On Wednesday morning we drove out of the capital sprawl of Ouagadougou for a bumpy three hour drive to Kaya. The first thing that struck me was the absolute poverty of the land. I grew up in Illinois, a state which is home to some of the most fertile land on the planet Earth. Instead of fields of corn and forests, the Burkina countryside was littered with shriveled attempts at greenery and cows thinned to their ribcages. Simply put, the nation of Burkina Faso does not have the resources to adequately feed the people within its borders.
This makes for an interesting case study when we consider what the Church can offer to the environment efforts and debates today. I’m reminded of a point Paul Virilio makes in his book Negative Horizons when he discusses the necessity of viewing an object from a variety of angles to ascertain the reality of the object being viewed. As Pope Francis repeatedly stresses in the first two major writings of his pontificate, reality is greater than appearances.
One of the necessary viewpoints the Church can offer to the climate change crisis is the perspective of the poor.
A common strain that Laudato Si shares with Evangelii Gaudium is borrowed (as Francis reminds us) from every pontiff in the later half of the twentieth century, which is summarized in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II who called for “a global ecological conversion” to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.”(LS 5) A mentality of consumption has perverted the human relationship with “our common home” and is a primitive need, not fully encompassing the dignity and capacity of the human person. Quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis exhorts humanity to “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.” (LS 9)
Connectivity and solidarity are some of the most beautiful aspects of the Church. “There is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.” (EG 48) To address the needs of the poor and the vulnerable in the 21st Century requires confronting how humans use the resources of our common home at a fundamental level.
In both documents Francis warns of a “practical relativism” which subverts the vision of the humanity as a united people. It “consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist.” (EG 79) Continuing the theme, Francis writes: “when human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative.” (LS 122) In this relativized view of the world, the environment is seen as an immediate resource for personal convenience.
Climate change is making the plight of the poor worse. In Burkina Faso, harvest times and the few rainfalls are less predictable now than they were half a generation ago, placing further burdens on the already fragile agricultural ecosystem. Burkina is a nation always on the verge of drought and subsequent famine; climate change has increased the probability of this.
Pope Francis mirrors this sentiment exactly when he writes:
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. (LS 25)
Catholic Relief Services is working with farmers to develop new methods for farmers to make the best use of their extremely limited resources. CRS only operates in a region when it is invited to do so by the local bishops. This gives the organization a unique ground-up, needs-oriented capability which more than often involves the poor. Thus CRS functions as an aspect of the Church that is particularly equipped to play a part in the aspect of climate change dialogue that the Church itself is positioned well to play.
Apart from supporting CRS, American Catholics can make lifestyle changes (mentioned throughout Laudato Si) as a part of recognizing one’s own connection with these people who are at the greatest risk because of climate change, a crisis which is probably the result of the developed world, not the underdeveloped nations of the planet. The mentality of consumption is a short-term mentality, one based on appearances and immediate gains and convenience (LS 128).
Living with environmental responsibility is now part of living in solidarity with the poor, which is an essential part of our faith. “Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.” (LS 156) “Everyone’s talents and involvement” is needed in this effort. (LS 14) Francis is clear that piecemeal, symptom-focused solutions will not work. What is needed is a revolution in the way humankind interacts with its resources. A major part of Francis' message is that the modern mindset of consumption needs to be confronted. (LS 23)