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Laudato Si’: A political reading

The papal encyclical is the first work that has risen to the full challenge of climate change

When I was young the intellectual milieu was shaped by the need to come to terms with the unprecedented crimes and the general moral collapse that had taken place on European soil following the outbreak of great power conflict in August 1914 – Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust and the Gulag, the concentration camps and genocide, the tens of millions of deaths that had occurred in two unprecedentedly barbarous wars. For me the most important book on the contemporary crisis of civilization was Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, a complex study of racism, imperialism, anti-semitism and the regimes that had emerged in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The book was important to me not only because of its formal arguments and its insights but because it was written in a tone that seemed, unlike any other work I had read, to have risen to the extremity of the crimes and the breakdown it was struggling to understand and to explain.

In our own age we are faced with a crisis of civilisation of equivalent depth but of an altogether different kind – the gradual but apparently inexorable human-caused destruction of the condition of the Earth in which human life has flourished over the past several thousand years, at whose centre is the phenomenon we call either global warming or climate change. During the past decade I have read scores of books and thousands of articles, many outstanding, examining from every conceivable angle and also trying to explain the wreckage we are knowingly inflicting on the Earth. It was however not until last week that I read a work whose tone and scope seemed to me, like Arendt’s Origins, fully adequate to its theme. That work was Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home – in my opinion one of the most important documents of our era.

There can be little doubt that the papal encyclical is the most consequential intervention in the discussion of climate change since Al Gore’s film  An Inconvenient Truth. But as an intervention it is of an interestingly different and more radical kind. The implication of Al Gore was that the crisis we were facing had arisen as a consequence of an unhappy but nevertheless innocent accident. The condition of the Earth was under threat because the unprecedented material prosperity of industrial civilisation had been based on the disastrous but unanticipated and unanticipatable consequence of its source of energy – the burning of fossil fuels.  Knowing now what we do, all that was required to overcome the crisis, Gore argued, was to replace fossil fuels with renewables – solar, wind, hydro, geo-thermal. No doubt that transition would be anything but easy and to succeed would require great reserves of political skill and will. For Al Gore the climate crisis was however a mere hiccup in the course of history. Following the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, the fundamental human story – of expanding material prosperity through endless economic growth – would be able to be resumed with its bounty, universalised through the generosity of the developed world, spreading gradually to every corner of the Earth. For Al Gore humankind did face a crisis of the most serious kind.  But for him nevertheless, the myth of unending material progress, a core American or indeed Western faith, was untouched. 

The papal encyclical is different. Like Al Gore, indeed like all rational people, Pope Francis accepts the consensual conclusions of the climate scientists: that through the burning of fossil fuels human action is causing the Earth to warm dangerously; that this warming has already inflicted great harm and is certain to inflict catastrophe in the future, especially on poorer peoples and on future generations; that it will poison the oceans, transform lands into desert, and lead to a tragic loss of bio-diversity; and that if the effects of global warming are to be mitigated there is no alternative to the speedy elimination of fossil fuels and  the embrace of renewable sources of energy. According to the Pope, “this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and unprecedented destruction of eco-systems’.’ Indeed, because of its failure to abandon fossil fuels ‘’the post-industrial world may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in human history.’’ All this is deftly summarised in the encyclical. There is nothing about this account that is unusual or with which Al Gore would in any way disagree. Where Al Gore and Pope Francis part company is over the relation of the climate crisis to contemporary industrial civilisation.

For Gore the fundaments of this civilisation are unquestioned. For Pope Francis the climate crisis is only the most extreme expression of a destructive tendency that has become increasingly dominant through the course of industrialisation.  Judaeo-Christian thought “demythologised” nature, breaking with an earlier worldview that regarded nature as “divine”. But as the industrial age advanced, by ceasing to regard the Earth, our common home, with the proper “awe and wonder”, humans have come to behave as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits to our immediate needs.”  “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the past two hundred years.” The vision of the encyclical is not straightforwardly anti-modernist, although I have no doubt that it will be mischaracterised in this way. The advances in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications are welcomed. “Who,” Francis exclaims at one point in the encyclical, “can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” But for him, in the end, the treatment of the Earth as a resource to be mastered and exploited; the limitless appetite for consumption that has accelerated during the past 200 years of the industrial age and has culminated in our “throwaway culture”; and the most extreme consequence of the contemporary crisis of post-industrial society, the climate emergency – are inseparable phenomena, part of a general and profound civilisational malaise. “Doomsday predictions,” the encyclical claims, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe.”

