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Laudato Si' - An Ecologist's Perspective
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No One Is an Island

By Owen Williams

Part 1 of 3

This review of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and care for the poor (Laudato Si’) is written by an ecologist with over 40 years of experience in managing biodiversity and fostering public engagement in conservation. After 35 years as a government employee and community volunteer, he has continued in a leadership role in two regional/provincial scale environmental organizations. He is not a member of any religion, but is an active volunteer with the Catholic Church in London, Ontario, where his wife is president of the Catholic Women's League of St. John the Divine parish. Owen’s personal response to the Pope’s challenge is to promote Faith in Stewardship. See Faith in Stewardship pages. Contact Owen at This is summary and review of the encyclical provides a quick introduction that hopefully whets rather than satisfies your appetite. The encyclical is inspiring. Any summary is an injustice.


Pope Francis provides an excellent synopsis of the environmental and related social challenges that we all must face in order to sustain our common home. Top of the list from an ecologist’s perspective is his recognition is that the only path forward requires a renewed stewardship ethic that must be embraced by all of us – Catholic and non-Catholic alike (my words, not his). He of course focuses his request on Catholics, but typical of his renowned character, opens the challenge to us all. I have spent 40 years of my life working with provincial and regional scale efforts to engage people in caring for the environment. It has always been heart-warming and encouraging to see the results of thousands of individual stewardship projects. But I realized early on, that in spite of these wonderful efforts, there was still a net loss of biodiversity, easily seen in indicators such as wetland acreage, the increase in numbers of species at risk of extinction, costs related to invasive species and climate instability. The sector of the public that is actively caring for the environment has not been able to offset the damage caused by companies and citizens that either ignore or are not cognizant of their responsibility.

Pope Francis has brought to my attention the close parallels between the environmental situation and the plight of the poor. It doesn’t matter how old you are, there has always been too many underprivileged and homeless people in your community, your country and particularly so called “Third World” countries. Why? Collectively, we have not been addressing stewardship in the various systems (i.e. ecological, economic and social) on the scale that is required. Pope Francis does not offer the specific solutions to the individual problems, but he does describe methods and behaviours that are the best advice I have encountered in over 45 years of professional reading and discussion. Catholics and non-Catholics must not let this document and the associated efforts of its supporters slip by without due attention. If you and I actively join in this collaborative initiative, we and our children will be better off, but more importantly the well-being of your grandchildren and many generations to follow will benefit from your contribution to an ecological conversion to a new enculturated stewardship ethic.

What is an encyclical?

"An encyclical is a letter circulated by the Pope to Catholic churches worldwide. It is sent directly from our Holy Father in Rome to Catholics all over the world and is addressed to all people of good will, namely non-Catholics who may also want to read the document. Papal encyclicals provide analysis, in the light of the Gospel and of the Tradition of the Church, on relevant issues for the faithful. Previous popes have issued encyclicals on a variety of topics, from the study of Scripture (Leo XIII, 1893) to the Redemption of Christ and the dignity of human beings (John Paul II, 1979). From 1891 onwards, many encyclicals were issued as a response to social problems, from the struggles of workers during the industrial revolution (Leo XII, 1891) to the need for peace in the post-World War II era (John XXIII, 1963). These later encyclicals are part of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching documents." (Canadian Catholic Organization Development and Peace website, August 2015).

This particular encyclical is formatted in a way that supports discussions, systematically structured into themes and thoughts that are numbered. These reference numbers appear below, within brackets.

What is the scope of Laudato Si’?

Laudato Si’ “calls for urgent action to tackle the current ecological crisis and address inequalities. Pope Francis invites us to put the poorest at the center, the ones who are not responsible for the terrible consequences of climate change on people’s lives and have fewer resources to react. The encyclical on care of our common home makes a call for a transformational change that will allow all human beings to live sustainably in dignity.” (Canadian Catholic Organization Development and Peace website, August 2015).

