Partial solar eclipse at sunset. Buffalo Harbor. Photo by Jay Burney.
Partial solar eclipse at sunset. Buffalo Harbor. Photo by Jay Burney.

GreenWatch: The Encyclical of Pope Francis

by / Sep. 24, 2015 12pm EST

Pope Francis’s June encyclical, ”Laudato Si, On Care of our Common Home,” is a primary reason for his visit to the United States and his address to a joint session of Congress and to the General Assembly of the United Nations. His visit is also the reason that some in our local environmental community have organized the rally Rise Up for Climate Justice, which is taking place today (Thursday, September 24) in Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo beginning at 5pm.

Scheduled speakers include: Darius Pridgen, Buffalo Common Council President; Marc Panepinto, New York State Senate; Tim Kennedy, New York State Senate; Mayor Paul Dyster, Niagara Falls; Dr. Alan Lockwood, Physicians for Social Responsibility; Sister Sharon Goodremote, chair of Buffalo Catholic Diocese Care for Creation Committee and appointed representative of Bishop Malone; Stan Bratton, executive director for Network of Religious Communities; Deborah Hayes, Communications Workers of America District 1 Area; Agnes F. Williams, Seneca, Indigenous Women’s Initiatives; Maxine Murphey, PUSH board president.

The objective of that rally is twofold: 1) to raise awareness of the upcoming United Nations Paris Climate Conference (COP21); 2) to encourage local individuals and organizations to sign on to a climate pledge.

Our Common Home

Pope Francis’s encyclical is a deeply moving and beautiful analysis of the failings of our economic structures that promote consumerism and development at the cost of the environment and millions of human lives. It is not that complicated, and not a dense document. It is a direct confirmation of climate change and targets the primary failing of the world-wide free market economy that is the political construct the modern western world.

This  is what the New York Times said about it on the day it was released:

Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, as his much-awaited papal encyclical blended a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.”

The vision that Francis outlined in the 184-page encyclical is sweeping in ambition and scope: He described a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.

Pope Francis is talking about climate change from the perspective of defining “consumerism” and its model of “growth and profit” as the political/moral/economic stasis and that this consumerism and its mandated growth is destroying both the planet and the people of the earth.

The primary theme of the Encyclical characterizes economic growth and a throw away society, poverty, depredation of nature, and the resultant depredation on human beings across the planet, across cultures, and across time. The Encyclical lays out concepts and strategies including “Our Common Home”, biodivesrsity, anthropocentricism, false technology solutions, and the integral nature of all things and of all actions.

Pope Francis, who comes from the Liberation Theology movement articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez and emerged from the global south. Liberation Theology reflects that poverty and injustice go hand in hand.  Pope Francis, the Argentinian pastor who takes his name from St. Francis of Assisi, sees poverty and injustice as a deep moral issue akin to issues reflecting family, faith, love, forgiveness, and marriage. The relevance of the discussion of the impacts of free market capitalism on the poor and the great harm that has come to the earth is rooted in a profound moral concern.

For those that have not had the opportunity to read the Encyclical, it opens with:

LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, 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. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

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. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us…

The introduction to the encyclical includes these passages:

In 1971, eight years after Pacem in Terris, Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”. He spoke in similar terms to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations about the potential for an “ecological catastrophe under the effective explosion of industrial civilization”, and stressed “the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity”, inasmuch as “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man”.

Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”. Subsequently, he would call for a global ecological conversion.  At the same time, he noted that little effort had been made to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology”. The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies”. Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.  Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.

My predecessor Benedict XVI likewise proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”

Pope Benedict asked us to recognize that the natural environment has been gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour.”

With paternal concern, Benedict urged us to realize that creation is harmed “where we ourselves have the final word, where everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone. The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”

At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”

The encyclical continues with a series of chapters and sections. One of the most telling sections, “Loss of Biodiversity,” includes these important statements:

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.

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. 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.

In assessing the environmental impact of any project, concern is usually shown for its effects on soil, water and air, yet few careful studies are made of its impact on biodiversity, as if the loss of species or animals and plant groups were of little importance. 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. Frequently, when certain species are exploited commercially, little attention is paid to studying their reproductive patterns in order to prevent their depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem.

Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.

Some countries have made significant progress in establishing sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures. In the protection of biodiversity, specialists insist on the need for particular attention to be shown to areas richer both in the number of species and in endemic, rare or less protected species. Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life.”

