Pope Francis on Consumerism, Environmental Ecology, and Human Ecology

Since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has made the care of God’s good gift of Creation one of the central themes of his pontificate. This is in a certain sense not surprising, given both the environmental legacy of his papal predecessors—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John II, in particular—and his choice of the name Francis.  The pope explained that one of the reasons he chose the name Francis was to recall the environmental ethic of St. Francis of Assisi and to lift up this central element of the Church’s tradition.

Yesterday, however, Pope Francis recognized World Environment Day at his weekly audience with some of his most insightful and prophetic words to date on the Christian vocation to “cultivate and care for” creation (Genesis 2:15), as he discussed the way in which the “culture of waste” harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology.” This is a powerful and challenging message for all people of faith and goodwill, especially those of us living comfortably in the so-called Global North.

In his weekly address, Pope Francis reflected on the second creation story of Genesis and explained:

“[T]he verb ‘to cultivate’ reminds me of the care that the farmer has for his land so that it bear fruit, and it is shared: how much attention, passion and dedication! Cultivating and caring for creation is God’s indication given to each one of us not only at the beginning of history; it is part of His project; it means nurturing the world with responsibility and transforming it into a garden, a habitable place for everyone.”

Although this is the responsibility to which God calls all people of faith and goodwill, Pope Francis went on to observe that this vocation is often compromised by an insatiable overconsumption of material goods and the “culture of waste” that has risen around the world. The pope observed:

“[W]e are often driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation; we do not ‘care’ for [creation], we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for. We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation; thus we are no longer able to read what Benedict XVI calls ‘the rhythm of the love story of God and man.’ Why does this happen? Why do we think and live in a horizontal manner, we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”

In addition to recognizing that overconsumption harms “environmental ecology,” Pope Francis called attention to the fact that materialism also compromises “human ecology.” The Pope said:

“Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste’….Yet these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”

The Holy Father called particular attention to the way in which the “culture of waste” disposes of excess food when many around the world are starving, and declared, “We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry!”

In response to the human and ecological challenges posed by rampant overconsumption and habitual disposal, Pope Francis recognizes that the interrelated challenges of protecting “human ecology” and caring for “environmental ecology” in the face of systemic overconsumption are “not just a matter of economics, but of ethics and anthropology.” Given this observation, the Holy Father concluded by asking “all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation, to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable, to promote a culture of solidarity and of encounter.”

In light of this message, there are several ways in which Catholic millennials—particularly those of us in the United States—might respond to this call:

Distinguish Between “Consumption” and “Consumerism”: Humans are undeniably corporeal and, as such, require a certain amount of material goods. Although the consumption of resources is thus necessary—and even natural, according to Aquinas (ST II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2, ad. 2)—the proper consumption of resources is distinct from the principle of consumerism that drives much of modern economics. In her book The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health–and a Vision for Change–which builds on the original short online documentary The Story of Stuff— Annie Leonard describes this distinction, saying:

“While consumption means acquiring and using goods and services to meet one’s needs, consumerism is the particular relationship to consumption in which we seek to meet our emotional and social needs through shopping, and we define and demonstrate our self-worth through the Stuff we own.  And overconsumption is when we take far more resources than we need and than the planet can sustain…. Consumerism is about excess” (129).

Connect the Dots between Consumerism and Environmental Degradation: Although we might not think about it when we purchase things at the store, consumerism is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation. This is because the resources needed to sustain a consumerist society must be extracted, transported, processed, and disposed of at rate that is having disastrous impacts on both the planet and our climate. This is particularly challenging for us as Americans, given how much we consume.  The Scientific American reports that although the we make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, “the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” At this rate, another Scientific American piece points out, five earths would be needed for everyone in the world to live an average American lifestyle.

Highlight the Connection between Creation Care and Protecting Human Life and Dignity: Pope Francis’ observation that consumerism harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology” builds on the Church’s repeated affirmations that the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity is intrinsically dependent upon the care of all creation. In view of this, Catholic millennials might help more Catholics resist consumerism by not only highlighting how this ethic harms the environment, but also by pointing out that human life and dignity cannot be fully protected without a safe and livable environment.

Embrace the Virtues of Prudence and Temperance: The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes virtues as “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (no. 1804). The Church traditionally recognizes four cardinal human virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, no. 1805-9), and attention to prudence and temperance is particularly germane to addressing consumerism. Prudence is the application of “practical reason” to a particular situation in order “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (no. 1806), while temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (no. 1809). As such, these two virtues can help people of faith and goodwill to thoughtfully discern and live by patterns of consumption that neither cause widespread environmental degradation nor compromise the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity.

Imagine a New System: The world’s economy is largely premised on the assumption that endless economic growth fueled by insatiable consumerism is both possible and desirable. However, today’s message from Pope Francis—which is consistent with the Church’s long social tradition—questions both of these suppositions and calls for an alternative vision that values “human ecology” and “environmental ecology” over the endless acquisition of material goods. Towards this end, Catholic millennials have an opportunity to re-imagine what a sociopolitical and economic system that is more consistent with the Church’s authentic teaching might look like. Pope John Paul II offered a prophetic starting point for this vision in his encyclical Centesimus annus, and this framework could serve as an important starting point from which people of faith and good will might read the “signs of the times” and discern how we might create an economy that better cares for creation and protects human life and dignity:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (no. 36).

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