This is my second reflection on Pope Francis’ new Encyclical Laudato Si addressed to every person living on this planet and added to the official Catholic doctrine. I hope my reflection is beneficial to you, but I (and Austin CNM) encourage you to read the document yourself here.
Last year my family found a great deal on a two- week whirlwind tour of China. Our first stop was Beijing. Our tour group booked the same hotel Obama would stay in only a few days after we left. Needless to say, it was a nice place with all the essentials– nice bed, TV, mini- bar and, of course, the complimentary gas mask. That set the tone for all hotels that followed. They were nice hotels. They were clean. They had room service. They had gas masks.
For most of the trip our native Chinese tour guide was beaming about how lucky we were. We were lucky because we came during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference. As a special accommodation for the visiting world elites, the Chinese had restricted the factories and traffic in the city for that week only. This provided us with a great luxury rarely seen in that part of the world, blue skies and breathable air. It wasn’t uncommon as we walked through the streets of China to see many of the locals wearing face masks, just to be on the safe side.
China was in the back of my mind again when I was back in the States reading reactions to Pope Francis’s Encyclical “Our Common Home.” A couple of self- described “Libertarian Catholics” criticized Francis’s alarmist message. They even went as far as to crack jokes about the Pope’s comments on air quality. They made fun of the post- apocalyptic fantasy world the Pope described– where people worry about the quality of the air they breathe. But that world isn’t a joke. That world is modern day China.And lest we forget the real perspective here, China alone represents one third of humanity. How can Americans joke about that?
The problem is we don’t see it. One of the Pope’s themes in his new Encyclical is that environmental damage does not affect us all evenly. The poorest among us are the first to see the damage we are doing to our common home, and Americans are far removed from the poorest among us.
On another trip I was lucky enough to take, I got to help work with missionaries in El Salvador. I remember one day we were reflecting on our experiences in the country, and someone who had worked in foreign service for far longer than I made the startling comment that he was surprised by how dirty El Salvador was. Indeed, the entire time we had been working, the streets were littered with discarded toothpaste tubes, aluminum cans, and plastic containers of all kinds.
Initially, I thought it was a little judgmental to point that out, but my more experienced colleague continued. The man had lived in the U.S. and had worked in villages in Africa; he noted the differences. The third world wasn’t dirty because it hadn’t undergone the industrial revolution yet. The people had the skills to live off the land, without waste. Less industry meant less trash. You didn’t see this kind of litter in the States because we had the money and the infrastructure to ship all the trash we made elsewhere. The trash would not go away, but we could put it somewhere we would not see it.
But El Salvador was the second world, where the two worlds came together. The El Salvador economy was dominated by American- owned factories. These factories created first- world industrial waste, but we only paid them second- world wages. El Salvador didn’t have the money to hide the waste of our industrial society. So the cost of the consumer economy accumulated right there in the street, where the poor of El Salvador had to see it.
It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the first major organizations to fully embrace the New Encyclical was the Catholic Relief Services. For American Catholics the CRS are not only our hands in working to correct global poverty; they are also our eyes into the struggles of that world. The CRS has noted that the Encyclical’s observations concerning water quality and climate change resonate especially with what the organization is seeing in countries like Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia over the last two decades, the climate has become so harsh and erratic that the poor measure good years by how many times it rains. A year in which it rains three times is considered a good year. But this year it hasn’t rained at all in some poor parts of Ethiopia. Engineers in richer western countries are already building infrastructures like levees and water projects to mitigate the problems associated with climate change. This, along with a vast wealth of water, has delayed the time it will take us to really see this damage. These systems make it easier for us to disbelieve that climate change is happening. But in Ethiopia the problem is now. In Ethiopia people watch for rain with their own eyes.
Something else we have trouble seeing is the tremendous beauty of God’s creation that we are at the risk of losing because of our wasteful economy. A major theme of Pope Francis’s Encyclical is the global scale loss of biodiversity. Scientists and activists have started referring to the modern era as “a mass extinction.” Every day more and more species of God’s creation become extinct, often before we even discover them.
In the Encyclical the Pope points out that the loss of biodiversity is once again not distributed evenly. Because the global north is already so much more industrialized than the global south, the biodiversity in the global north has already been substantially reduced. The great wealth of the world’s biodiversity is now situated in the global south. There are two specific areas in the global south that the pope singles out for their great ecological wealth and their importance to mankind’s common inheritance. These are the Amazon in South America and the Congo in Africa.
But the Amazon and the Congo are so far away from us here in the States that many of us will never see with our own eyes the riches God has created for us, nor do we in the United States see the destruction as more and more multinational corporations ruin the Amazon and the Congo to extract the resources from these important areas.
Everyday American consumption is driving systems that are polluting the air, land, and water, disturbing the global climate, and reducing the diversity of life worldwide. But we don’t see this every day. Can anything be done to fix our vision? That’s a question we could write volumes on, but for the sake of my busy readers, I think I can sum up the solution in one word–solidarity.
Solidarity is the Catholic Social Teaching principle that reminds us that we are one. There are no third- world problems because the joys and concerns of any member of the planet should be our joys and concerns. The struggles of China, El Salvador, Ethiopia, the Amazon, and the Congo are our problems. If we see the world through their eyes, then the Pope’s message becomes clear. Laudato Si’ is not an alarmist document about what may come. Laudato Si’ is a call to action against the injustice our brothers and sisters face today because of our consumerist culture.
My challenge to you this post is to see through your brothers’ eyes. Educate yourself and be informed about the life of the global poor. Let their perspective become the lens through which you see our world.