On June 18 Pope Francis will release a papal letter on climate change. Through it, he will inject a moral dimension to the various scientific arguments, in hopes of building more support for action against climate change by Catholics and others around the world. This is not the first time people have tried to invoke morality in the fight against climate change, as I noted a few years ago in my Winnipeg Free Press column.
Today, it seems obvious that people should not be bought, sold and enslaved. But back then the prevailing view was that the slave trade was a brutal, but necessary evil.
Stopping the slave trade, it was argued, would have negative economic consequences—jobs would be affected, and whole economies devastated.
Only a few people believed it was wrong. One of them was William Wilberforce, a courageous Christian Member of the British Parliament. For 20 years, he tirelessly advocated for an end to buying and selling of human beings before the law was passed.
The abolition of slavery is one example of how humans have evolved ethically over time. But while we have made progress in human rights, we have not done as well when it comes to extending rights to the earth.
And that, some people argue, is what it will take if we are to do anything about climate change, that real change won’t occur until people believe that it is morally wrong to abuse the planet.
Not wrong because it has negative economic consequences, or because it will negatively affect our way of life. And not even wrong because we will die if the earth is no longer able to sustain human life.
Put simply, it’s wrong because that’s no way to treat anyone or anything.
Rocks, in other words, have rights, too.
This is a radical shift in thinking. Traditionally, we have thought of rights as belonging only to human beings. But more and more people today are arguing that the earth is not to be prized because it sustains life, but because it has value in and of itself.
One of the earliest to suggest this was Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management in the U.S.
In his classic essay, The Land Ethic, Leopold said the next human moral evolution would be the expansion of ethics to govern our relationship to the earth.
Before he died in 1948, he proposed the following ethic for the way we deal with the environment: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the earth. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
The land ethic, he said, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, animals or, collectively: the land."
Wendell Berry, a Christian environmentalist, author and farmer, also has added his voice to this larger way of viewing the earth.
Berry’s goal is to help people see the sacredness of the material world, together with its non-human inhabitants. He argues that the earth and all its creatures are valuable not just because they were created by God, but because they are expressions of the divine.
Says Berry: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us."
What we need to do, he added, is "recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”
And now Pope Francis is adding his considerable moral authority to the issue. As Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, put it:
“Pope Francis is personally committed to this [climate] issue like no other pope before him. The encyclical will have a major impact. It will speak to the moral imperative of addressing climate change in a timely fashion in order to protect the most vulnerable.”
Will it make a difference? Already the critics are lining up against him. But two centuries ago people in Great Britain also opposed William Wilberforce when he proclaimed that it was immoral to enslave human beings.
One day, just like in the battle against slavery, we will also come to believe that it is morally wrong to abuse the earth.