Let me preface this commentary by saying that I am not a Catholic or a Christian but I have done some study of Christian theology, and have respect for many aspects of foundational Christian morals and ethics. On hearing that Pope Francis was to release an encyclical letter on climate change and global ecology, I was pleased. For the past year I have been working on a project of paintings and research concerning extinct and almost extinct species. My presumption was that the pope would reinforce my conclusions. I was wrong. While there was some affirmation of the dark future I saw looming, the letter painted a picture that was much darker and much lighter.
The first half of the letter (an encyclical letter of 91 pages) lays out an assessment of where the world is today in its state of ecological crisis. Topics covered are climate change, pollution, water shortage, loss of biodiversity, decline in quality of human life, breakdown of society, and global inequality. These areas are not covered with fluffy generalizations but with well-researched information. The urgent and drastic character of these problems is clearly laid out but with compassion and wisdom.
The second half of the letter deals with the inadequacies of how these problems are being dealt with and about how we can and must address the collapse of our ecosystem. The pope’s well-developed approach to slowing the ecological collapse is multifaceted. He puts forth direction for national, political, economic and business reforms. But it is the individual and local reforms that held the most interest and promise to me. To put it simply, the pope encourages us all to withdraw from the consumer society. If you look at the list above of factors above that are generating the ecological collapse, the direct linkage to the consumer society is glaringly evident.
Pope Francis does not ask us to give up our basic comforts but to stop the excessive and sometimes addictive lives of consumption many of us live, myself included. What we can do is reduce our energy consumption in every way possible: reuse, repair and restore rather than throwing away and buying new; supporting local suppliers of our needs; forming groups of people who are committed to living lives simpler in consumption but lives broader in enjoyment. The pope shows us that this will not be lives of deprivation but lives of greater connection to our world with fulfillment and joy.
These individual and group efforts can have an impact on ecological collapse. If people make these changes, economic and political systems must and will change; certainly not willingly, but they will change.
From my studies I have envisioned an increasingly bleak future for our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond. This letter gives me some hope. I believe this remarkable teaching will resonate with Christians, people of other religions, and people with no religious affiliation.
Over 2,000 years ago a carpenter from Nazareth became a teacher/preacher. He taught a radical new way to live and love and upset the powers that controlled his world. Today the teacher/preacher Pope Francis calls us to a radical new way of living our lives — a call that will most certainly upset the powers that control our world.
(Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home — available online or in print)
Mark W. McGinnis is an artist and writer based in Boise. He was a professor of art for 30 years at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.