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Pope’s encyclical blames ‘extreme consumerism’ for the planet’s ills

18 June 2015


Wealth and power: Canary Wharf dominates the skyline as Cardinal Vincent Nichols presents the Encyclical at Our Lady and St Joseph's Catholic Primary School

Wealth and power: Canary Wharf dominates the skyline as Cardinal Vincent Nichols presents the Encyclical at Our Lady and St Joseph's Catholic P...

THE wealthy and powerful are mostly concerned with masking the destruction of the planet, and regard its impact on the poor as "collateral damage", Pope Francis has said, in an encyclical that calls for a cultural revolution to protect the Earth.

In the UK, the Pope's message was launched on Thursday morning, by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, on the rooftop of an RC primary school in Poplar, east London. Speaking against the dramatic backdrop of Canary Wharf's tallest skyscrapers, Cardinal Nichols did not seem surprised to be asked whether this oasis of wealth was the "real enemy" of the papal encyclical.

It contained, he admitted, enough to "disquiet some people behind me".

Encyclical Laudato si [God be praised]: On the Care of Our Common Home was welcomed by environmental activists as a "welcome rebuke to climate-change deniers", and a condemnation of the "iniquitous" repercussions of Western consumption.

The Cardinal described it as "a critique of economic and political programmes that undermine the dignity of the person".

At 179 pages long, the document takes in everything from city planning to GM foods and the digital media. Although the Pope describes it as "joyful", it rivals the Old Testament prophets in its stern, apocalyptic words of warning.

"Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain," the Pope writes. "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."

In its opening pages, he warns that the Earth "cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her . . . We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will."               

Those who hold worldly power come under heavy fire, and the document returns constantly to the theme of inequality.

"Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change," the Pope writes.

Although he acknowledges that business is a "noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world", and asserts that he is not anti-modernity ("Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age"), he is scathing about the bail-out of the banks and "short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production".

The most one can expect of this powerful group, he writes, is "superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented."

The problems of the poor are treated as "collateral damage", he writes. "They frequently remain at the bottom of the pile."

Singled out for scrutiny is the "growing tendency" to privatise water, a "basic and universal human right".

In resource-rich developing countries, "access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse."

Although the document states that the Church "does not presume to settle scientific questions", the Pope refers to a "very solid scientific consensus" about global warming, and to studies suggesting that it is mostly caused by human activity.

Fossil fuels must be "progressively replaced without delay".

He gives short shrift to those who would prescribe population control: "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues."

While he pays tribute to the work of the ecological movement, and acknowledges that some progress has been made, the Pope is frank about the failure of global summits to deliver change. This is owing, he writes, not only to "powerful opposition" but to attitudes that range from "nonchalant resignation" to "blind confidence in technical solutions".

He is unstinting in his critique of modern ills, including a prevalent "throwaway culture" and "rampant individualism". He makes several pleas for a new "sobriety", which could be "healthy", "liberating", and "happy".

His call for a "bold cultural revolution" encompasses actions large and small, from the saying of Grace before and after eating, to the need for a legal framework that can take on the power structures he criticises.

Greenpeace's international executive director, Kumi Naidoo, called the encyclical "a welcome rebuke to climate-change deniers and the interests that seek to thwart progress . . The Pope's words should jolt heads of government out of their complacency, and encourage them to bring in tough laws in their own countries to protect the climate, and to agree a strong climate protocol in Paris at the end of this year."

The Church of England's lead bishop on the environment, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, described it as a "major contribution to tackling climate change", which "highlights the iniquitous way in which the enormous consumption of some wealthy nations has repercussions in the poorest places on the planet." There was, he said, "significant ecumenical and interfaith convergence on climate change".

The venue chosen for the UK launch was Our Lady and St Joseph's Catholic Primary School, which opened in September and has been constructed from timber and brick and uses solar energy. It is one of the most deprived parts of the country, a ten-minute walk from Canary Wharf and the country's financial epicentre.

The school had been chosen, Cardinal Nichols said, because of the Pope's concern for "what sort of world we want to leave to those who come after us". Among the pupils were some "from many of the countries that suffer real poverty today".

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