"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, reflected on those words from the Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb during the Trinity test deep in the New Mexican desert in 1945.
In retrospect, Oppenheimer was too hard on himself. In practice, our automobiles, coal-fired power plants and, more broadly, what Pope Francis terms our "throwaway culture" have proven to be more destructive than our arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Today, we live under the shadow of a man-made existential threat of global proportions - climate change. But climate change is only one piece of a larger set of ecological, economic and social crises simultaneously facing humanity.
Later this year, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on ecology addressing climate change, other abuses of the environment and their impact on the poor. The encyclical's release is intended to influence international negotiations on emissions reductions being held at the end of the year in Paris, and will occur before he delivers an address to world leaders at the United Nations in September that will emphasize the urgent need for agreement - and action.
Given its subject matter, it is not surprising that the encyclical has already sparked heated debate, with conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, expressing concerns about Francis's embrace of what they perceive to be a radical environmentalist agenda. This, however, misses the true significance of the encyclical - namely, its place within the broader context of Francis's papacy and his understanding of the unique and decisive role that the Catholic Church must play in safely navigating the precipice of the present.
The encyclical will doubtless be far more radical and ambitious than its critics fear, or its friends imagine.
In this regard, the Church's key insight is that the seemingly separate social, economic and environmental crises of modernity are related expressions of a deeper spiritual problem. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, "[t]he relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God." Today, that relationship is broken. This rupture "provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order."
"A curse devours the earth"
Humanity's turn away from God has thrown its other relationships into disorder. This is particularly evident with respect to the environment. Today, we are bringing the vision of the Prophet Isaiah into reality:
"The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the ancient covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants pay for their guilt." (Isaiah 24:5-6)
Human behavior is having a devastating impact on the natural world. An economy that kills also displays ecocidal tendencies. As Pope Francis has observed, the "greedy exploitation of environmental resources" is destroying ecosystems without concern for the long-term consequences or the needs of future generations. Our throwaway culture is filling the oceans with refuse - one of the largest human artefacts in the world is an immense garbage patch adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And our behavior is fuelling a new mass extinction that threatens to cut a swath through the biological diversity of the planet.
Among all these things, however, nothing is more controversial, or potentially more catastrophic, than climate change.
Within the scientific community, there is broad agreement that the world is warming, that human activity plays a significant role, and that this process poses a danger to our species. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, "[i]t is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mind-20th century." The Pontifical Academy of Sciences agrees, as does every other major scientific academy or organization. Indeed, the so-called "debate" on climate change is almost exclusively confined to commentary by non-experts - it is absent from the peer-reviewed literature.
It is difficult to overstate the severity of the threat we are facing. The gravity of the danger was made plain last year by both the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment in the United States. According to the IPCC, our refusal to curb greenhouse gas emissions has created a risk of "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems" on a global scale.
For many years, scientists have identified warming of 2Co above preindustrial levels as a significant red line. Much of the international effort to curb emissions has been focused on keeping temperature increases below this threshold. Today, the world has already warmed by about 1Co. In order to stay below the red line, most of the world's known reserves of oil, natural gas and coal must remain exactly where they are - buried in the ground.
The Paris negotiations Pope Francis is seeking to influence by means of his forthcoming encyclical represent the last chance for the international community to agree on meaningful emissions reductions. If the Paris talks fail, then the world may be headed for warming of 3Co or more by the end of the century.
Uncertainty lurks beyond the 2Co red line. Indeed, there is evidence that we may be systematically underestimating the severity of the threat posed by even 2Co of warming - after all, complex natural systems do not follow neat linear equations. However, at a minimum, crossing the red line will result in significant sea-level rise, disruptions to existing weather patterns, more frequent extreme droughts, more powerful storms, the collapse of coral reefs and other ecosystems, the extinction of many species, and even disease pandemics. As a practical matter, these impacts - the plagues of fires, famines and floods - will destabilize societies and impose potentially severe economic and social costs. In an extreme worst-case scenario, they might even be catastrophic, bringing an end to civilization itself.
These costs, at least initially, will be disproportionately borne by the world's poor, who have contributed the least to the crisis, because they are concentrated in more vulnerable marginal areas and in less resilient nations. Longer term, however, the great weight of the burden for our actions will fall upon another group of innocents - future generations.
