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Pope Francis and the Environment

A geologist’s speed reading guide to the pope’s climate encyclical.

July 26, 2015

A geologist's speed reading guide to the pope's climate encyclical.

Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si, On Care of Our Common Home” of May 24, 2015, is 184 pages long. The Pope, trained as a chemist, turned the eye of both a scientist and a religious man toward climate change. Bob Raynolds, Research Associate of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, went through it all and provides a 1,240 word synopsis.

Pope Francis calls on all of us to devote more care to our home ecosystem. Time and again, he calls for us to recognize the interdependency of nature and human society. Because they are linked, damage inflicted on nature corrodes our social fabric.

Perceptions of the limitless abundance of nature and of limitless human freedom result in careless exploitation of our natural heritage. Enhanced global ecological awareness should increase our care for the global ecology. Pope Francis gives us a choice:

    “If we approach nature … without an openness to awe … our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, exploiters…By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then … care will well-up spontaneously.”

    Care for our home requires the collaboration of all people, the rich, the powerful, the poor, the powerless, young and old.

    What is happening to our common home?

    To this question, Francis offers an answer stunning to many: Through our actions,

    the earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth.

    Our climate is the major gift to the “commons” of humankind – it is a common good and mankind is unquestionably causing its degradation:

      “The problem is aggravated by … the intensive use of fossil fuels…Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all…[Climate change] represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity.”

    Enlarge Credit: Calin Tatu –

    Francis emphasizes that the powerless and poor suffer most from the degradation of nature. Migrants flee the poverty caused by it, yet the powerful – indifferent to the suffering of the poor and displaced – deny or try to mask it. He calls for policies to reduce the emission of polluting gases.

    Water: the basis and sustainer of life

    The diminishing supply of fresh water renders attempts to privatize it and subject it to the laws of the marketplace bizarre and inhuman.

    …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.”

    Speaking as the 21st century St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis mourns the increasing loss of biodiversity among plant and animal species: “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.”

    Human interventions are diminishing the earth’s resources and replacing them with technology and consumer goods:

    We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something we have created ourselves.

    Handing our ecosystems over to the market inhibits their preservation. Instead, we all need far-sightedness to protect the global ecosystem, including oceans, water and all living creatures.

    Here Francis really sounds like the scientist he was and is (he started as a chemist): “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding…the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with modifications of the environment.”

    Then the theologian reasserts himself: “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished, … for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

    The decline in the quality of human life

    The Pope laments the decline in the quality of life due to problems in cities, the absence of green space and the overreliance on the digital world: “When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.”

    Enlarge Credit: Calin Tatu –

    Indeed, societal disintegration can occur when interpersonal relations suffer, isolation increases and we resort to escapism through media.

    Global inequality

    Solutions for climate change must factor in that those who suffer most are the poor. An ecological approach would also become “a social approach … so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

    Science and religion must engage in intense dialogue. Biblical teaching puts us in our rightful place: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” The appropriate use of human intelligence is to respect the laws of nature and the “delicate equilibria” in the world.

    Acknowledging “the human origin of the ecological crisis” requires the acknowledgement of the limits of technology and traditional economics.

    Human responsibility, values and conscience have not held pace with technological development. Economists push the idea of unlimited growth “based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods.”

    The globalization of the technocratic paradigm

    Globally, we are losing a sense of wonder about purpose and meaning: “There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity…the accumulation of novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction… Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this.”

    “Cultural revolution” to shed our “delusions of grandeur”

    Man’s growing centeredness on himself prizes technology over reality and obviates responsible stewardship of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

    The Pope calls for an “integral ecology” that combines the environmental, economic and social spheres of life. “An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics.”

    Justice between the generations

    While we need to focus on today’s poor who have immediate needs, we also must think of coming generations: “We may well be leaving the coming generations debris, desolation, and filth…Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others.”

    Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world also belongs to those who will follow us.

    Dialogue in the international community

    Living in our common home, Francis calls for “a global consensus…for confronting the deeper problems” of poverty, the lack of social development and the consumption among the privileged. It is critical not to leave the underdeveloped countries out of the ecological revolution. The developed countries must help them.

    All countries need to work together to protect the oceans and other global commons: “Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term…The time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

    Toward a new lifestyle

    We are in an era of consumerism, but we are capable of a healthier lifestyle. We need “educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people…to grow in solidarity, responsibility, and compassionate care.”

    Educating our children and ourselves in environmental responsibility can “enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.”

    If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used without scruple.

    Pope Francis elevates the civic and the political, seeing both as necessary and creative forces in a new lifestyle:

    “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

    Editor’s Note: Bob Raynolds was a presenter on science at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2015 of the Aspen Institute.


Because nature and human society are linked, damage inflicted on nature corrodes our social fabric.

Migrants flee the poverty caused by degradation of nature. The powerful deny or try to mask it.

The diminishing supply of fresh water renders attempts to privatize it bizarre.

Human interventions are diminishing the earth’s resources fast.

Humans need to respect the laws of nature and the “delicate equilibria” in the world.

We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.

The Pope calls for “integral ecology” combining environmental, economic and social spheres of life.