Whilst a burgeoning body of evidence is emerging that the current COVID-19 pandemic is exerting a positive impact on numerous natural habitats as well as on our air quality, there is at least one ecosystem which is breaking this positive mould – the Amazon. According to a BBC report, in fact, illegal logging and mining surged within the Brazilian, Colombian and Bolivian sectors of the Amazon during the current pandemic.
The Brazilian space agency INPE reports that the rate of deforestation of the Amazon was 64% higher during April 2020 when compared to the April 2019 rates, whilst in the first four months of 2020, rainforest destruction rose by 55%, compared with the same time last year, clearing an area of 1,202 square kilometers (464 square miles). Seems that fear of authority is no longer a deterrent as the Brazilian government is busy grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. And the obviation of the rainforest habitat is globally not restricted to the Amazon, with similar sobering trends in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Madagascar and Kenya also being observed during the current pandemic.
The latest upsurge in the despoilment of the Amazon leviathan has also been accompanied by a spike in the killing of indigenous activists. This has nudged Pope Francis to release on the 12th of February 2020 the ‘Dear Amazon’ (‘Querida Amazon’), a 94-page exhortation in which he argues for its preservation and where he stresses that the communities best positioned to safeguard the welfare of the Amazon rainforest are the indigenous ones who have lived within its embrace since time immemorial. Such a bold position by the Vatican taking up the cudgels of indigenous communities in South America is in stark contrast to the devastation wrought over five centuries ago to the same communities by Spanish conquistadores, at the time at the behest of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, and thus represents a modicum of atonement.
Querida Amazon is but a corollary of its notorious predecessor – Laudato Si. Dated Pentecost Sunday 24th May 2015, the ‘ecological encyclical’, as Laudato Si has been dubbed (even though Pope Francis has rightly countered that the encyclical is broader than that), was superbly timed as it pre-empted the Paris UN Climate Change talks that same year, where the encyclical was regularly bandied about by activists. The sheer universal resonance of the encyclical with environmentalists, even with those crowds advocating population-control measures, including abortion (staunchly opposed by the Pope), swept many off their feet, with heavyweight exponents of the liberal left, including economist Jeffrey Sachs and politician Bernie Sanders, even being invited to the Vatican during the encyclical’s launch.
The subsequent ripples to be generated by the encyclical were somewhat anticipated by Pope Francis in his preamble when he mused that ‘Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. In my apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I wrote to all the members of the Church with the aim of encouraging ongoing missionary renewal. In this encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” The Pope ensued with this somewhat melodramatic vein when, after acknowledging the environmental initiatives of his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he compared the defining moment that 2015 turned out to be for the climate change debate when he compared it to another watershed moment, that of 50 years before, when the world was teethering on the brink of nuclear war.
So what did Laudato Si actually aim to achieve? Analysts list at least 5 key priorities of the encyclical, namely those related to political action, pollution, poverty, climate change and technocratic globalisation. The encyclical makes a strident appeal to alleviate the ‘cry of the poor’, as they are the ones to be disproportionately affected by climate change. The Hobson’s choice we face here is unsettling, given that wealth generation efforts to extirpate poverty will inevitably ratchet up greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing to further climate change. With respect to technocratic globalisation, Pope Francis ensues with the streak he had embarked upon in other initiatives when denouncing the ‘throwaway society’ concept, where the sick, the elderly, the poor and the Earth itself were disposable, in a context dominated by mass production of goods buoyed by our confidence in technological advances.
In an intriguing nod to Galileo Galilei and his disciples in the centuries to follow, Pope Francis concedes that the Church does not presume ‘to settle scientific questions,’ and that the encyclical builds upon ‘the best scientific research available’. This is music to the ears of anyone who has had his fill of drivel from sceptics bent on refuting scientific evidence in support of anything from climate change to the importance of mass vaccination programmes and who are coaxed on by the agenda of populist politicians.
To sum it all up, arguably the most enduring legacy of Laudato Si is its framing of the environmental debate within an additional religious dimension. The environment had, to date, being largely the sole preserve of economists, scientists and politicians, with the encyclical now proposing a pegging of environmental issues to matters of faith. This is not to say that the Pope is on a proselyting mission, to impose his religious beliefs onto non-believers, whom he acknowledges in the encyclical, but rather to hint that professing to be a believer carries the intrinsic responsibility to care for the environment. May the legacy of Laudato Si ensure the passage of time, not just within our churches, schools and media portals, but also within our minds and hearts, so that it translates into a meaningful course of action in favour of the environment. Only then would the ‘ecological conversion’ and the ‘bold cultural revolution’ that the Pope is clamouring for in order to address major contemporary environmental challenges, such as climate change, have come of age.
Published by Sunday Times of Malta, 31 st May 2020.