Earlier this week, Pope Francis met with environmental activists from Argentina to discuss concerns about water contamination and hydraulic fracturing — that’s “fracking” for short. After the meeting, the pontiff appeared in photographs with two of his guests, Juan Pablo Olsson and Fernando “Pino” Solanas, displaying T-shirts bearing Spanish-language anti-fracking slogans. The Pope mentioned that he has begun work on an encyclical exploring the connections between “nature, humans, and environmental pollution.”
For those who are accustomed to papal pronouncements of a different sort, this sudden eco-consciousness is a bit perplexing. Is the Vatican going green?
Actually, the pope’s concerns about fracking in Argentina are nowhere near as surprising as they might initially seem, in light of the strong intersection between environmental issues and economic inequities. Pope Francis has taken a particular interest in poverty and the plight of the world’s poor. Since the fallout of environmental devastation tends to disproportionately affect the poorest people, whether globally or locally, it seems there’s a natural affinity between the pope’s pre-existing concerns and the environmental issues concerning his visitors from Argentina.
These particular issues revolve largely around a recent deal between the Argentine government and Chevron, which would give the fuel company rights to develop shale oil and gas resources in the southern Andes, potentially contaminating the Neuquén River, upon which indigenous communities rely for sustenance and clean drinking water. Because Argentina is a poorer nation and boasts world-class shale oil and gas reserves (according to the United States Energy Information Administration), other energy companies are following Chevron’s lead, negotiating to become a part of Argentina’s fledgling fracking industry.
Furthermore, Pope Francis is not the first pontiff to take an interest in the interplay between poverty and environmental degradation. In 1990, on the occasion of the Catholic World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II delivered an address with ecological themes, in which he explained how
the proper ecological balance will not be found without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist through the world… Some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural heritage, at the price of irreparable ecological imbalances, in order to develop new products for export. In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new ways of relating among peoples and States. (emphasis in original)
And even the austere Pope Benedict got in on the issue in his encyclical on charity, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in truth”) — see paragraph 49:
The fact that some States, power groups, and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives. The stockpiling of natural resources, which in many cases are found in the poor countries themselves, give rise to exploitation and frequent conflicts between and within nations.
So the issue isn’t exactly unheard of. Yet neither Benedict nor John Paul II was particularly well known for environmental concerns.
As Time’s Elizabeth Dias puts it, “[Pope Francis] didn’t come out against the controversial hydraulic fracturing process. He came out against poverty.” But issues of systemic poverty, international development, resource extraction, justice for indigenous peoples, and environmental concerns are so deeply intertwined, modern pontiffs have found themselves almost unable to talk about poverty without also touching on these other related issues, especially the way ecological disturbances disproportionately impact the world’s poor.
It remains to be seen whether this foray into environmentalism becomes a footnote in Francis’ papal career or a major theme of his papacy.
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