Bold, Visionary Thinking is Necessary to Combat Climate Crisis

A little over five years ago Pope Francis wrote a profound teaching document (called an encyclical) on climate change named Laudato Si. In it he said: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications, especially for the poor and in developing nations.” He called for an economic system with “more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations.” Overall, Pope Francis has called for what some would describe as a radical environmental ethics influenced by St. Francis and his followers. He said “St. Francis’s message for today is that the intrinsic value of all of God’s creatures should be respected and our economic practice must reflect this recognition.”

He wasn’t the first Pope to speak out about the destruction of the environment, Pope Benedict XVI was often referred to as the “Green Pope”, because of his ecological commitments in his writings, statements, and actions. In 2008, Pope Benedict oversaw the installment of a new solar energy system to power several key buildings and a commitment to use renewable energy for 20 percent of the Vatican’s needs by 2020. In 2010 as part of the World Day of Peace Benedict XVI said:

“In 1990 John Paul II had spoken of an “ecological crisis” and, in highlighting its primarily ethical character, pointed to the “urgent moral need for a new solidarity”. His appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees”, people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development.” Pope John Paul II was also well aware of the rapid environmental decline facing our planet and often appealed for international cooperation in the fight against climate change in his annual messages on the World Day of Peace.

Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI by writing and speaking about the connection between caring for God’s creation and caring for the poor and marginalized. He recently tweeted “The earth and its poor urgently demand a sound economy and a sustainable development. Therefore, we are called to rethink our mental and moral priorities so that they are in conformity with God’s commandments and the common good.” In many of his writings, Pope Francis writes about the intersectionality of all creation and how we are all part of our Common Home. In Laudato Si, he says: “Natural creatures have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system” Then he continues this thought in Joy of the Gospels, writing: “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

Today our mainstream economic and business practices do not consider the value of God’s creation, as our Holy Father urges. A tree has no inherent value when it is standing in a forest. It only has value when it can be cut down and sold. We develop economic models on the value of a tree based on the cost of cutting the tree down vs the monetary value of the profit gained by cutting the tree down. We look at environmental assets and services by using their market value. This view is contrary to what Franciscan values teach us. In a recent article Social Justice without Cosmic Theology is Blind, Ilia Delio, OSF writes “God liberates when God becomes fully alive in the human person and in creation. If we want a different world then we must become a different people.” The Economist and Ethicist Laszlo Zsolnai wrote in his article Franciscan Spirituality and Economics, “However the total value of natural entities cannot be calculated merely on the basis of their material usefulness for humans. Price is a poor and often misleading model for assessing the value of natural entities. Scholars demonstrated that the value of natural entities cannot be determined by the market mechanism.” In his book Franciscans and their Finances: Economics in a Disenchanted World, Fr. David Couturier wrote, “Francis’ fraternal economy is not primarily about dollars and cents, market shares or stock derivatives. It is about the destiny of men and women in the real world and how they come about a new security and peace in God.”

Saints Francis and Clare had a relational understanding of creation. For them and for us today, we believe that all people and all creatures, from the smallest to “our Sister, Mother Earth,” are sisters and brothers, part of the very fabric of the family of God. Because of this, Francis was named the patron saint of ecology by Pope John Paul II. As Franciscans, we are called to consistently examine our relational understanding of creation. Looking to theologians like St. Bonaventure who developed a theological and spiritual vision that acknowledged all creation as emanating from the goodness of God, existing as a “footprint” of God, and leading us back to God if we are able to “read” nature properly. He spoke of creation as the first book that God wrote.

The Franciscan emphasis on the goodness of God and creation has many ramifications. Creation is the outpouring of God’s love into the universe. Creation reveals to us God’s love for us and God’s beauty which is why Franciscans call creation, beauty and goodness the mirror of God. We build on Bonaventure’s idea that God has two books of creation—Sacred Scripture and creation.

Francis of Assisi looked at life and all creation through the lens of relationship and connectivity. He lived, preached and modeled this relational connection from which blossomed a perspective of deep empathy. He looked for ways to awaken within people his way of seeing all life as integrally connected, especially concerning the care of those who were poor and marginalized and for Sister Mother Earth. Rather than viewing creation from ‘anthropocentrism,’ which literally means ‘human-centered’, Francis saw creation as ‘biocentrism’ which means ‘life-centered.’

