis’s “care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology ….” LS no. 10. He was “called to care for all that exists.” LS no. 11. He did not see the world as a problem to be solved. Rather, it is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise. LS no. 12.

“The Creator does not abandon us ….” We can solve the problem. LS no. 13. We need a new conversation which includes everyone. LS no. 14. Laudato si’ is intended to “help us acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.” LS no. 15. Each chapter has its own subject, but certain themes will appear throughout. LS no. 16.

Summary of Chapter 1: What is happening to our common home?

Causes related to what is happening to our fragile planet

First, we “turn to what is happening to our common home.” LS no. 17. The rate of change is accelerating. Furthermore, the pace of life and work has intensified. “[T]he goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development.” LS no. 18. We should “become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.” LS no. 19.

The catalogue of problems includes air pollution, discarded waste, and climate change. LS nos. 20-26. In some areas, drinkable water is scarce. LS nos. 27-31. The diversity of life forms is diminishing. LS nos. 32-42. The quality of human life is declining. LS nos. 47-45. The causes related to these problems are connected. We certainly cannot solve environmental problems without solving human problems. LS nos. 48-52

We need to respond more effectively to the crisis

“[P]ower structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice. LS no. 53. “The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.” LS no. 54.

A growing ecological sensitivity has not changed our harmful habits of consumption. LS no. 55. Because the market becomes deified, the environment is defenseless. LS no. 56. And the causes related to resource depletion sets the scene for new wars. “War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples ….” LS no. 57.

Fortunately, “there are positive examples of environmental improvement ….” LS no. 58. But at the same there is a sense of “complacency and a cheerful recklessness. … 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.” LS no. 59.

There are a variety of ways to address the problem

There are many opinions about how to confront these problems. These run from a complete confidence that new technologies will arise to solve everything to a view that humans are an irredeemable threat to the planet and their presence should be minimized. True solutions lie between these extremes. LS no. 60. But we must face the problems honestly.

“[W]e can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation.

LS no. 61.

Focus on everything being connected

At first glance, Francis’s purpose in Chapter One appears merely to identify certain pressing environmental problems. His list begins with many of the usual suspects: pollution, climate change, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity. When I initially read Chapter One, I didn’t expect much. The important stuff would come later in the encyclical.

There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear

Soon, however, I noticed something going on. Francis keeps weaving the causes related to the environmental problem to those related to the poor. Right away, in fact, he reminds us that the poor especially are exposed to air pollution. LS no. 20. And climate change, he observes, has led to an increase in migration as people flee poverty caused by environmental degradation. LS no. 25. As for water, the pope notes:

We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.

LS no. 27.

What gives? Yes, I know that Jesus bids us to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. Mt 25: 35. I understand that the Church’s social teaching calls on us to care for the poor. But Laudato si’ is the environmental encyclical, right? Is the pope having trouble staying on topic?

The causes related to environmental degradation and to poverty are the same

Francis continues in Chapter One to weave back and forth. Then he makes his point clear:

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.

LS no. 48. Thus Francis has not been illustrating environmental problems by reference to the poor. He teaches that causes related to the environment and those related to the poor are of the same cloth! One cannot be solved without solving the other. That is to say, the causes related to each must be addressed. Yes, everything is connected.

Ecological thought is characterized by recognition of interconnections. Throughout Laudato si’, Francis returns to this concept. The recurring theme of interconnectedness invites us to reflect on many levels. These include theological, anthropological, ecological, political, and spiritual aspects. I will return to each of these as the Season of Creation progresses.

Next week: The earth is the Lord’s

For centuries,  many read the Bible to affirm humanity’s right to dominate the earth for our own purposes. On the contrary, Francis says this misinterprets the scripture. Next week, I will discuss the gospel of creation.


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