Human Ecology and the Culture of Waste

A few weeks ago Pope Francis gave his most developed speech concerning the environment, available in full here. The occasion was World Environment Day, sponsored by the UN. As he himself says, the environment has featured prominently so far in his Magisterium, for example here, here and here. Following the tradition of his predecessors he reflects on the biblical aspects of the book of Genesis, and the responsibility of man to cultivate, to participate in God’s plan of being a steward of creation. The grammar of creation is written in nature, and we must understand this logic, echoing Pope Benedict XVI. 

Then he speaks of the human dimension of the environmental problem and the deeper sources of the environmental crisis. The identification of the environmental crisis with a moral crisis was made explicit by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and implied by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes 10: “The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man.”. Here is this point made in Francis’ own words:

But to “cultivate and care” encompasses not only the relationship between us and the environment, between man and creation, it also regards human relationships. The Popes have spoken of human ecology, closely linked to environmental ecology. We are living in a time of crisis: we see this in the environment, but above all we see this in mankind. The human person is in danger: this is certain, the human person is in danger today, here is the urgency of human ecology! And it is a serious danger because the cause of the problem is not superficial but profound: it is not just a matter of economics, but of ethics and anthropology. The Church has stressed this several times, and many say, yes, that’s right, it’s true … but the system continues as before, because it is dominated by the dynamics of an economy and finance that lack ethics.

What is Francis’ novel contribution then to the subject matter. Well, first of all is what he calls the culture of waste, where he ties the human problem to an erroneous and mistaken approach to economics. We have become spoiled and used to abundance, and this is destroying the earth, as we waste what we have. His words are radical, and the answer is solidarity:

 Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules. God our Father did not give the task of caring for the earth to money, but to us, to men and women: we have this task! Instead, men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste.” If you break a computer it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs, the dramas of so many people end up becoming the norm…A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.This “culture of waste” tends to become the common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person is no longer perceived as a primary value to be respected and protected, especially if poor or disabled, if not yet useful – such as the unborn child – or no longer needed – such as the elderly. This culture of waste has made us insensitive even to the waste and disposal of food, which is even more despicable when all over the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families are suffering from hunger and malnutrition….We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the the poor, the hungry!

One little known fact is that this reflection on the ‘culture of waste’ is not new. In fact, this idea was most developed in Card. Bergoglio’s last Te Deum homily in Argentina, on the national day May 25th. Here he coined the term, ‘culture del volquete’: what is not useful is discarded. His emphasis was on treating human beings, children and elderly especially, in utilitarian terms, but of course this applies to the environment as well. In general the entire homily is a pointed bazooka at the ills of our times. The homily can be read in full here and this section is quoted in Spanish below:

Los extremos débiles son descartados: los niños y los ancianos.

A veces se me ocurre que, con los niños y los jóvenes, somos como adultos abandónicos que prescindimos de los pequeños porque nos enrostran nuestra amargura y vejez no aceptada. Los abandonamos al arbitrio de la calle, al “sálvese quien pueda” de los lugares de diversión o al anonimato pasivo y frío de las tecnologías. Dejamos todo a su cuidado y los imitamos porque no queremos aceptar nuestro lugar de adultos, no entendemos que la exigencia del mandamiento del amor es cuidar, poner límites y abrir horizontes, dar testimonio con la propia vida. Y, como siempre, los más pobres encarnan lo más trágico del filicidio social: violencia y desprotección, tráfico, abusos y explotación de menores.

Y también los ancianos son abandonados, y no sólo en la precariedad material. Son abandonados en la egoísta incapacidad de aceptar sus limitaciones que reflejan las nuestras, en los numerosos escollos que hoy deben superar para sobrevivir en una civilización que no los deja participar, opinar ni ser referentes según el modelo consumista de “sólo la juventud es aprovechable y puede gozar”. Esos ancianos que deberían ser, para la sociedad toda, la reserva sapiencial de nuestro pueblo.

¡Con qué facilidad, cuando no hay amor, se adormece la conciencia! Tal adormecimiento señala cierta narcosis del espíritu y de la vida. Entregamos nuestras vidas y, mucho peor, las de nuestros niños y jóvenes, a las soluciones mágicas y destructivas de las drogas (legales e ilegales), del juego legalizado, de la medicación fácil, de la  banalización hueca del espectáculo, del cuidado fetichista del cuerpo. Las encapsulamos en el encierro narcisista y consumista. Y, a nuestros ancianos, que para este narcisismo y consumismo son material descartable, los tiramos al volquete existencial. Y así, la falta de amor instaura la “cultura del volquete”. Lo que no sirve, se tira.

Second of all, is the Pope’s biblical reflection on the multiplication of loaves. When the community shares in solidarity, no one is left hungry and nothing goes to waste. Solidarity is proposed as the central attitude needed to face the environmental crisis. Here is Francis in his own words:

And this tells us that when food is shared in a fair way, with solidarity, when no one is deprived, every community can meet the needs of the poorest. Human ecology and environmental ecology walk together.

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