“The earth sustains humanity,” wrote Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine nun and doctor of the church. “It must not be injured; it must not be destroyed.” Laszlo Zsolnai points out in his aforementioned article that “Pope Francis’s encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” is consistent with and supports St. Francis’s views which emphasize the frugality of consumption and acknowledging the intrinsic value of nature.” The overall vision that St. Francis taught us by his words and his life is based on a God-centered, spiritual way of living and acting. Pope Francis added an integral ecology to the vast body of Catholic social teaching in the hope that it “can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face”.

Most scientists, religious leaders and even everyday people agree that we are running out of time to tackle the climate crisis. The clock is ticking as more and more communities face catastrophic wildfires, droughts, and storms. Over the past decade, the federal government has spent $350 billion due to extreme weather and fire events, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office. But it will only get uglier, according to the experts. Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Change Research Program tell us that if the global average temperature exceeds pre-industrialized levels by 2 degrees Celsius or more it will cause more than $500 billion in lost economic annual output by the year 2100. Forest areas affected by wildfires in the U.S. are on pace to at least double by 2050, and there is a risk of damage to $1 trillion of public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the U.S. To avoid this, we urgently need bold, unprecedented action to tackle the twin crises of climate change and inequality. We need to mobilize vast public resources to transition from an economy built on exploitation and fossil fuels to one driven by dignified work and clean energy. What we need is a Green New Deal.

The term “Green New Deal” was used by Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman in an article written in January 2007. America had just experienced its hottest year on record (there have been five hotter since), and Friedman recognized that there wasn’t going to be a palatable, easy solution to climate change as politicians hoped. It was going to take money, effort, and upsetting an industry that has always been very generous with campaign contributions. Friedman saw the need for a bold transformation of our economy in the same way Roosevelt’s New Deal helped lead us out of the Great Depression. The idea of a New Green Deal was used in the platforms of multiple Green Party candidates, and organizations like the United Nations Environment Programme began to promote a similar global initiative.

In listening to the campaign rhetoric during the 2020 election, one would think the Green New Deal was a satanic communist manifesto that will force us all to live in caves. People believe this rhetoric without bothering to learn what is actually in the Green New Deal. In reality, the goal of the Green New Deal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change while also trying to fix societal problems like economic inequality and racial injustice.

In 2019, an enormous step forward was realized when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a resolution supporting the concept for a Green New Deal. While official legislative language was never developed, the proposal lays out a 10-year plan to achieve 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anybody who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities. This is the type of visionary thinking that reflects the passion and care for all of God’s creation that guided the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

The Green New Deal calls on the federal government to wean the United States from fossil fuels and curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions across the economy. It also aims to guarantee new high-paying jobs in clean energy industries. Included are proposals to mobilize all aspects of American society towards a goal of 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee living-wage jobs and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities, all over the next 10 years. Our current COVID crisis has highlighted the fact that the status quo economy continues to leave behind the poor and marginalized while corporations and billionaires grow wealthier. Working class families, communities of color, and others are continually exposed to stagnant wages, toxic pollution, and dead-end jobs. The climate crisis only magnifies these systemic injustices. The Green New Deal is insightful as it recognizes the interconnectedness of all these issues and attempts to transform our economy from one based on exploitation of people and God’s creation to one where, as St. Clare challenges us, we become a mirror of Christ for others to see and follow by reflecting Christ in our lives, and helping build up the body of Christ through transformation in love.

Francis of Assisi was bold and prophetic in his vision. He understood the interconnectedness of all creation. The Green New Deal reflects this same visionary thinking combined with an understanding of the relational nature of creation. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis also reflected this vision when he said: “New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic.” (#144) He goes on to say: “All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution…We do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (#114)

It is this type of bold visionary thinking that our nation so desperately needs today. Neither Congresswoman Cortez nor Senator Markey make claim to being Franciscan, but their vision as laid out in the Green New Deal clearly embraces the values and the vision of our Franciscan life and spirituality.

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