The notion of people as pollution is not a new one. It is certainly a sign of the times that the recently appointed Director of the Bureau of Land Management believes that having children is an environmental threat, but from at least the 18th Century when English eugenicist Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principles of Population the question of who counts as a person (to paraphrase the title of the magnificent work by the late Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J.) has been debated.
In Laudato Si’, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, the relationship between care for the poor and care for the environment is described as a necessary one. Instead of seeing the poor and vulnerable of the world as a part of the problem - the view taken by Margaret Sanger, John D. Rockefeller, and Bill Gates, to name a few - the Holy Father sees them as victims of our “throwaway culture” who have “a right to life and happiness” and are “endowed with unique dignity.”
The pope’s message, which is both ancient and new, takes on a particular importance in this Ignatian Year and in light of the fourth of the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) of the Society of Jesus: “to collaborate in the care of our Common Home.” Collaboration, for the Society of Jesus and for its most famous living member, means embarking on a mission with others as well as for others. Any attempts at “saving the planet” that involve the type of cultural imperialism that defined the past (and present) can’t be seen as collaboration.
Yet, because the oligarchs who make global decisions are both eugenicists and materialists, the words of Francis are like a cry in the wilderness. This pragmatic, imperialist approach to the world’s problems forgets that there are consequences for those who don’t have a voice in the process, and that any decision that adversely affects these vulnerable groups is necessarily counterproductive.
In one of the most important statements in Laudato Si’ the Holy Father points out that “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” The separation of people from the environment, whereby their existence becomes problematic for the sustainability of the earth, does no justice to either the planet or the human race.
The First World approach, whereby the rest of the world is seen as a problem to be solved rather than a community to be embraced, has as its default setting a mindset where “instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate...which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’.” That sounds a lot more like coercion (or blackmail) than cooperation.
This fourth UAP, like the others, is worded very thoughtfully and intentionally. Care for our Common Home is one of those causes that no thinking person could be against, yet that is its danger. When turned over to those whose concerns are promotion of a particular ideology rather than of the universal human family, then, as history has shown, the powerful can make easy work of the vulnerable in the name of a good cause.
And so that is why the insertion of the phrase “to collaborate” is so important, and why it is essential to always follow the Church’s perennial teaching - particularly as laid out for our time in Laudato Si’. Otherwise it would be very easy to side with the “people as pollution” crowd rather than Pope Francis, the Church, and all people of good will who, because they recognize that human worth transcends political or economic clout, have a “people as solution” orientation.
Early on in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis quotes Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Orthodox counterpart to the pope stated that “as Christians, we are...called to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale.” Sharing with God and our neighbor is known as collaboration, and it is only within this context - that of a sacrament of communion - that someday we will find room for all people in our Common Home .