"Everything is Connected" - Thoughts on the Environmental Encyclical of Pope Francis

Photo: Aleteia.

Photo: Aleteia.

Laudato si' is the second encyclical of Pope Francis, and the first that is considered entirely his work.  Encyclicals are letters written by the Pope intended to provide authoritative guidance to bishops (or occasionally a wider audience) on a particular question or issue of high importance, considered significant in part for their rarity.  Pope Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, wrote three in his eight years of papal service, and before him John Paul II wrote 14 in his 27 years.  Encyclicals are not produced lightly, and signal that the issues addressed are of high priority to the Catholic Church.

That Laudato si' is largely focused on the environment and its degradation is therefore a watershed moment for international environmental lawmaking and the human-natural relationship in general.  So far many (examples here, here, and here) are pigeon-holing the encyclical as a manifesto on climate change, and that's unfortunate.  I've written about the overshadowing effect climate change has on other environmental issues (see here and here), and Laudato si' appears to be falling victim to that dynamic.  In reality the encyclical is much broader, questioning fundamental assumptions about human society and our relationship with the earth - and ourselves.  In particular, Pope Francis expresses skepticism in humanity's collective trust in technological progress, free markets, and utilitarian materialism.  Give the Pope credit for one thing at least: he's not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

Interspersed with these weighty pronouncements are some environmental law and policy positions I find significant in part because Pope Francis eschews the typical platitudes found in many environmental advocacy documents, instead honing in on some very specific prescriptions.  

Take water law for example.  One of the fundamental tensions in water management is a seeming contradiction between privatizing water resources and taking advantage of market fundamentals on the one hand, and the belief that water is a common good and a human right on the other hand.  Jewish and Islamic texts generally perceive water as a common good (Sharia literally means "the way to water").  Here is Pope Francis' position:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.

A human right to water has been advocated for by many in the last decade, pushing back against perceptions (such as the Dublin Declaration in 1992) that water is an economic good.  Unfortunately a human right to a finite natural resource is easier to pronounce than operationalize, and few who advocate for a human right to water have come up with a policy that reconciles universal water rights with the realities of water scarcity.  The Pope offers one solution, at once obvious and elusive: wholesale lifestyle change and a rejection of practical relativism.  "A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle."  In other words, environmental change can happen only through self-change and a less consumerist way of life.

Contemporary notions of democracy are similarly challenged by the encyclical.  It is the short-term thinking of politicians and their constituents that prevents the long-term thinking prudent natural resources management requires in the first place.  Intergenerational equity is not a new concept, but receives little support from status quo institutions.  Here Laudito si' uses it not only to justify long-term thinking, but also to reject the cost-benefit paradigm that is prevalent in even liberal environmental circles:

Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.

Here I think the Pope gives too little credit to the potential of market forces to internalize externalities.  Valuation of ecosystem services is challenging, to be sure, but methodologies are being improved upon every day.  At the end of the day, is internalizing external costs a more difficult undertaking than adopting wholesale lifestyle changes?  Certainly there is value in having a better understanding of the value ecosystems provide.

Ultimately the encyclical acknowledges the role and need for environmental laws, but remains deeply skeptical of the institutions in place to enforce them:

Whether in the administration of the state, the various levels of civil society, or relationships between individuals themselves, lack of respect for the law is becoming more common. Laws may be well framed yet remain a dead letter. Can we hope, then, that in such cases, legislation and regulations dealing with the environment will really prove effective? We know, for example, that countries which have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch laws repeatedly being broken.

To me that's not a rejection of environmental law as much as an acknowledgement that environmental laws are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a healthy environment.  But the encyclical starts to contradict itself some by promoting the principle of subsidiarity (the idea that governance should be decentralized to take advantage of local knowledge and conditions) while at the same time rejecting policies that may be effective in one jurisdiction or another.  "There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations." Yet the Pope rejects carbon credits because they "may simply become a ploy" for continued degradation.  They may, or they may not.  But it seems to me that local experimentation should be encouraged, and if political actors can compromise on a cap-and-trade program, well, let's see what they can do.  

At the end of the day, Laudito si' is a remarkable document for its scope and ambition.  Not only does it elevate "the environment" to a higher position on political priority lists around the world, it frames a wide variety of seemingly disparate global challenges through the lens of environmental degradation.  Laudito si' is being hailed as a climate change piece, but in his first major encyclical, Pope Francis has done much more than advocate for climate change action.  Laudito si' questions fundamental assumptions about human social order and our relationship with both the earth and ourselves.