Why has this come to pass? The encyclical argues that we have become slaves both to what is called the “technological paradigm” and the theory of market fundamentalism. If the history of the twentieth century proves anything, it is the potential of technology to be deployed to anti-human purpose, as it was with the Nazis in the means of killing, as it is in the modern weapons of war.  “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.” Technology has become disconnected from “human responsibility, values and conscience”. Even a lifestyle partially resisting the regime of technology is now described mockingly as “counter-cultural”. Particularly devastating for the wellbeing of both society and the environment is the alliance of convenience that has been forged between technology and economic theory, which serves the interests of the wealthy. The neo-liberal belief in “the magic of the market” ought to have been finally discredited by the global financial crisis. Indeed the encyclical describes it as a theory that “today scarcely anyone dares to defend”. In reality, however, such a belief still dominates daily economic life in practice. “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”  Financiers and technologists are united in “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit”. Talk of “sustainable development” is “usually a way of distracting attention and offering excuses”, absorbing “the language of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy”. If technology has captured the economy, in turn the economy has captured politics. The encyclical’s description of contemporary political life in a standard Western democracy is painfully familiar.

“A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term economic growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures, which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda.”

As a result of all this, civilisation has been brought to the “crossroads”.

“Everything,” the encyclical declares more than once, “is related.” One meaning here is the connectedness of our relations with all other aspects of creation – with both other creatures and with the inanimate world of nature. “Each creature has its own purpose … Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God … We can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” The connectedness between humans and nature is often captured in a language of great beauty. The meaning of the destruction of coral reefs is conveyed in these words. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?” In a rather strange but compelling turn of phrase, the encyclical enjoins us to “dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it”.

But “everything is related” has another meaning. In the contemporary world there exist not “two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but … one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”  The most important connection between the twin social and environmental crises is expressed in these words. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” The human family is disfigured by radical inequality. This inequality should arouse our “indignation”. It rarely does. The wealthy are barely in touch with the conditions of life of the poor. If the poor enter into their calculations at all, it is often as an “afterthought”. Conscience has been “numbed”. We are in danger of succumbing to a condition Francis calls “the globalisation of indifference”.

The two crises – of the environment and of society – are directly interconnected in multiple ways. It is the poorer nations who are already paying and will continue to pay the main price as the climate crisis deepens. One of the reasons for the environmental crisis is the obscene level of consumption concentrated in the wealthy nations and also among the wealthy classes in both the developed and the developing worlds. Some of the wealthy “have not the slightest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet”. Corporations remorselessly pursuing profit do not take the wellbeing of the Earth into account. The encyclical enjoins wealthy nations to abandon the ambition of economic growth and assist poorer nations to pursue a growth that is called “healthy”. To make progress in the interconnected struggle against global warming and global inequality, the encyclical also talks of the need for a world political authority. It acknowledges that none of this of course will happen without what the encyclical calls a profound “cultural revolution”.

The contemporary social crisis is not restricted however to the problem of inequality. There are signs everywhere of spiritual malaise. Societies that are devoted above all else to the promotion of a mythology connecting consumption with wellbeing are perpetuating a cruel illusion. Consumption does not, cannot, bring meaning or even ordinary happiness. In the consumer society, the ills of isolation, depression and anxiety are growing, the ties of family and community are weakening, because of what the encyclical calls “the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion”. The “consumerist vision of human beings” is rather a potent leveller of the riches offered by the variety of cultures – “their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” – one vital source of human nourishment. Compulsive consumerism creates only a counterfeit conception of freedom. The greed and self-centredness which is instilled by the consumer culture of instant gratification is also incompatible with the idea of “limits” and thus with the idea of the existence of a “common good”. Interestingly, the encyclical argues that it is not the old enemy of the Church, “doctrinal relativism”, but what it calls “practical relativism” that is now inflicting the greater social harm. We are encouraged by the market philosophy not to cooperate but to compete and “for one person to take advantage of another”. Societies are convinced to “allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage”. Sensing imbalance in life, people are driven to a frenetic busy-ness. “In turn [this] leads them to ride rough-shod over everything about them.” The encyclical characterises the trajectory of contemporary culture with the neologism “rapidification”. As a result of all this, it argues, we have now reached a very strange place where, despite unprecedented material prosperity, “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future”.    

In the encyclical, the analysis of the condition of contemporary culture in turn provides the explanation for the most troubling puzzle of the modern era, our abject failure thus far to rise to the challenge of global warming, a failure that explains why the encyclical argues that our generation is likely to be seen as the most irresponsible in history. Climate change denialism is the obvious self-interest of the economically powerful forces of society who, in the words of the encyclical “mask the problems … and conceal the symptoms”.  “Is it realistic to hope,” the encyclical inquires, “that those who are obsessed with maximising profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they leave behind for future generations?” But there also exists something more common than outright climate change denialism, a climate change inertia which is fostered, according to the encyclical, by “a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and cheerful recklessness”.  The encyclical’s account of the psychological mechanism supporting climate change inertia is unusually shrewd and thus worth quoting at some length.

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear … Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present life-styles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

Pope Francis is also shrewd about the climate change denialism and the climate change inertia found in the ranks of his fellow Catholics. “It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and become inconsistent.” This passage might have been written with Cardinal Pell in mind. Come to think of it, perhaps it was.

