Stroll through the crowds at Maine’s Common Ground Country Fair and you’re likely to see farming devotees and zealous gardeners alongside faithful novices eager to learn the tenets of sustainability.

Fairgoers in search of ongoing inspiration stop at a bookstore booth for gardening and foraging guides.

It’s not a setting where you would expect to find a document from the Vatican selling like wood-fired pizza or fresh apple cider. But this fall, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” – the encyclical letter Pope Francis released in June – was a fair best-seller.

A look inside the book reveals why. The pope’s heartfelt plea for action on climate and justice centers on a vision of “integral ecology.”

The inspiration comes from his guide and namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. A joyful and generous-hearted mystic with universal appeal, St. Francis exemplified “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace.”

For Pope Francis, integral ecology incorporates science but evokes an intimate sense of connection with life that, in his words, “take(s) us to the heart of what it is to be human.” He advocates for a “communion with the rest of nature” so deep that “we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

In words at once eloquent and searing, the pope offers an unflinching look at the perils we face. Our planetary home, he writes, looks “more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together,” he observes, leaving a world “squeezed dry beyond every limit.”

The ecological devastation and social inequity trace back to what the pope calls a “throwaway culture” that exploits both human and natural communities.

Unbridled capitalism has produced income inequality of staggering proportions. By 2016, according to Oxfam International, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population will own more than 50 percent of global wealth.

In this country, according to an Institute for Policy Studies report, Wall Street bank executives collected bonuses in 2014 (on top of their generous salaries) worth twice the collective amount made that year by all the country’s full-time minimum-wage workers.

Economic inequities manifest in the growing climate crisis. Around the world, people already struggling to survive have had their lives ravaged by climate disruptions.

This moral juxtaposition is starkly apparent in international climate negotiations: those who have done least to cause the climate crisis and are least able to respond are the ones who will be most affected.

Pope Francis calls for sweeping societal transformations in our use and distribution of resources, noting that “social problems must be addressed by community networks, and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.”

A daily commitment to reduce resource use has value, he notes, reflecting a “generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings.” But tackling the current crises requires a far more comprehensive approach than past attempts at piecemeal reform:

“Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.”

The pope devotes an entire chapter to ecological education and spirituality, recognizing that weaning ourselves from “the indifference induced by consumerism” requires a new “attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present. …”

Pope Francis issues this call not just to the 1.2 billion who share his faith, but to “every person living on this planet.”

Recognizing that stabilizing our shared climate requires drastic cuts in carbon emissions, he is actively building bridges with diverse allies – even unlikely ones, like secular activist Naomi Klein, author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.”

A major hindrance to constructive action is denial, an affliction evident among elected leaders.

The pope challenges the widespread tendency toward “complacency and a cheerful recklessness” that leads to “delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

The radical power of this small book, born of deep conviction, lies in its potential to profoundly shift our moral bearings. “Many things have to change course,” the pope writes, “but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices.


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