But the pope uses different language than a climate activist might. Throughout the encyclical, he refers to the modern world’s “throwaway culture.” This includes literal trash—“hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources,” he writes. But it also encompasses a mentality of excessive consumption and an orientation toward profit maximization, especially in the “global north.” People in the developed world are morally obligated to those in developing countries, he says, because when they buy things, it’s at the direct expense of the labor, health, and, sometimes, lives of the poor. As Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.”
The metaphor of the “throwaway culture” is helpful for understanding another important, albeit minor, theme of the encyclical: the importance of the family in caring for the environment. “In the Catholic tradition, the human is not only sacred, but social. The principle social unit is family,” said Carr. To Francis, cultivating moral life through the family—and cultivating human life in general—is a core part of caring for creation. This is why, in an encyclical about the environment, the pope writes that abortion is unforgiveable. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” he says. Carr sees this as part of the larger metaphor: “‘Throwaway culture’ is his description of what is wrong with contemporary society. In his view, and in the Church’s view, that begins with the unborn child, or throwing away an embryo,” he said.
“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,” Francis writes. “At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’”
In making this comment, he’s taking aim at a whole swath of the development and environmentalist community, including aid organizations and governments. Throughout the encyclical, he slams what could roughly be called “technological solutionism,” when “life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.” It’s a somewhat obtuse reminder that the pope is neither a liberal activist nor a technocrat intent on finding simple solutions. His encyclical is a sermon, not a white paper, and he’s comfortable criticizing do-gooders and multinational corporations in the same breath.