The central question of the encyclical is “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (160) It takes a wise “systemic” approach that emphasizes that the environmental crisis is complexly linked with social and economic issues and must not be approached in a piecemeal fashion. Pope Francis advises all of us (not just Catholics) to consider the purpose of our lives, the goal of our work and our efforts and ask ourselves what need the earth has of us. He clearly understands that unless we deal with the deeper issues, we will not produce significant results.

The entire premise of the encyclical is soundly based in science, yet it frames the facts in spiritual and often poetic ways. The familiar phrases from ecologists and conservationists about people being a part of Nature and not apart from it are recast. The earth, our common home, Pope Francis points out “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (1). We ourselves “are dust of the earth (cf Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters” (2). The document addresses the majority of the key ecological challenges, following each with recommendations of the appropriate action that is needed. The advice is sometimes directed specifically to governments, but is most often written in a way that makes it easy for people to relate the request to whatever level of impact they might have in their personal or business life.

Most importantly, the encyclical repeatedly reinforces the message that improving our care for the Earth must be a collaborative, collective effort. Although the action advice is daunting, it is targeting the appropriate scale – ranging from local to global - and it is ultimately a positive message. "Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” (13). “Men and women are still capable of intervening positively." (58). “All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” (205)

As one expects, the content drifts strongly into the Catholic and Christian faith basis for caring for the environment, with an entire chapter (one of six) devoted to biblical connections and the many religious documents. However, the bulk of the document is designed for easy reading and discussion by all of us. One of the sections (67) encapsulates the argument for recognizing and apologizing for the leaders of Christianity that misinterpreted the biblical direction “to have dominion over the Earth".

Although Pope Francis addresses Catholics, he points out that all “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’” (64). He proposes that we all enter into a dialogue about the future of our common home. The dialogue that Pope Francis proposes is one of the key actions that we should all take.

The encyclical is an imposingly long 184 pages, but when one opens it and begins reading, it is a relief to see that it is in a large font and in a very easily read style. It is organizes into 6 chapters. The Church provided a document that gives the following explanation of the document structure and content:

"The itinerary of the Encyclical is mapped out in para. 15 and is divided into six chapters. It starts by presenting the current situation based on the best scientific findings available today (ch. 1), followed by a review of the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition (ch. 2). The root of the problems in technocracy and in an excessive self-centeredness of human being are analyzed (ch. 3). The Encyclical then proposes (ch.4) an “integral ecology, which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (137), inextricably linked to the environmental question. In this perspective, Pope Francis proposes (ch. 5) to initiate an honest dialogue at every level of social, economic and political life, that builds transparent decision-making processes. Recalling that no project can be effective if it is not animated by a formed and responsible conscience (ch. 6), ideas are put forth to aid growth in this direction at the educational, spiritual, ecclesial, political and theological levels. The text ends with two prayers; one offered for sharing with everyone who believes in "God who is the all powerful Creator" (246), and the other to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, punctuated by the refrain "Praise be to you!" which opens and closes the Encyclical.

Several main themes run through the text that are addressed from a variety of different perspectives, thus traversing and unifying the text:
  • the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet,
  • the conviction that everything in the world is connected,
  • the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology,
  • the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress,
  • the value proper to each creature,
  • the human meaning of ecology,
  • the need for forthright and honest debate,
  • the serious responsibility of international and local policy,
  • the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle (16).

Laudato Si': A "Map"

Ecologists and scientists of all stripes, as well as the larger environmental movement, will not likely find many errors of fact or logic in this encyclical. This sector of the public has laboured long and hard to develop the science as well as creating similar messages about what would be responsible action. Those that are feeling a bit tired in their efforts could criticize that there is nothing new in the Pope’s directive. That would be understandable, but also naïve and detrimental to us all. The Pope’s recasting of the challenges and the proposed actions brings this very complex issue into a clear focus. No matter what your religious affiliation or non-affiliation, we need to have the proposed dialogue about this "integral ecology" and work together to develop and implement constructive plans of action.

