Pope Francis, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
Pope Francis caught my attention a while back, when I saw reports that, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he got around town by bus instead of a limo, and encouraged young seminarians to get about town by bicycle. Thus, I was very interested to read his Encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si.” The Encyclical ties together a number of important issues related to climate change and its threat to human society and the earth, our “common home.” I recommend reading it for yourself, but for those without the time to wade through its 180-odd pages, here’s a good synopsis.
Laudato Si shows a good grasp of the scientific consensus on climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, and makes the case that we (i.e., global society) must end our dependence on fossil fuels sooner rather than later. It is a courageous document, addressed to the entire human family, that urges people to rethink the current throwaway culture that wastes natural resources, pollutes the air and water, and results in profound alienation from nature and from one another. More than this, it also calls on those in the global north (i.e., U.S. and Europe) to reduce our overall consumption of resources and work for a more equitable distribution of wealth within our own societies and between rich and poor parts of the world.
In this sense, I found the Pope’s message consonant with Naomi Klein’s powerful book, This Changes Everything, in that it looks at the climate crisis as part of a larger interconnected crisis of unrestrained capitalism, runaway consumerism, and inequality. I may take issue with the Pope’s stance on reproductive rights, but I think he appropriately focuses on the outsized per capita consumption pattern and carbon footprint of people in so-called “advanced” societies like the US.
Exhibit “A” is the idea that everyone should drive around in a 2,000-lb climate-controlled easy chair with a personal entertainment system and that we must sacrifice our cities and our open spaces to promote the continued widespread use of these machines regardless of the ecological, economic, and social damage they do. The US has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation in the world, and the Encyclical points out that it is simply unsustainable to export this model of consumption to the rest of the world. The US EPA calculates that more than a quarter of our national carbon footprint comes from transportation, and this is magnified by the automobile-induced sprawl that exacerbates the problem of distance and dependence on the car.
As part of this larger argument, the Encyclical makes a powerful case for a shift in social consciousness about the way we live and includes specific references to transit and more livable (i.e., walkable and bikeable) cities. In every world city where public transportation is prioritized, bicycles play a significant role in the sustainable transportation network that helps people get to their destinations. The reasons for this shift are not only environmental, Francis argues, they are social, as the shift from the automobile/consumerist system enhances human relationships and fosters greater social equity in our communities.
In Ch. IV, Sec. III. of the Encyclical, he calls for “substantial” investment in public transit and critiques the automobile-based transportation model in terms that could have been said by any contemporary new urbanist planner:
- “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”
The shift away from the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) mode of transportation he calls for in Ch. VI, Sec. II. is part of a broader change that prioritizes frugality over consumerist excess:
- “. . . . A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”
The bicycle represents so many of the values Francis emphasizes in the Encyclical: it is inexpensive to own and operate, making it accessible to all; it consumes relatively few resources to manufacture or use; its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the automobile; it’s utilitarian instead of luxurious; it promotes health, happiness, and well-being; and it connects us to our communities in ways that the automobile does not. When combined with transit, it can reduce automobile use significantly.
The Encyclical speaks powerfully of the ethical dimension of our personal choices—the “little daily actions” we take. When we ride a bike, take transit, or carpool, we act in such a way that directly affects the world around us. During a recent forum on the Encyclical Brian Treanor, Professor of Environmental Ethics at LMU and bicycle commuter, noted that while one person bicycling isn’t going to end climate change, it is the larger ethic of the act that carries value, and when combined with efforts to organize for broader social change, makes a big difference. When we become the change we wish to see, we send a powerful message of hope to all around us.
It is refreshing to see an influential global religious leader who understands the role alternative transportation choices play in reducing our carbon emissions and promoting community, equity, and health at the same time. I hope other leaders, religious and secular, begin to send the same message.