This week's reading of Pope Francis' 2015 letter to the world, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, talks about the necessity of change in the way we move forward in paragraphs 194 -198 (they can be accessed by clicking here and scrolling down). Given the urgency of our warming planet (evidenced in the recent wildfire at Fort McMurray that grew to over 5000 sq km this past week and crossed the Alberta border into Saskatchewan, as well as fires in Siberia, Africa, and other places), His Holiness' letter is too gentle in many ways. But there are a few spots in this week's reading where he's almost feisty! Almost...
Human progress in the past has left us with a planet and many species that are suffering due to environmental and social degradation. We see exploitation, species extinction and incredible poverty on the one hand, and overabundance, greed and extreme wealth on the other. Remembering the words of Einstein about not being able to solve our problems with the same thinking that created them, it's clear we must come to define progress differently:
It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress (paragraph 194).Somewhere along the way, we've been brainwashed to believe that progress and growth of any kind are always a positive thing, forgetting that they must always be evaluated in terms of the big picture, the common good. Too much growth in the human body is often known as cancer. And the words SUSTAINABLE GROWTH can fall into that category, too, the Pope says, when they become an excuse or a distraction. We think we are choosing sustainable options when really we are buying into "halfway measures" that "delay the inevitable disaster."
For some reason, this brings to my mind all the products on the shelves of our stores these days that are marketed as "sustainable," "ecologically friendly," "earth safe," or any other number of terms that would seem to indicate that they won't harm (or are less harmful -- than what?) to the environment. But the thing we need to remember about marketing is that it's often designed to mislead consumers using what's known as 'greenwashing.'
However, just slapping a 'green' label on a product doesn't alter it in the least, and marketers have been known to do just that in the hopes that the eye candy of a more "natural" appearance on, say, a dish detergent bottle, will catch the eye of consumers who want to feel good about saving the environment. But even with pretty leaves on the labels, it's buyer beware, and we all need to educate ourselves and each other about product ingredients, production, and what the labels are actually telling us. Click here to access Lindsay Coulter, the Queen of Green, and her helpful list of bona fide green labels, and feel free to share it with your friends. Don't let anyone you know be fooled by greenwashing! Generally, the simpler the ingredients/production, the better.
Our desire for progress is a tricky thing. We would all be wise to consider that sustainable growth is something of any oxymoron on a planet with limited resources. Sufficiency would be a much better phrase to apply to the way we need to live. Do we have sufficient food, shelter, clothing, etc. to satisfy our basic needs?
As paragraph 195 notes, profit maximization is too frequently isolated from what products actually cost the earth and its inhabitants. As was noted by Pope Benedict in paragraph 50 of his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, ethical production occurs only when "the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognised with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations." Popes love to quote other popes, and that quotation is good food for thought. How many of us are aware of what our North American lifestyle actually costs future generations, or our brothers and sisters in the developing world? And how do we begin to tally those costs and make up for them?
Paragraph 196 of Laudato Si underlines the principle of subsidiarity (a good definition of it can be found by clicking here) -- which expects that those with greater power will take greater responsibility for the common good by ensuring that every member of society, including the most vulnerable, has the freedom to fulfil her or his potential, from the grassroots up. Success and self-reliance don't give the strong absolute power over the weak if subsidiarity has its way, but rather we all invest in each other's efforts regardless of our abilities.
Unfortunately, political corruption and incompetence create many social and environmental problems for our world, but to this Pope Francis says, "A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations [greenwashing again] while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture" (paragraph 197).
In other words, we can't just blame our elected officials and business leaders for the state of our sister, Mother Earth. After all, we are the ones who vote and who support or reject businesses with our consumer dollars. If business and political leaders aren't living up to the challenge of caring for our common home, we have to highlight the distractions that get in the way of real action through boycotts or other forms of engagement. "While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding onto or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable" (paragraph 198). But we at the grassroots level need to work together, to wake politics and business up to their true responsibilities!
And just how do we do that? By helping our leaders to learn that progress can consist of maintaining what we already have so that it can be shared at every level. They need to be educated toward realizing that we live on a finite planet that needs to be treated with care. We have to let them know of our desire to support them when it comes to making difficult choices around moving to forms of energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, to take steps to clean up our planet, to help them see progress as a graph that levels off to a plateau where everyone has just enough, to bring about change that won't bankrupt the earth any further.
Most of all, we have to be willing to re-imagine our world with sufficiency as our goal for all of creation.
Next up: Kissin' cousins