Earlier this month Pope Francis renewed a vision of environmental justice and mercy as the theme of this jubilee year, also named as the Year of Mercy in the Catholic tradition. The Pope recommended that caring for the environment be added to the seven traditional spiritual works of mercy. Caring for the environment is a particularly merciful work because, according to Francis, “The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable.”
The destruction of our ecosystem is the present trauma of poor communities, eliminating both habitat and livelihood, while threatening spirituality. Indeed, the pressing task of environmental stewardship is now one of the greatest works of merciful actions available to humanity.
Recently featured on “Democracy Now!,” political analyst and dissident Noam Chomsky referred to climate change as one of the “worst threats that the human species has ever faced.” The deplorable aspect of this claim is that we know how to quell this threat. Scientists know how much carbon dioxide the Earth can handle and have developed thorough plans to restructure our economy based on renewable resources, like those created by the Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson. But as 350.org founder Bill McKibben likes to point out, the fossil fuel industry is consciously determined to “burn more fuel than the planet’s atmosphere can begin to absorb,” reflecting an ethos Francis calls “profit at any price.” Even if that price is, quite literally, the sheer habitability of our planet.
Francis’ answer to this threat is mercy as explained in the Catholic tradition. The risks involved in climate irresponsibility make this an especially superlative time in human history for merciful actions like those enumerated in the traditional corporal works of mercy of the Catholic Church.
Caring for the Earth certainly represents a great act of mercy, as those who suffer most from this crisis are poor, hungry and homeless. We have seen this be the case during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as in coastal cities and plains across the world.
Yet the magnitude of suffering present as a result of climate change makes this newest work of mercy the greatest ever available to us. As environmental activist Naomi Klein argues in her book “This Changes Everything,” solving the climate crisis necessitates a complete upending of the status quo, which can concurrently solve many of the socio-economic inequalities we are already fighting. It is exactly why groups with social causes, including social groups like Black Lives Matter, have adopted climate activism as part of their platforms, as climate change does disproportionately kill people of color according to a recent Newsweek article.
But what about spirituality? What are the implications of climate destruction for our spirits and faiths? When indigenous groups, most recently the Standing Rock Sioux tribes of North Dakota, decry the destruction of Mother Earth, they are not just expressing a folksy metaphor for creation, but they are expressing a worldview based on the harmonious nature of the primordial female. Therefore, we are quite literally bulldozing and burning this spirituality into oblivion for the sake of pipelines and profits. There is a reason why the most spiritual among us, such as indigenous tribes, are the most active in fighting climate change. The issue does not only affect their livelihood and deepen their poverty, but also their connection to the divine, which depends on the health of nature.
The call to mercy for our environment is therefore one that potentially encompasses a great number of social movements and represents a fight for both physical and spiritual existence. Although it may be easy to adopt a defeatist attitude when confronting the scale of climate change, there is an alternative: atonement for what Francis call the sin of climate destruction through the greatest works of mercy ever performed. As such, the act of protecting and conserving our Earth stand as one of our greatest challenges, both tangibly and spiritually.
Nicholas Scrimenti is a junior in the College. Spiritual Search appears every other Friday.