Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

As others have been quick to point out, Francis isn’t the first pope to address the environmental challenges of our time, but what makes the encyclical the Vatican released Thursday different, perhaps even revolutionary, is his focus on the human cost, as well as the human cause.

The encyclical, or papal letter, titled “Laudato Si” after a line from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures,” consists of nearly 200 pages in which the pope criticizes global leaders for their inability to set aside “special interests and economic interests” and agree on a viable approach to climatic catastrophe. It highlights the need for wealthy countries to pay their debt to poor countries that have suffered due to the greed of a few. As Robert Hennelly summarizes it in a Salon article, “55 percent of the available world’s energy is used by just 1 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people,” while 3 billion others, the most vulnerable members of our global community, suffer the harshest consequences of our environmental pillaging.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, understands firsthand the impact of avarice on the global South. While the Catholic leader consulted well-known environmental activists from South America, such as Erwin Kräutler, a bishop in the Brazilian rain forest, and theologian Leonardo Boff, he also drew on his experiences in his native region, where he has witnessed the deforestation of the Amazon.

During a 2007 Latin American bishops’ meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, Francis said he first understood the importance of the rain forest’s function as the “lungs of the world.” These vital “lungs” have been clotted not just by foreign corporations, but also by local “masters” who benefit financially from the ecosystem’s devastation. As the pontiff makes clear in his statement, it is not just wealthy countries and their economic interests that have damaged our “common home,” but capitalism and measures such as the gross domestic product, which allow us to ignore the environmental toll of boundless production and “extreme consumerism.”

And while conservatives, such as Jeb Bush, would like to frame environmental considerations as “economic policy,” in which religious leaders should play no part, Francis insists that continuing to ignore climate change is in fact a question of morality. When people living near the Peruvian Amazon, for example, are dying from malaria, a disease caused by mosquito bites that are hundreds of times more likely to occur in deforested regions, the human cost begins to become clear.

As Hennelly points out, however, “conservative free market Catholics [want] religion to be a form of social control, not transformation.” But it is precisely these people Pope Francis addresses in his papal letter, warning that capitalism and the current global system “[lead] people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power.”

The pontiff does not limit his analysis to Latin America, adding,

The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.

He also links the “mindset” that impedes the international community from “making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming” to the ideas that “[stand] in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” Throughout the document, Francis emphasizes that the destruction of the planet is inescapably interconnected to the extermination of the poor, making it imperative to “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.” The pope charges the wealthy with paying their “grave social debt” and taking action to save our common home from becoming the unsalvageable “pile of filth” it is already beginning to resemble.

The Catholic leader does not stop at analysis. He offers concrete steps for addressing the environmental devastation we’ve caused over the past two centuries, such as using renewable energies to end our reliance on fossil fuels and rethinking our “current global carbon trading scheme.” To learn more about the pope’s views on the “climate, water scarcity, waste, the state of humanity, poverty, consumption, justice, morality and technology,” click here or look through the entire document, below.

The encyclical, which was released as the pope prepares to address the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, is expected to have a significant impact on the climate talks scheduled in Paris later this year. But whether his words affect the diplomats who continue to fail to save this planet and the people who inhabit it, there is no doubt Francis’ letter has resonated with the global community, as evidenced by both the negative and positive responses it has elicited.

Perhaps this was his true goal after all: not to break through the greed and corruption that have come to characterize the international political elite, but to inspire the rest of us to stand up for our fellow human beings and our rapidly deteriorating home before there’s nothing and no one left. As the pontiff writes,

… all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.

For his radical stance on the environment, and his courage in spreading his much-needed words, Pope Francis is our Truthdigger of the Week.

“Laudato Si” – the pope’s encyclical on the environment and climate change


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