Despite everything, however, it would involve a profound misreading of the encyclical to imagine that it was written without a belief that there are real and not merely confected grounds for hope. The encyclical is entirely unambiguous in the praise it offers the international environmental movement for its intelligence of judgment and its achievements. “Worldwide, the ecological movement has made significant advances … Thanks to their efforts, environmental questions have increasingly found a place on public agendas.” Even though the encyclical recognises how difficult it is for the younger generation who “have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence” to develop different habits, it knows that many are aware of what is happening to the common home of the human family and of the terrible betrayal by their parents’ generation. It argues that they possess “a new ecological sensitivity and generous spirit”. Yet the grounds for hope in the encyclical rest ultimately on a faith in certain enduring and unexpungable qualities of what can only be called the human spirit. We have been endowed with free will which means that human history reveals both “decadence and mutual destruction” but also “freedom, growth, salvation and love”. Humans can transcend “their mental and social conditioning”. They are “born for love”. “No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful.” “All is not lost.” This thought weaves its way throughout the encyclical, lightening the darkness. On occasions it is expressed quite wonderfully. “An authentic humanity … seems to dwell in the midst of the technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.” Pope Francis reminds us of the story from Genesis of the innocent and just man, Noah, who lived at a time when “the wickedness of man was great in the earth”. Through him, however, God “gave humanity the chance of a new beginning. All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”


As I am incapable of locating Laudato Si’ within the frame of Catholic thought, what I have tried to provide here is a political reading. So have others. Some right-wing critics have claimed that the encyclical reveals that the Pope is a secret Marxist. This seems to me preposterous. Marxism is a materialist philosophy if it is anything. The encyclical is an expression of religious thought throughout and, philosophically speaking, of idealism. If a concern for the poor, or the rejection of radical inequality, or suspicion about the self-interested behaviour of the mega-wealthy is to be regarded as Marxist, there exists a global army of Marxists far mightier than I have ever imagined it to be. Another critique links the encyclical with the kind of anti-modernism or “cultural pessimism” that was found on the far right of Europe especially during the interwar period. This is a more plausible critique but also I believe quite mistaken. At the heart of interwar cultural pessimism was an elitist contempt for “the masses” and a hatred of democracy. What is unusual in the encyclical is the marriage of a critique of contemporary post-industrial culture with the most profound and sincere democratic beliefs and instincts. In its rejection of the spirit of our technological-industrial-consumer society there are undoubtedly similarities between the encyclical and the sociological critique of modernity expressed most profoundly in the work of Zygmunt Bauman. Yet there is a religious and transcendental element found in the encyclical, which is entirely absent in Bauman. Of all major contemporary political thinkers of whom I am aware, the one who most closely resembles Francis is Vaclav Havel in whose great work, The Power of the Powerless, several major tendencies of the encyclical can be found – hostility to the technological-industrial-consumer society, profound democratic faith, and a notion of transcendence grounded in the idea of the human spirit. Havel’s masterwork was however written before the problem of climate change became apparent.

With mainstream climate change writers and activists, like Al Gore or Nicholas Stern, who believe that political will and technological ingenuity will provide democratic capitalist society with a benign exit from the climate crisis, Francis shares only acceptance of the conclusions of the climate scientists and an anxiety about the inertia of the international community’s response thus far. He shares more with the radical anti-capitalist green left, of whom presently the most important activist-writer is Naomi Klein, and in particular an understanding that only a transformative revolution can provide us with an exit from the impending climate tragedy. However while the revolution Klein looks for is political and economic, the end of what I call “really existing capitalism”, the revolution that Francis’s vision requires is cultural and spiritual. If I am not mistaken, the word capitalism is not to be found in the papal encyclical. There is however one major climate activist-writer, Bill McKibben, whose anti-technological and anti-industrial writings, as seen in The End of Nature or more recently in Oil and Honey, rather closely resembles Laudato Si’, in sensibility at least if not in formal argument. Immediately after reading the encyclical, McKibben wrote in the New York Review of Books.

“My own sense, after spending the day reading this remarkable document, was of great relief … This marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognised the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent necessary rethinking of what it means to be fully human.”

This was my sentiment as well.

Sentiment is however not enough, as McKibben himself concedes. It will take considerable time for the meaning of the encyclical to be absorbed and assessed. When I think back on the impact on my political thought of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, I can recognise now that, while I learnt an enormous amount from it, on certain issues I was seriously misled. In his furious attack on the encyclical in the Australian, Paul Kelly wondered whether the environmental movement across the globe and in Australia would have “the nous” to seize the political opportunity occasioned by the publication of the encyclical. I hope that it does. The first step ought however not to involve propaganda, as Kelly fears, but engagement in a vital but also a difficult debate. Although it will not be easy to find a balance between the worldviews of Al Gore and Pope Francis, that is what, in my opinion, those concerned about the wellbeing of the Earth are now called upon to do.

About the author Robert Manne

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book is The Mind of the Islamic State, Redback, Black Inc.      

 
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