A couple a months ago, I read Amitav Ghosh's excellent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. One section of the book that I found to be particularly striking was Ghosh's discussion of the difference between two 2015 documents on climate change: Pope Francis's encyclical letter Laudato si' and the United Nations' Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
As is only to be expected, the two works, one written by a former teacher of literature and the other by a multitude of diplomats and delegates, are not at all similar, even though they rely on many of the same materials and address some of the same subjects. (pp. 150-151)
He then compares both the style and substance of the two texts in a way that I found to be very illuminating. His discussion largely characterizes the Paris Agreement as an uninspired, technocratic mess and Pope Francis's letter as a thoughtful and lucid discussion and call to action:
As is often the case with texts, the Agreement's rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other. (p 156)
In Laudato Si' the words poverty and justice keep close company with each other. Here poverty is not envisaged as a state that can be managed or ameliorated in isolation from other factors; nor are ecological issues seen as problems that can be solved without taking social inequities into account, as is often implied by a certain kind of conservationism. (p. 157)
Intrigued by Ghosh's discussion, I decided to peruse Francis's Encyclical letter itself. Naturally, I skipped straight ahead to Chapter 6: Ecological Education and Spirituality.
The Pope advocates a new form of ecological education that "cultivates sound virtues" that enable people to make a "selfless ecological commitment." He writes,
Environmental education has broadened its goals. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly centred on scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, it tends now to include a critique of the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market). It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care. (Paragraph 210, emphasis added)
And a few paragraphs later,
In this regard, “the relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked”. By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market. (Paragraph 215, emphasis added)
Though I was raised Catholic, I am not religious. Nevertheless, Francis's writing resonates with much of what I believe: our ecological crisis is supported by social, political, and spiritual crises. Our liberation from this catastrophe requires something more than a technical or scientific education; an aesthetic education is necessary.