Pope is not alone as people of faith take up environmental cause

Mary Evelyn Tucker says the pope's historic call on climate change captures a growing movement that gives environmental activism moral weight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 11:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 11:30am

For decades, the public has assumed that scientists or policymakers would solve environmental problems like climate change. Market-based and technological solutions were also pursued. While these approaches are necessary, we are realising they are not sufficient to resolve pressing environmental challenges.

Ecological issues are no longer viewed as simply scientific or policy issues, but also moral concerns. That is the significance of the pope's encyclical "On the Care of Our Common Home" and why it is provoking such strong reactions. Ethics is meeting ecology - a powerful formula for change.

The encyclical is the first in 2,000 years concerned with the environment. And Pope Francis makes it clear that he is speaking not just to Catholics, or the larger Christian community, but rather to all people on the planet about our common home.

The message was delivered as there is growing consensus that the human community needs to make changes on both global and local levels.

To contribute to global warming and compromise our planetary life systems is seen by the pope and many others as morally problematic. This is a watershed moment - a broadening of ethics that encompasses both humans and nature.

The move in the US from segregation to civil rights in the 1960s was sparked by moral voices, such as Martin Luther King. So, too, ethical concerns now led by the pope encourage the growing turn from unsustainable environmental and economic practices. Indeed, he calls for "ecological virtues" to overcome "ecological sin". No wonder there is pushback. And just as with civil rights, this moral shift will take time.

From Pope Francis, a penetrating moral message is emerging. This man who washes the feet of prisoners and lives in simple quarters has captured the hearts of millions yearning for leadership and genuine change.

The rising moral force for ecological and social transformation can be witnessed on every continent and in every religious tradition. Indigenous communities preserve forests in the Amazon and in North America; the film Renewal examines eight case studies of religious environmentalism in the US; Buddhist monks protect forests in Southeast Asia; Hindu practitioners restore sacred rivers in India; Jews, Christians and Muslims conserve the Jordan River.

These examples of religious communities caring for our common home offer hope that Francis' message will not only be heard, but acted on.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. Copyright: YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Centre