Watching the worldwide climate protests organized by the group Extinction Rebellion over the last month has been a sobering experience. Earnest and impassioned, the demonstrators are clearly motivated by a deep appreciation of the splendors of our common home and they rightly reject irresponsible lifestyles that lack respect for creation and damage the natural world. Sadly, they are also terrified of impending "extinction," and filled with an unbecoming accusatory anger that fuels their disruptive protests.
Anger and fear are prominent features of the modern environmental movement and it seems both are only increasing. This is a great shame. A movement characterized by optimism, joy, and solidarity is more likely to spark a much-needed global ecological conversion than one that intimidates, berates, and divides.
Pope Francis has made it his pontifical mission to come to the rescue. Through his 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si," his gentle periodic reminders, and, perhaps most importantly, this past month's Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, the pope proposes something different: an ecological movement rooted not in an angry, panicked asceticism but in loving generosity and, in Patriarch Bartholomew's words, quoted by Francis, "learning to give, not simply to give up."
It would be better, as Pope Francis teaches, to foster an open-hearted attitude that liberates us from greed and fear without browbeating the "haves" of this world. And just as importantly, the pope suggests that we can lend the environmental movement coherence by teaching it to stand in solidarity with people who are, for various reasons, too often viewed as pests on what would otherwise be a world of immeasurable beauty.
"Laudato Si" are the first words of the medieval mystic Saint Francis of Assisi's lyric poem, "The Canticle of the Sun." The poem is a paean of exultant gratitude for the delights of the natural world: Father Sun, Mother Earth, the dizzying variety of animals that populate the planet. Saint Francis lauds all these as the gifts from a bountiful Creator for our enlightenment and sustenance. They are not, as modern secularists would have it, vastly improbable cosmic accidents. We depend on the bounties of nature with a humble attitude of happy thankfulness. This inspires a spirit of optimism and cooperation with a Divine Providence that works to take tender care of every human's needs–not simply those of a fortunate few.
Pope Francis suggests that this is the way to spark a worldwide ecological conversion: the natural world appreciated as a gift, not a resource. As he said in his final address to the Amazon Synod, "[I]t is possible to look at reality in a different way, accepting it with open arms as a gift, treating the created world not as a resource to be exploited but as a home to be preserved, with trust in God."
This simple difference in terminology makes for a vast difference in effect. A resource is a finite material good, to be apportioned and divided. A gift, by contrast, is a sign of unmerited love and care. It irresistibly compels a corresponding generosity toward our brothers and sisters. As a gift, the earth is a shared inheritance to benefit everyone.
In the Canticle, Saint Francis does not neglect to sing his thanks for man himself, specifically men who forgive others and endure their trials peacefully. The transformative idea here is that man is an astonishing part of creation. He's the summit of the created order–a marvel of sophistication, not a plague upon the Earth. And that man's right relationship with a loving and generous Creator, with His gifts, and with his fellow man is his most pressing business.
This view of man inspires Pope Francis to draw in "Laudato Si" a connection generally missing in the environmental movement. Yes, there is the natural ecology that must be preserved and kept safe from irresponsibility and selfishness. But there is also an equally important human ecology. In fact, the plundering of the earth goes hand in hand with the wounding of the vulnerable, social degradation, and the destruction of human beings' natural habitat: the family.
All have the same root cause for Francis: human beings who declare independence from reality and behave with absolute self-referential dominion. One type of insensitivity and selfishness animates the other. "When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities...," he writes, "it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected."
An awareness of our connectedness to other species, plants, habitats, and especially to vulnerable people would give an attractive coherence to the environmental movement. It might even save it from its besetting sin: seeing men and women simply as threats to the planet which ought to be reduced.
It is this attitude that causes environmentalists' anger at the prosperous, hardworking people of the world who, though they may be thoughtless, mean no harm to the planet. It also accounts for a cruel and reflexive attitude toward the world's poor that proposes reducing their numbers instead of finding solutions to the problems that plague them.
Pope Francis, it seems, has set himself a righteous and mighty task: sparking worldwide ecological conversion by infusing the modern environmental movement with openheartedness, optimism, and joy.
Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association and host of the podcast Conversations with Consequences.