Our family has just finished up a vacation in Acadia National Park, a beautiful natural park. This same week Pope Francis released his much anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, and while I not have spent my vacation time reading encyclicals when I can climb mountains, I did take a glance at the document and read an overview. The entire document can be read here:
Hiking around Acadia, we have encountered outstanding natural beauty. From the top of Bubble Mountain, we were able to see not only gorgeous vistas of gorgeous lakes and other mountains but also tiny white wildflowers and lichen covered rocks. The multitude and variety of the natural world never ceases to cause me wonder. Acadia was the first national park, established through a mix of government action (Teddy Roosevelt established them 99 years ago) and private charity (the land given to Acadia was donated by the likes of Eliot, Dorr, and Rockefeller, wealthy families that used to vacation here and decided to share what they had with others). Growing up, the model of environmentalism to which I was exposed was conservationism: the idea of setting aside land to conserve it for the use of many generations. Everywhere in Acadia there are conservation measures, such as carefully laid out paths and small fenced off areas for the restoration of delicate fauna. Yesterday after a morning of more ambitious hikes, my husband and I decided to go to Precipice Trail. For hopefully obvious reasons, we did not go there to hike–the trail is up a practically sheer cliff. The trail is now closed nearly every summer in order to allow peregrine falcons to nest. We were lucky to be able to spot a peregrine just as it was returning to its nest and to follow it with binoculars. All these conservation measures are important aspects of an environmentalism that is concerned with the public good for future generations.
Francis’s encyclical goes further than conservation to look at our daily lives and the need for changes in how those are lived. It is good that it does so, because our environmental issues are no longer limited to a desire to conserve specific tracts of lands or species. We now have a global crisis in which climate change can cause drinkable water shortages, lack of water for agriculture, extreme weather events such as storms and flooding, famines from resulting crop problems, and even national security crises from the political instability that ensues. Pope Francis gives attention to the need for a conversion in our attitude toward consumption and development, in which wealthy countries push for economic expansion and growth through consumerism and materialism that destroy the environment, and the poor (who genuinely need the development of an economy that can provide basic goods) suffer. We need to change our daily lifestyles including reducing or eliminating our consumption and dependency on non-renewable and polluting energy resources in favor of renewable ones. We need to leave behind lifestyles of constant consumption and discarding of clothing, technology, and material items and live lives that are more attentive to the long term effects of how we consume. Indeed, our best way of understanding ourselves as human persons and our relationship to the environment is not as consumers at all.
Instead, Francis also speaks more directly of a connection between the human and the non-human worlds. We are interconnected and belong to one another–not only as a human family but as family also with the rocks, ocean, vegetation, and other animals. Francis says that the earth is our mother and sister and “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” He calls for a care for the earth in the language of family, not master to slave or lord to servant. How do we care for our brothers and sisters in the larger human family? How do we care for our brothers and sisters: the peregrine falcons, the lakes, the rocks, the lichen, the fish, the cormorant?