The pope has just produced a letter, addressed to everybody who might be interested, encouraging a change of heart and a change of lifestyle, for the good of our planet. His words will strike a chord with many and doubtless annoy a lot of people as well – particularly those who share Adam Smith’s brisk attitude to ‘whining moralists’ (see previous) and who regard the unquestioned pursuit of personal comfort and well-being as a perfectly legitimate aim in life.
I’d highlight two themes of particular interest that run through the document (there are of course many). One is that concern for global ecology has to include human ecology – human social, political and economic activity has to be viewed as an integral part of our world’s ecosystems. The other (following out of it) is that a new economics and a new civic culture are needed to achieve fair and balanced access to the world’s resources for all. Green is also Red.
The stumbling block to any such transformation is, of course, the way we have been brought up, what we have got used to, what our culture has taught us to aspire to. Here the entrepreneurial virtues of Republican Rome, espoused by Adam Smith and his (selective) admirers, run up against the monkish – or rather friarish – virtues that run through the tradition of Western Christianity. Are we prepared to drink fewer lattes and make other sacrifices for the poor, or for the forests, and why would that really do any good?
This document will divide those who are optimistic that new technologies will ensure continuous growth and cope with any damage to ecosystems and those who believe that we need to find a new way of living, in an economy which has the structure of a sustainable ecological cycle.
At the heart of the document, though, is a vision, elements of which will be recognisable to many religious traditions and some secular ones (modern equivalents of true Epicureanism for instance): a vision of the place of humanity within the world’s systems, but with a unique responsibility for protecting a precious and wonderful gift. It implies a contemplative love for the world, but especially for the poor and marginalised. Only out of such a vision comes the conversion of attitude that can lead to ecologically friendly living.
As said, some will reject the idealisation of ‘monkish virtues’ as a betrayal of robust, go-getter humanity by whining moralists. Others will question the need for, let alone the possibility of, another way of doing things. Much of the ground, the concerns and the proposals will be familiar from other sources – this is not a document created in a vacuum as the references show (and that is as it should be). The text is occasionally elliptic (perhaps due to the editing process). The cultural narrative sometimes falls into a classic Vatican bounce between an over-generalised pessimism and pat-on-the-head optimism about elements of modernity. Technology and science have brought great benefits, but have objectified our view of the world. Economics can be reformed and business is a noble concern, yet business interests and the profit motive are destroying the planet. Nevertheless, this is a robust and trenchant re-rooting of ecological and social concerns at the heart of the projects of at least one significant religious group, and it is an attractive and thought-provoking invitation to dialogue for anyone who is half-way prepared to share those concerns.
The whole letter runs to 77 A4 pages. This digest, reduced to 12 pages, will give you (I hope) a reasonably authentic flavour of the whole.
For a richer and more detailed commentary see Damian Howard SJ on Thinking Faith