What Pope Francis Got Right: Undergoing Ecological Conversion

Hector F. Sierra

In his encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home), officially published in June 2015, Pope Francis critiques consumerism and irresponsible development and calls for “swift and unified global action” to combat environmental degradation and human-caused global warming. Practically all major conservancy groups and activists praised the pope for siding with the scientific consensus that not only is global warming happening, but it is mostly humanity’s fault.

As expected, there was immediate backlash from denialists and special interests. Probably a more troubling sign of things to come was that while many U.S. bishops reacted positively to the encyclical, they were not as vocal in their support as when they denounced the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, which occurred around the same time.

Although the encyclical uses the arcane language of Catholic doctrine, it represents a radical departure from the anthropocentric narrative of traditional Catholicism. Above all, Francis rejects the notion of man’s absolute dominion over Earth as being theologically misguided and spiritually dangerous. Thus, because of our careless actions, we have debased human life and have mismanaged a world that was entrusted to us by God. We also had the arrogance to presume to take the place of God and refuse to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This disrupted the harmony between the creator, humanity, and creation and, as a result, “the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual.”

Francis is not only aiming to develop an environmentally friendly narrative but a brand-new theology. “We are moving to a new theology,” openly acknowledged the Irish Catholic priest and theologian Seán McDonagh, who was part of the drafting process of the encyclical.*

Indeed, an entire chapter of the encyclical is devoted to the need for an “ecological conversion” among Christians, “whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” By asserting that nature has an intrinsic value, Francis is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world as an unconditional gift to humans—as something to be dominated and exploited for their own benefit.

Despite its radical stance, nonbelievers may be turned off by the doctrinal language and by the fact that ideology limits the scope of the corrective actions proposed in the encyclical. For example, there is hardly any disagreement among experts that unrestrained population growth puts more pressure on an already fragile ecosystem. Nonetheless, a reduction in birthrates is discounted in the encyclical: “Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. . . . To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” The encyclical thus leaves out one of the most effective tools to reduce birthrates and redress inequality: women’s education.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss outright the analysis and proposals in the encyclical. In fact, the encyclical brings up critical issues that can provide a strong foundation for common action with nonbelievers. It is clear that technology, economics, and politics should all play key roles in finding solutions to climate change and world poverty. I do not think the pope denies this much (although see my discussion below). Nonetheless, as the encyclical makes clear, the real challenge of climate change is ethical and behavioral, not technical or economic.

In the encyclical, the pope bemoans a culture of relativism that drives the “invisible forces of the market” to satisfy “our own desires and immediate needs.” The markets in fact serve our wants and desires, not our intrinsic needs. To be more precise, markets prod people to want things that they do not really need. The more we consume, the more we are flooded with things we can do without. Breaking out of this vicious circle is hard, because the system is rigged in favor of powerful corporate interests that place short-term profits above human well-being.

Undeniably, the huge appetite for short-term profits drives much of the investment in new technologies. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle as bigger and bigger shares of capital are allocated to innovations that promise quicker returns. This in turn results in less financing available for transformational ideas, even in innovative places such as Silicon Valley. Currently, the average exit time of venture capital—the length of time between the initial investment in a company and the date at which the investors exit—is less than five years.

This short-term focus is obviously problematic, as the benefits of investments destined to correct problems such as global warming may not be seen for decades. This also explains why the markets, efficient as they are, not only have been unable to counteract the negative effects of global warming but have made matters worse. It is doubtful that economic policies and government regulation by themselves will be enough to reverse these deeply ingrained trends—at least not before we do irreparable damage to the ecosystem.

The pope, I believe, is correct when he argues that a new way of thinking is needed to change the status quo. “If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mind-sets really do influence our behavior. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.” Indeed, if we want to transform the world, we need first to transform ourselves.

Even if only a fraction of the world’s Catholics experience an “ecological conversion,” the world will be better for it. Nevertheless, a much more broad-based movement is required to make profound changes in the corporate business model and to implement the policy actions envisaged in the encyclical. What’s more, the number of Catholics, and thus their political clout, is steadily decreasing in the industrialized countries. There is then not much hope for substantial changes unless non-Catholics also experience an ecological conversion of sorts.

In essence, stripped from its doctrinal language and symbolism, ecological conversion in the encyclical entails four main practical aspects and actions. The first is to “achieve a reconciliation with creation” by examining our lives and acknowledging the ways in which we have harmed the world “through our actions and our failure to act.” Second is to overcome our “individualistic ways” and actively participate in the creation of community networks. “The work for dominating the world calls for a union of skills and a unity of achievement that can only grow from quite a different attitude.” Third is a “loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” Fourth, it should “inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems.”

