Straight Talk On The Pope And Climate Change
By Raymond Lotta
20 July, 2015
Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, has issued a major encyclical (document) on climate change. He decries pollution, loss of biodiversity, endangerment to water systems. He says that the “earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He acknowledges that climate change is real and he references some scientific findings. He calls for human society to “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.”
Many within the environmental movement, including some of its most prominent leading figures, have jumped on the encyclical as a “game-changer.” People are making the argument that one of the world’s most powerful religious-moral voices is now sounding the climate alarm, that he is opening Church discourse to the science of global warming, and that the pope is uniquely capable of inspiring and moving public policy in the right direction. And this document, the argument goes, may be part of our best hope to stop the destruction of the planet before it is too late: to appeal to and pressure the world’s leaders to take decisive action. So we should welcome the pope’s encyclical on climate change. To which our reply is...
WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
1. Why has the pope issued this document?
Let’s step back. The climate crisis has accelerated dangerously over the last 25 years. Greenhouse emissions from burning fossil fuels have gone up 60 percent. Ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctic is leading to rising sea levels. Global warming is cutting into the world’s food supplies. And by tomorrow, nearly 1,000 more children, overwhelmingly in poor countries, will have died as a consequence of the many-sided effects of global warming.1
Around the world, there has been a growing groundswell of resistance and struggle to save the planet. Environmental activists have been arrested, threatened, and harassed. Among ever broader and more diverse sections of people, there is a mounting sense of catastrophe if the course of things is not changed dramatically and drastically. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the actions and programs of governments, countries, and those sitting in the world’s seats of power. The powers that be want to channel the deep wellspring of concern about the fate of the planet into dead-ends.
It is in the oppressed and impoverished nations of the “Global South” where the Catholic Church has its greatest number of adherents. And it is in these same regions where droughts, floods, and famine have taken their greatest toll—and will exact an even more horrendous human and ecological cost, as climate change intensifies. At the same time, the imperialist world economy has created a planet of vast zones of misery and grotesque levels of inequality.
This is the larger context in which the pope has issued his 182-page document on climate change (“Laudato Si”). The pope sees storms coming, literally and figuratively: “So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest.” (Emphasis added.) This is of a piece with the viewpoint of the Obama administration and the Defense Department that global climate change must be raised to the level of a global security concern.
The ruling powers are worried about the effects of global warming and economic inequality on the functioning of their system and on social stability. And they are responding to this crisis from within the framework of shoring up, defending, and intensifying that very global system that is destroying the environment.
To really address and act on the environmental crisis requires not the safeguarding of this system, not the restoring of people’s declining faith in it, but the most radical restructuring of society and economy. What the pope is doing stands in the way of that.
2. Does the pope confront and oppose the actual cause of global warming and the larger environmental crisis that threatens life on this planet? Or is his starting point defending that?
The pope makes some carefully crafted criticisms of the devastation that capitalism has wreaked on ecosystems. But he pins the root cause for the environmental crisis on a “dominant technocratic paradigm” that is driven by “power.” By “technocratic paradigm” he means reliance on science and technology to solve problems of society and to gain possession and mastery over nature.
In his encyclical, the pope does not indict the economic-social-political system of capitalism and how this system has used and uses technology to exploit and dominate human beings, and ravage the planet. Rather, the encyclical is an indictment of “human activity” in the abstract, of man’s sinful ways, and of the excesses and inequities of the existing capitalist economic order.
The pope’s stand is a calculated expression of concern, a calculated criticism of some of the effects of capitalism. You see, the Church, its core teachings, and its enslaving ideological role in exploitative society, has not changed over two millennia. But the social and natural worlds have! And so the Church has to put on a somewhat different face and put across a somewhat different message to maintain its legitimacy and to preserve its suffocating hold over vast swaths of oppressed humanity.
And ultimately the pope’s encyclical is about convincing people that capitalism—with its governments, huge monopolies, and financial institutions—is not the problem.
But it is the system of capitalism—based on exploitation and driven by profitability and competition—that compels corporations and banks to expand or die. It is this system that turns nature into a limitless input to be poured into production for profit.
It is capitalism, and the strategic need to outflank and beat out competitors and rivals, that drives capitals and capitalist-imperialist states to search out and grab up every bit of fossil fuel. In the last six months alone, Obama, the “environmental president,” has authorized new drilling for oil in the Arctic and off the mid-Atlantic coast.
Defending all that, by disorienting people and seeking to morally and politically defuse the danger of “social unrest” (an essential element of saving the planet!), is the objective and actual role of the pope’s encyclical.
