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The pope's five most important environmental arguments

In a much-anticipated papal letter released by the Vatican on Thursday, his holiness offered a sweeping defense of “our common home.”
Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Dec. 17, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty)
Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Dec. 17, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Scholars can fight about whether God is “green,” but the question is settled for His deputy here on earth: Pope Francis is a full-bodied environmentalist—basically Bill Mckibben with ritual incense and a white, flowing robe.

In a much-anticipated papal letter released by the Vatican on Thursday, his holiness offered a sweeping defense of “our common home,” warning “every living person on this planet” about wrecking the place with “consumerism,” “individualism,” and “an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems.”

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The 184-page encyclical, one of the highest forms of Catholic writing, stirred furious debate even before its release. That furor is likely to intensify in the days ahead. But as people discuss the text—and politicians respond—the pope’s message will almost surely be injected with rumors and half-truths.

Here, then, is a trusty guide to the five most important arguments in the pope’s historic letter. 

2. Technology will not save us. “We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems,” Francis writes. But “the degree of human intervention,” he continues, “is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.”

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with some which we have created ourselves,” Francis concludes. “It’s based on 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.”

3. There is no excuse for denying reality or playing politics. Pope Francis hammers business-people and elected officials for “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms,” often for personal gain. “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 nothing will happen.”

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He calls on such people, and the rich west in general, not only to acknowledge “the spiral of self-destruction that currently engulfs us” but to do something about it. Those who are most to blame for our problems, he implies, have the most responsibility for fixing them. “We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities,” he writes. The emphasis was in the original.

4. The Bible was written by an environmentalist. In a chapter on “the convictions of believers,” Francis quotes his predecessor Pope John Paul II, arguing that “Christians in their turn realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.” He is more direct in his own voice, knocking down the idea that humans have “dominion” over nature, a biblical right to harvest the earth without limit. “This is not a correct interpretation,” Francis writes. “We are not God. The Earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”

5. We have to change everything if we hope to survive. In the run-up to the pope’s letter, members of the Heartland Institute traveled to Rome for a “pre-rebuttal,” denying the scientific reality of dangerous climate change. At the same time, Republican presidential contenders joined a conservative backlash, criticizing a leaked draft of the text. But the final draft is arguably more radical than any of these critics anticipated.

Francis calls for “a bold cultural revolution” in the way we live and work. He calls on us to slow down, drop the iPhone, and give up on the idea of infinite growth and boundless, buyable pleasures. Doing so, he argues, will help us “to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously.” It may also save our lives.

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“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” Francis writes. “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environment change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable that it is, can only precipitate disaster.” 

In closing, Francis calls for “one world with a common plan,” and he suggests some elements to get us started on it ahead of talks in Paris this coming December. His general suggestions are mostly the obvious ones: a commitment to renewable energy, a binding agreement on carbon emissions, an economy that throws away less and recycles more. For the believers, however, he adds one more idea: “a prayer for our earth.”