Pope Francis says in a prayer, “The poor and the earth are crying out.” The question is: Will we hear and respond to their cry?
The world’s poor are already suffering ecological devastation. Extractive industries in Latin America often violate environmental standards, poisoning the health of children, women and men, and destroying aquifers and agriculture. Conflict in Africa is frequently driven by shifts in climate. It is no secret that the violence between Arab Muslim herders and African Muslim farmers in Darfur was driven in large part by competition for land as desertification robbed communities of pastures. In Asia, the devastation of the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan attests to how storms have intensified and poorer countries with fewer resources and less resilience are in great danger.
Pope Francis argues powerfully: “In the present state of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158).
He goes on to describe the kind of support developed nations, like our own, ought to provide to developing countries: “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. … They are likewise bound to develop less polluting forms of energy production, but to do so they require the help of countries which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” (no. 172).
Pope Francis reminds us that population is not the problem, waste and a throw-away society are: “To blame population growth instead of an extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues” (no. 50).
What does all this mean? It means we need to act, to act as both individuals and a nation.
As individuals, we need to resist the allure of consumerism: “Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction” (no. 204). “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (no. 204).
The Holy Father is calling us to live more simply and more fully! “It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full” (no. 223).
As a nation, we need to pursue international policies that save the poor and the planet. Pope Francis calls for a “global consensus” to confront “the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries” (no. 164). In response, our nation needs to support “enforceable international agreements” and “global regulatory norms” (no. 173). The United States will have an opportunity to do just that at the Global Climate Summit in Paris in December. One thing we should put on the table is a robust financial commitment to the Green Climate Fund, a fund to help poor nations develop in sustainable, “green” ways, unlike us, and to be more resilient in the face of more frequent droughts, stronger storms and sea level rise.
When we act in these ways as individuals and a nation, we will have truly heard the cries of the poor and the earth.
Stephen M. Colecchi is Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.