Let us mention, for example, those richly biodiverse lungs of our planet which are the Amazon and the Congo basins, or the great aquifers and glaciers. We know how important these are for the entire earth and for the future of humanity. The ecosystems of tropical forests possess an enormously complex biodiversity which is almost impossible to appreciate fully, yet when these forests are burned down or levelled for purposes of cultivation, within the space of a few years countless species are lost and the areas frequently become arid wastelands. A delicate balance has to be maintained when speaking about these places, for we cannot overlook the huge global economic interests which, under the guise of protecting them, can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations. In fact, there are “proposals to internationalize the Amazon, which only serve the economic interests of transnational corporations”. We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.

The replacement of virgin forest with plantations of trees, usually monocultures, is rarely adequately analyzed. Yet this can seriously compromise a biodiversity which the new species being introduced does not accommodate. Similarly, wetlands converted into cultivated land lose the enormous biodiversity which they formerly hosted. In some coastal areas the disappearance of ecosystems sustained by mangrove swamps is a source of serious concern.

Buffalo’s rally for climate justice

One of the most fundamental messages of today’s rally at Niagara Square is righteously focused on how our consumer society produces energy. The global movement promoting renewable energy has deep roots in our own backyard and many of the organizers of this event have been at this for over two decades.  The challenges of energy production, the use of fossil fuels, and the promise of solar, wind, and geothermal are explicit contexts in which we can heed the pope’s call to end the pollution that the Pope equates with human justice issues. What our local and broader discussions fail to engage in any depth are beyond how we “create energy” and into “how we use energy”. Primarily we use energy to promote unfettered growh through the fundamental, and according to the Pope, dangerous strategies that hve evolved with our free market capitalist models. The evils of greed that these models foster has a profound bibilical foundation.

Last week, GreenWatch published a guest column by Anne Petermann, executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP). GJEP is a Buffalo based, globally focused organization created to fight a rising tide of bioenergy solutions that are driving “solutions” to climate change by promoting misleading assumptions about how bioenergy helps to reduce carbon emissions. GJEP is one of buffalo’s best kept secrets and one of our most important environmental and activist organizations. Anne had just returned from the World Forestry Congress in Durban, a United Nations-sponsored event that is preparing for the Paris COP21 meeting by creating strategies to promote biofuel solutions.  The article shows the links between the UN Climate agreements to industry that is promoting the wholesale destruction of the world’s remaining natural forests. This industry, and the economic development tool that will characterize the UN climate agreement is focused on growth and profit and not the environment. This industry and the emerging UN climate negotiations are characterized by current activities and future plans to codify the destruction of natural ecosystems including forests by turning them into economic commodities including  biofuel “plantations” often reliant on genetically engineered trees.  

These plantations displace nature, create chemical and atmospheric nightmares, displace populations dependent upon these forests, and ultimately lead the way to both climate asphyxiation, and further depredation upon the worlds poor. This is not an environmental solution, but instead an economic ax in which to promote profit for the already wealthy, a.k.a. the .1 percent, at the cost of the 99.9 percent. This disparity and the systems that support it, including UN Climate Agreements are what the Pope heavily criticizes in his encyclical.

Furthermore, these biofuel strategies are supported by the European Union and policies of the United States government, including agriculture and the military. This incentivizes industry and vast portions of the private sector which seek first, profit, and recognize the environmental implications and depredations, and the generated impacts on the people of the planet as “externalities.

These are patently false solutions. They clearly run contrary to the Pope’s encyclical. And yet, undoubtedly, these solutions will be the centerpiece of any climate agreement reached in Paris at the COP21.

Unfortunately, there is very little discussion of these false solutions in our local climate justice initiatives. We certainly applaud the local climate justice movement and encourage all to attend and heed the messages delivered at today’s rally. How we produce energy is pretty darned important. How we use this energy may be far more important. We also encourage the leaders to dig deeply into what any COP21 agreement may spawn. Just demanding a reduction of carbon emissions, sans the context of consumerism and unfettered growth, is a partial and probably false solution. Certainly an industry focused, global free market capitalism response, as the pope’s encyclical points out, will create a future that furthers the depredation of nature and will do great harm to the future of civilization.

Meanwhile, we have signed the climate justice pledge, and we urge you to do the same.



The Climate Justice Pledge

We are asking all people of Western NY, our common home, to sign the pledge to

  • Call on President Obama to lead the world to a universal, legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions
  • Call on our local elected and civic leaders to take climate action through a just transition
  • Take action on behalf of the Earth and future generations

Read the entire Pledge here


For more information on the campaign, the Climate Justice Pledge and how to get involved, find us at

Sign the Climate Justice Pledge Here

Rise-up for Climate Justice Sponsored by the WNY Interfaith Climate Justice Community Coalition, Western New York Environmental Alliance and Sierra Club Niagara Group, with support from PUSH Buffalo and Partnership for the Public Good