Human ecology: A revolution of the heart
Addressing climate change is a moral imperative, and the success of the Paris negotiations to establish an international treaty placing curbs on emissions is, in the words of Pope Francis, "a grave ethical and moral responsibility." However, as other commentators have noted with respect to reducing emissions, there is a vast difference between doing something, and doing enough.
If, however as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI taught in Caritas in Veritate, "[t]he deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human existence," then only pursuing technical solutions (such as emissions caps, carbon credits, improving efficiency and investments in renewable energy) is a flawed approach because such solutions leave the ambient culture unchanged. The world, for all intents and purposes, simply carries on as before - albeit in a cleaner and slightly more sustainable way.
To believe that this is a possible solution is to harbor a dangerous delusion. It is akin to treating a symptom rather than the disease. In truth, technology has become just another false messiah promising deliverance; but it cannot save us from ourselves. Neither can environmentalism. Thus, we can say that technical solutions, such as the emissions reductions being pursued in Paris, are essential but inadequate responses to the crisis - they are elements of a more comprehensive solution, not the solution themselves.
Real reform requires digging down to the roots of the problem, and those roots lay buried in our hearts. This, I suspect, is exactly what Pope Francis will do. He recognizes that the illness is spiritual in nature, and so must be its cure. This should not surprise us - after all, he is writing an encyclical, not a policy paper for an NGO.
In order to avoid the looming catastrophe facing our planet, insists Benedict, we must reform "the very foundations of our culture" and change the "overall moral tenor of [our] society." Helpfully, the Church has already identified these foundations for us: greed, selfishness, indifference, utilitarianism and what Pope Francis has described as an exploitative "economic system centred on the god of money" that "needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it."
Such sweeping reform is inconceivable without a revolution of the heart. In this regard, there is nothing more subversive to the powers and principalities of this world than Matthew 25:31-46 and the Beatitudes. And there is no program more revolutionary than the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. This is the context of Pope Francis's forthcoming encyclical and his papacy - he is detonating what Peter Maurin once termed the "dynamite" of the Church.
It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to grasp that the "goods of creation belong to humanity as a whole" and that "every economic decision has a moral consequence." It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to develop the sense of fraternity and solidarity with the poor and future generations that is required to heed the call issued by the Synod of Bishops in 1971, to "accept a less material way of life, with less waste." It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to find the moral courage to live out Pope St. John Paul II's challenge to adopt an ethic of "simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, [as] part of everyday life." It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to recognize that our waste and excessive consumption is akin to theft from the poor. It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to welcome the stranger that arrives at our door fleeing conflicts exacerbated by climate change. It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to see that contempt for human beings marches in lock step with contempt for nature, and that a world marred by abortion will bear the physical scars of pollution and exploitation as well. It will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to experience the abuse of creation as Pope Francis does - like the pain caused by an illness or injury. And it will take a revolution of the heart in order for us to become faithful stewards tending the gift of creation for the common good of all humanity.
Love militates against dissembling. Without penitence and faith, such a revolution of the heart is impossible. Faith is the foundation of an authentic human ecology, and an authentic human ecology is essential for a revolution of the heart that protects creation by transforming society. Only faith can bring peace and healing to the world. Without faith, activists and reformers, no matter how pure their intentions, labor in vain.
Our tragedy is that the one thing that can save us is something very few people are willing to countenance. Many will cling to the dichotomies between secular and sacred, public and private, even at the cost of the world. Others will say that the Church's program is impractical, or that it is too difficult. But in the words of Peter Maurin, we "have tried everything except Christianity. And everything that [we] have tried has failed."
Today, it is becoming apparent that the consequences of failure are enormous. Benedict understood this and, in Caritas in Veritate, explicitly linked the Church's efforts to care for creation and develop a human ecology with its duty to "protect mankind from self-destruction." As a result, our understanding of failure must be framed in eschatological terms.
Of course, God does not will the apocalypse - humanity chooses it. And we choose it by rejecting God. Waves of disorder radiate out from this decision, throwing all our other relationships - with the economy, with society, with creation - into disarray. The chaos escalates in intensity, becoming progressively more violent and destructive, "and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).
We do not face a choice, but rather the choice, and it cannot be put off. The two paths, "life and good, death and evil" (Deuteronomy 30:15), are set out before us. Pope Francis's encyclical cry for creation will be yet another reminder to humanity that we will either emerge from the ordeal of modernity with our faith renewed, or we will not emerge at all.
Michael Stafford works as an attorney in Wilmington, Delaware. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
This article previously appeared at ABC.