A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. A true ecological debt exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí no. 49, 51, 2015)
In Laudato Sí, Pope Francis reminds us that we are exploiting the resources of the planet and doing so at the expense of people with least access to those resources. The way we think about ecology and the environment must necessarily be connected with our concern for those who are poor. We cannot continue to use and waste natural resources without regard to other people — living now and in future generations.
Pope Francis gives the example of the problem of the quality of water available to the poor: underground water contamination from mining, farming, and industrial activities; and, detergents and chemical products in our rivers, lakes and seas. (LS, no. 30) Despite the scarcity of clean water, some seek to privatize this resource by bottling and selling it. According to Pope Francis, “our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” (LS, no. 30) This problem is seen particularly in Haiti and the Global South where multinational corporations and developers build huge dams without consideration of the effects on farmers and villagers downstream. I first became aware of the problem of dams in Tracy Kidder’s story of Dr. Paul Farmer in Mountain Beyond Mountains (Random House, 2003). Since that time, I have read much of Dr. Farmer’s work.
According to Pope Francis, “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.” (LS, no. 48) The cry of the poor and the cry of the earth are connected. Our policies and actions with respect to the earth, for better or worse, affect the lives of everyone in our global community.