What is Happening to Our Common Home (Chapter 1)

Pope Francis summarizes what is well reported by the media: our common home is being abused and significant systems are severely and critically stressed. He advises each of us to personalize the issue and take ownership for our part in creating the problems as well as accepting responsibility for taking positive action in stewardship. He deals with the following challenges:

Pollution, waste and the throwaway culture

  • Affects the quality of life and results in millions of premature deaths
  • Root of the problem: our throwaway culture
  • Need: circular models of production, preserving resources and limiting the use of on-renewable resources

Climate as a common good

  • Serious impacts: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods
  • Affects entire populations and causes mass migrations
  • Yet, those who possess more resources and economic/political power seem more concerned with masking the problems or concealing the symptoms
  • Our lack of response to the tragedies involving other people indicates our loss of a sense of responsibility for others.
  • To preserve the climate “represents one of the principle challenges facing humanity in our day” (25)
  • Climate changes cause animals and plants to migrate, which in turn affects poor people
  • Widespread indifference to migrants; loss of a sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women

There are few streams in
Southwestern Ontario as clean as this one.

The issue of water

  • Too many people suffer and die as a result of not being able to access clean water
  • "access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights" (30)
  • The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty." (27)

Loss of biodiversity

  • Loss of species changes ecosystems. Future consequences cannot be predicted.
  • Diverse species are not just an exploitable resource – they have value in and of themselves
  • "all creatures are connected..., for all of us, as living creatures, are dependent on one another" (42)
  • We must retain biodiversity in order to ensure the equilibrium of ecosystems and therefore life.
  • Often transnational economic interests obstruct this protection (38)

Decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society

  • The current model adversely affects the quality of life for most people
  • "the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development" (46)
  • "Many cities are huge inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water" (44), cutting too many people off from regular contact with nature.
  • There is a "true ecological debt" (51) in the world and particularly in the north with respect to the south

Global inequality

  • Deterioration of the environment and of society affect the most vulnerable people
  • Too often the vulnerable people are considered only to be collateral damage
  • "a true ecological approach always becomes a social as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor" (49)
  • The solution is not reducing the birth rate, but counteracting "an extreme and selective consumerism" of a small part of the world’s population (50) [This may be one of the more controversial points in the encyclical.]

Pope Francis points to our throw-away society, and our "complacency and cheerful recklessness" regarding our lack of a stewardship ethic.

Weak responses

  • Pope Francis is deeply concerned about the “weak responses” to these problems and the total failure of global summits (52-53). “Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment” (54)
  • "People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption" (55)
  • He notes that there are many positive examples of good stewardship (58)and restoration after others have damaged the natural systems, "a complacency and a cheerful recklessness" prevails
  • Culture and adequate leadership are lacking as well as the willingness to change life style, production and consumption (59)
  • We need "the establishment of a legal framework which…can ensure the protection of ecosystems." (53)
  • "we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear...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 that nothing will happen." (59)
  • "we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point...the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view" (61)

We have not cared for the environment as we developed resources and technology

The Gospel of Creation (Chapter 2)

Whether you are Catholic or not, this chapter identifies the context for the participation in stewardship by Catholics and it is consistent with the understanding of many Christian faiths as well. These are perspectives for consideration as we all try to understand each other and our own motivations for participation in stewardship.
  • The ecological crisis is complex and the response will benefit from a multicultural and multidisciplinary dialogue that includes spirituality and faith.
  • Faith is ample motivation to care for nature and our brothers and sisters; responsibility for nature is part of Christian faith
  • The story of creation guides reflection on the relationship between humans and biodiversity
  • "human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin." (66)
  • The earth is a gift not a possession…given to us to administer, not destroy. We must respect the laws of nature.
  • "Each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous." (84)
  • All of us are linked as human beings. "a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings." (91)
  • "we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in god's image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (67) See also 75, 116-17 and 220.

Next month, Part TWO will look at the concepts that are needed for action and to learn about Integral Ecology. Part THREE will explore ecological education, spirituality and tangible action.