3. Does the pope offer real opposition or a real solution to looming environmental disaster?
No, he does neither. He wants international dialogue. He criticizes recent international negotiations for not going far enough. He issues bland and empty exhortations for some kind of international system “of governance” to protect ecosystems.
To the masses he offers this message: “Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.... We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknownst to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.” This amounts to a call for resignation to the existing capitalist structures of power and control.
The pope acknowledges suffering but tells people to find sustenance in the traditions of the Church and in the traditional institutions of society, like the patriarchal family, which have been foundational to the oppressive fabric and functioning of society. And duly take note: in a document on climate change, the pope makes sure to denounce birth control and abortion. He calls for spiritual renewal and “asceticism” (renunciation of worldly goods). Which is what the Church has always told the poor who cannot eat: be happy with your meager lot.
The pope extols civil society organizations for raising awareness of the climate crisis. But nowhere, god forbid, does he respond to the urgent need of the moment and call on people to rise up, to break out of the confines of the system, and act to save the planet.
4. Some progressive forces say, yes, the document may have its limitations. But the very fact that the pope is speaking up, especially as the global climate crisis is getting more dire—this can only be a good thing, something to embrace and utilize.
No, it is not. There is a bigger agenda involved... the better to eat you. True, the pope is saying things about science and the environmental crisis that the Church has not said before. He is saying that governments have not done enough and that much more must be done.
But the pope is not acting to save the planet; he is acting to save the system that is destroying it.
He is seeking to delude people into thinking that the ruling capitalist governments can be appealed to and pressured to do the right thing. He is advocating that more decisive measures to limit global warming within the framework of the current system, combined with Christian spirituality, is the path forward. He is trying to convince people to “keep their faith” in the system—at a time when people’s confidence in the system is being shaken... at a time when what is urgently needed is for people to break free of the ideological shackles of the system.
Now all kinds of people, including religiously motivated people, care deeply about the planet. This is a good thing. But people do have a responsibility to look unflinchingly at reality. And any such look forces one to confront that to really deal with this situation in any kind of real way will require a huge, huge fight.
Let’s speak frankly: it is not going to do to drive a hybrid car... or to “socially invest” in solar (which is now, obscenely, touted as profitable)... or to lighten your own eco-footprint. And it is magical and disastrous thinking to imagine that we can convince the people who rule society, and whose system has caused this environmental emergency, that ecological sustainability is somehow “in their best interests.”
Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, speaks powerfully to the moral and epistemological challenge before people:
Pursue your own convictions—that the outrages that move you are intolerable—to their logical conclusion, and be determined not to stop until those outrages have been eliminated. And if this, as well as learning about other outrages, and ideas about how this all fits together and flows from a common source—and how it could all be ended, and something much better brought into being—leads in the direction of seeing not only the need for bold and determined resistance, but also the need for revolution and ultimately communism, then don’t turn away from that because it moves you beyond your comfort zone, challenges what had been your cherished beliefs, or because of prejudices and slanders. Instead, actively seek to learn more about this revolution and its goal of communism and to determine whether it is in fact the necessary, and possible, solution. And then act accordingly. (from "An Invitation, from Bob Avakian")
The pope’s encyclical and similar such pronouncements from those on high or with great influence in the environmental movement that recognize some of the scope of the problem, but then stop short of the need for waging massive and determined struggle, are not just worthless but do great harm.
It will require a FIGHT, and a fight that must INTENSIFY to whole new levels, to get on a trajectory of truly acting to STOP the destruction of the planet.
5. Capitalism Is Destroying the Planet... Only Revolution Can Save the Planet
The only possible means of wrenching a different future for humanity, species, and the whole planet is communist revolution. Only the complete overturning and elimination of capitalism makes it possible to create a society and world in which we could actually live as caretakers rather than as plunderers of nature. Only a socialist sustainable economy and liberatory society, with very different priorities and values, make it possible to mobilize the knowledge and creative potential of people and devote the necessary resources to truly confront and tackle the climate crisis—on the scale and with the urgency required.
This won’t be easy. But it is our only chance of achieving a truly sustainable society—and restoring what can be restored of Earth’s ecosystems and adapting in ways that serve humanity.
What that society would look like, and how a new and radically different state power would function, is spelled out in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) from the RCP, USA.
And we are not just waiting. We are actively working and organizing for this today. We are building a movement for an actual revolution.
1. Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet, 2nd Edition (Madrid: DARA Internacional, 2012).
Raymond Lotta is a political economist, writer for Revolution newspaper (www.revcom.us), and advocate for the new synthesis of communism developed by Bob Avakian. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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