Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, Latin for “Praise Be”, was released Thursday, June 18, which was also the first day of Ramadan for many Muslims. Ramadan is a month of fasting that fosters growth in God-consciousness and compassion for the needy. While fasting for Ramadan, I have been devoting time to reading Laudato Si, and find much there that fills me with great hope. Although Pope Francis leads the world’s Roman Catholics, his message is meant for all; while the trends in ecological destruction are grim, the document resounds with a positive ethic of compassion, justice, and spiritual awakening. Our unsustainable course towards catastrophic climate change demands urgent individual and collective changes in consciousness and behavior. As the highest profile religious appeal for addressing the greatest collective action challenge of our time, Laudato Si is a potentially game-changing step.
Important themes of Laudato Si will resonate with many Muslims. Praise is central to how nature and the cosmos are presented in the Islamic tradition, with humanity as part of nature’s fabric, in a position of stewardship. As Joseph Lumbard has described in “An Islamic Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:
“Among the world scriptures, the Quran provides a unique resource for building a new ecological paradigm. Grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, it presents a harmonious view of nature reminiscent of the Far East. In the Quran, “whatsoever is the heavens and on the earth glorifies God” (59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1). “The stars and the trees prostrate” (55:6), “the thunder hymns His praise” (13:13), and “unto God prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts” (22:18). In these and many other verses, the whole of creation is presented as a Divine symphony, for “there is no thing, save that it hymns His praise, though you do not understand their praise. Truly He is Clement, Forgiving” (Q 17:44).”.
Love is mentioned over 70 times in Laudato Si. Highlighting love is more likely to inspire change than an approach focused purely on cost benefit calculations. A Common Word Between Us, the path-breaking, authoritative Islamic teaching to promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians for the common good, centers on the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor. Together, these affirmations can support significant civic initiatives for environmental protection across religious and community lines.
This much-needed positive motivation does not mean that we can ignore the costs of inaction. As the Common Word document also asserts, a failure to work together threatens our worldly well-being. Laudato Si points boldly and clearly to the human sources of climate change. This captures an emerging moral consensus that the status quo is a path to disaster. Averting collective catastrophe and thus serving the common good requires collective action at many levels.
Laudato Si emphasizes acute sensitivity to debt, inequality, and poverty, and suggests differentiated responsibilities based on wealth and ability. Compassion and justice require voice for the most vulnerable and marginalized- those often left voiceless, who stand to suffer the most from climate change, while having contributed the least to the problem. The social and environmental dimensions cannot be considered in isolation, but should be treated integrally as a complex joint crisis. These social justice concerns will surely find many receptive Muslim audiences.
Laudato Si also questions consumerism, and challenges us to imagine a different way of living. Driven by human consumption and production, we face staggering loss of biodiversity – the rate of extinction in the 20th century was up to 100 times higher than it would have been without man’s impact, and pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations. Aside from the ethical problem that we are the species causing the loss of so many other species, we are also undermining our own well-being by “sawing off the limb we are sitting on”.
We have just experienced the warmest May on record, after the warmest start to a year on record, and we are headed towards making 2015 the warmest year on record. This March, we reached the 400 parts per million mark of carbon concentration in the atmosphere; 350 ppm is considered safe and 450ppm dangerous. Climate change exacerbates water crises, further straining water-stressed societies in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere, placing many people at serious risk. To the ethical and spiritual motivations for changing course, we can add pragmatic worldly self-interest: we are all downstream.
The upcoming international climate summit is one avenue for seeking change. But the problem cannot be treated as a matter for the top-level negotiators only. Without getting into specific policy debates, even if the summit succeeds in binding commitments to decarbonize, civic monitoring and action will still be needed to fulfill those commitments. Irrespective of the outcome of the summit, local initiatives will matter, particularly when linked by information networks and the trust that others are taking responsibility. The complex and changing problems favor a multi-scale approach, which encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, and helps to assess the costs and benefits of particular strategies.
While technological innovations hold important promise- and investment in renewable energy is needed as part of progressive elimination of fossil fuels- there remains a need for institutions to ensure appropriate use. Diverse social ecological contexts require diverse institutional arrangements. Laudato Si also references the principle of subsidiarity, which promotes local autonomy appropriate to capabilities. Together, these factors suggest that collective actions are needed at many levels to generate the institutions for sustaining our commons.
Muslims can and should engage substantively with Laudato Si. In keeping with stewardship, it is time to make positive changes where possible, to redouble our efforts as civic artisans in our communities, and to build broad solidarity for meaningful national and global commitments for the collective good.