On Thursday, September 10, I participated in a panel discussion at Loras College, which had the aim of introducing students to Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’. I was asked to briefly summarize my interpretation of the encyclical and indicate what I took to be the most important take-away points. I’m pasting below my prepared remarks.
Francis’s first task in the encyclical is, in his words, to make us “painfully aware” of what is happening to our world and how the ecological crisis threatens the integrity of the earth’s natural systems and our brothers and sisters (sec. 19).
However, Francis doesn’t simply reiterate the consensus view of the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change is threatening ecological equilibrium. As I interpret it, his project has at least these three basic elements, though they are not presented in this order: First, he provides a diagnosis of the underlying disease (“dis-ease”) which has given rise to our environmental crisis (see Chapter 3). Second, he shows how the Christian faith requires that we rehabilitate our relationship with the earth and he argues that it demands that we respond to the ecological crisis in a particular sort of way (see Chapter 2). Finally, he seeks to engender a form of dialogue which is aimed at curing the underlying dis-ease that is wreaking havoc on our common home (see sec. 121, 143, 146, and Chapter 5).
I’d like to briefly unpack each of these three points, beginning with his diagnosis of the underlying disease. First let me state what he doesn’t say. Some commentators have interpreted Francis as arguing that the root of the ecological crisis is a failure to believe in God. This isn’t quite right, since many of the people who have contributed to the present ecological crisis have been and are believers of one variety or another. Francis does claim that Christians and others have not adequately appreciated the gospel of creation as it is presented in the Bible (Chapter 2), but our rupture with the earth and our fellow creatures, like our rupture with God, is a condition in which believers and non-believers are implicated.
Indeed, if we had to isolate in a more precise manner one overarching and important cause of the ecological crisis, it would be one that clearly influences believers and non-believers alike: and this is what Francis labels the “technocratic paradigm.” The technocratic paradigm is the worldview or ideology which sustains and perpetuates a socio-economic system that encourages blind and directionless economic growth at the expense of the environment and both human and non-human populations. This system requires and encourages a constant acceleration and intensification of the extraction of natural resources, the production and consumption of goods, and the disposal of waste (see sec. 18). The problem is that neither we, as individuals, nor our social structures, nor the earth’s natural systems are well-equipped to handle this constant acceleration (sec. 18). In short, our existing practices are neither socially, economically, nor environmentally sustainable: they cannot be sustained over the long term without causing significant and perhaps irreparable harm.
Moreover, the technocratic paradigm encourages us to buy into and live our lives in service to technology and capital (sec. 109). Francis argues that these impersonal and inhuman creations of ours have become our masters (sec. 107), whereas we ought to be masters over them, employing them in the service of the common good. He very clearly states that technology and capital have an internal logic of their own (sec. 108), and, when left unchecked, they impose their own ends on our political, economic, and social activities.
Unfortunately, we have internalized this technocratic paradigm (it has become our worldview) and it colors our values, desires, fears, anxieties, how we conceive of things, and–I would argue—our spiritual lives (sec. 110; cf. sec. 111).
In opposition to the reigning order, Francis suggests that political and economic structures have to be repositioned to facilitate the good work of civil society, by which he means the various social groups and collectives that are organized in pursuit of the common good (see sec. 38 and 166). He suggests that neither the state nor free markets, by themselves, can be trusted to offer us deliverance from the ecological crisis (sec. 109).
It is with these sobering thoughts in mind that he appeals for us to start a dialogue about how to shape our future (Chapter 5). This is meant to be a multifaceted exchange between not only scientists and religious leaders, but all people of good will. As he notes, many of the efforts to establish concrete solutions to the problems we face have been suffered, on the one hand because there are powerful people with political and economic interests in maintaining the status quo (see sec. 52, 54, 56, and 107), and on the other hand because there is a worrisome lack of interest on the part of ordinary people (sec. 14).
Now, in light of all this, there are three tightly connected take-away points, or really, calls to action, that I would identify as being uniquely important for this audience (students and faculty here at Loras). They are as follows:
(1) The first is destructive: We need to engage in an intense, interdisciplinary, inter-religious critical examination and deconstruction of the reigning technocratic paradigm.
(2) The second is about recognizing and seeing things differently: We need to awaken our understanding of our co-creatureliness. I believe this requires learning to think in terms of systems and networks. We need to not only recognize that all things (including ourselves) are enmeshed in the vast communion of being, but we need to see how this interconnectedness bears on all of our significant relationships and complicates our ethical decision making. (See sec. 139.)
(3) The third is constructive: We need to imagine alternatives to the technocratic paradigm and develop new and different ways of engaging in economic production, using the earth’s resources, and disposing of or reusing waste. These new practices must be oriented toward greater asceticism, justice, and authentic sustainability.
Of course, all of this will be both intellectually and existentially challenging. Most of you probably came to college with the intention of receiving training that would make you well-suited to take up a post in our technocracy in one way or another. And we faculty take this to be part of our job. We want you to be successful, responsible contributors to society. But together we need to think carefully about what this means. Are we sending you forth in service of the status quo, or will you be conscientious, engaged citizens who can face the worrisome realities with which we are confronted while challenging and seeking to create alternatives to the technocratic paradigm?
Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.