Clearly, belief in God is not necessary to experience a “secular” ecological conversion. In fact, the most eco-friendly countries—Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany—are also among the least religious. It is not clear, however, that the members of our materialistic, status-conscious society will be willing to let go of their SUVs, McMansions, and energy-hungry gadgets. It is also doubtful that we’ll overcome our distrust of strangers to reach out to people from other cultures to form community networks. Indeed, the historical record shows that it is difficult for people to change their core values, even if their lives depend on it.

In his 2005 best-seller, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale in his account of the Viking colonies of Greenland, which collapsed in the fifteenth century after four and a half centuries of continuous occupation. The Norse had viewed themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and they despised the local Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit.

In reality, we are no more likely to shed our core values than we are to stop thinking in our first language. The reason is that values do not exist in a vacuum in our own minds, because they are linked to other values and beliefs. What holds our values together and lends coherence to our lives is a “core narrative” that explains how we came to be this way today and where we are going. Since no two narratives are alike, they give our lives their unique and culturally anchored meanings. They shape our behavior, establish our identity, and integrate us into social life. Narrative identity thus provides us with a sense of self, unity, purpose, and meaning.

Effectively, the pope is aiming to develop a narrative identity consistent with the values and mindset of an “ecological” consumer and citizen. To do so, the pope realizes that he cannot rely on doctrine alone. In order to bring a “more passionate concern for the protection of the world,” he uses the awe-inspiring figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom he took his papal name. Like Saint Francis, the pope encourages us to lead a life of austerity and contemplation: “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’”

What gives Christianity its wide appeal is the biblical narrative at its core, which explains the world to the faithful and provides them with a set of values and an absolute code of conduct. This very power, however, also makes it hard for the faithful to change. The pope may be trying to develop a brand new “ecological” theology, but his “story editing” cannot stray too far from the core master narrative. This is why, in the end, the encyclical does not contemplate important actions such as a reduction in birthrates. This is not, however, the only problem.

As I mentioned, any solution aiming to address issues such as global warming and income inequality ultimately has to incorporate the government and work through the markets. After all, the markets have helped to take a billion people out of extreme poverty over the last twenty years. Ideally, the markets should contribute to not only wants but the fulfillment of people’s intrinsic needs and in an “ecologically” sustainable way.

However, the only way to make the corporate business model more attuned with our needs and with the environment is by changing our collective consumption and investment patterns, not by retreating from the markets. At the same time, we need to ensure as citizens that governments will contribute to these changes through their regulatory and fiscal powers. It is fine to adopt a “prophetic and contemplative” lifestyle, as long as it does not preclude active economic and political participation.

Yet the pope is right that “we are faced with an educational challenge.” A college education should not just be sophisticated job training as it currently is in most institutions. Instead, it should comprise the economic, the political, and the ethical in order to prepare students to be responsible consumers and citizens. An education should also endow students with the analytical skills that can help them face world problems squarely and avoid simplistic solutions.

Moreover, it is critical that students develop an “ecological” mind-set. As I argue above, religious belief is not required to develop a “more passionate” concern for the world. The educational institutions should nonetheless follow the pope’s lead and instill in their students a narrative identity suitable for a multicultural, multiethnic, fragile world. In fact, I believe that a “master narrative” based on scientific knowledge is more propitious for an ecological conversion.

Consider what we have learned about our amazing common history: we all can trace our lineage back fourteen billion years through generations of stars. The particles and atoms that make up all the matter on Earth, including our bodies and brains, were created in stars as the by-products of nuclear reactions. They floated for millions of years through space to become part of our solar system. After the sun and Earth were formed, it took four and a half billion years for intelligent life to emerge. We are all literally the product of billions of years of evolution.

This should not only provide students with a “cosmic perspective” of deep time and space but also create an “awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures.” Indeed, humans are not above nature, they are part of nature. This knowledge should also help us overcome our “individualistic ways” in order to participate in “community networks.” In fact, scientific projects and endeavors provide the best examples of “a union of skills and a unity of achievement” and of “greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems.” Case in point: ITER, a $21 billion project to explore nuclear fusion, the fuel that lights the sun and other stars, is being built in France by seven international partners, including the European Union, Russia, China, and the United States.

I respect and admire Pope Francis’s brave effort to harness the power of religious conviction for the common good. By proposing a radical interpretation that goes against the conventional wisdom, he has gained powerful detractors inside as well as outside the Church. I also believe that Pope Francis is right when he argues that in order for us to figure out how to work together, we need to rethink what it means to be human. Yet it is science, not religion, that should ultimately guide us in the quest to figure out who we are. The fate of humankind is too important to leave it in the hands of God.

*Quoted in Naomi Klein, “A Radical Vatican?” The New Yorker, July 10, 2015.

Hector F. Sierra

Hector F. Sierra is a former development economist of the World Bank and a former board member of the Center for Inquiry. He is currently a consultant for the Treasury of the World Bank.


“Francis is not only aiming to develop an
environmentally friendly narrative but a brand-new theology.”

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