Earlier this year the Pope published a piece of writing that has come to be known as the “climate change encyclical,” although it rings out more broadly as calling for a radical shift in culture. The treatise, entitled “Laudato Si,” translates to “Praise be to you,” a line from the Canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, the famous nature lover and mystic for whom Pope Francis chose his name. His first major writing as Pope, the piece calls all humans to rise above what he calls a “throwaway culture.” He asks people to rebuild right relationship with the earth, and asserts that to do this healing we must first heal our connection to our fellow humans as well as ourselves.
An “encyclical” is a letter or treatise the Pope typically sends to all bishops in the Catholic Church. Here, Pope Francis breaks from tradition by beginning, “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.” Throughout the encyclical Francis blends scientific data on biodiversity loss, deforestation, greenhouse gases and small-scale agriculture with religious interpretation, thereby pushing beyond delineated spheres. He argues that all people are needed to rebuild strong communities of human relationships as a first step for a meaningful shift in culture. Only then can our environmental crisis abate.
First he establishes the scientific data of environmental degradation. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming … a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases.” He writes also about the value of small-scale agriculture and the devastating impact of enormous conventional monocrop farms.
He then dives into a religious argument for environmental work: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” He continues, “In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word ‘creation’ has a broader meaning than ‘nature’, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.”
Once he has established our duty to serve as stewards of the world, he makes an important departure from common environmentalist rhetoric; he reminds us that there can be no environmental justice without social justice. He writes, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” He argues that our obsession with constant growth has led to a global south and north in which some people have excess while others are exploited. He concludes, “there can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.” If we take seriously all humans’ innate worth, we are forced to examine our patterns of consumption that harm others.
Despite our “throwaway culture” and our role in degrading the environment, the Pope still asserts a positive view of humans and our unique role on the planet. He reminds us that we must think of ourselves as having immense worth and weighty responsibilities. We must value ourselves in order to hold ourselves accountable.
What teachings do we small farmers (who may or may not have any connection to the Catholic Church) have to glean from the Pope’s writing? The first important lesson the encyclical offers us is to reach beyond the bounds of our insular group. If we want to generate a movement, we must go further than simply organizing and working in and among ourselves. We need to reach out to people who may not yet identify with the word “organic” or with the food movement. We need to view these folks as necessary collaborators. Only when we start to build strong bridges with other communities will we forge a coalition broad enough to galvanize a movement.
We also must engage with the encyclical’s focus on social justice and human relationships as the cornerstone of successful environmental work. Questions of how to make our work socially just are bubbling up in the small farming community. Through food donation programs, use of WIC (USDA’s Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and food stamps at farmers’ markets, and selling directly to schools, we have begun to explore how our farming makes food accessible and affordable. We are beginning to struggle with whether we are treating our workers fairly and paying them a decent living wage.
Perhaps we have not yet thoroughly explored how to heal our relationship with ourselves, and treat ourselves as holy, worthy of dignity and care as the earth itself. We must remember that we cannot denigrate ourselves “in service” to the earth or our farming, no matter how important we hold it to be. If we exhaust ourselves or don’t pay ourselves fairly, not granting ourselves enough time or space to recharge and live healthy lives, we will ultimately fail in our work. The Pope’s encyclical offers a robust and healthy edict to care for ourselves as deeply as we care for the soil. No matter what our spiritual beliefs, we can all recognize the truth of his message to help us garner the energy and grounding we need to succeed.
About the author: Grace Oedel runs Dig In Farm, an educational permaculture farm in Western Massachusetts.