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Pope Francis wants us to be ‘ecological citizens’, but how?

In calling for people to be ‘ecological citizens’, Pope Francis is asking everyone in the world to think of future generations. EPA/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI/AAP Image

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment has attracted plenty of attention since it was published last week, and indeed it caused a significant stir even before it was released to the public.

Those familiar with the current teachings of the Catholic Church on environmental matters and the statements of Pope Francis in this area were able to anticipate much of the content of Laudato Si’.

But one aspect of the encyclical has so far gone largely unnoticed, and it has the potential to influence environmental behaviour around the world, particularly among those who might resist calls for environmental action couched in religious terms.

Buried way down in paragraph 211 is an explicit reference to “ecological citizenship”. The use of this term fits into a broader discourse about the relationship between citizenship and the environment. Pope Francis is asking everyone, not just his followers, to consider their own role as citizens with a duty to the environment, to become politically active, and to focus on the social justice of our actions.

Environmental citizens

The growing preoccupation with the environment has overlapped with a renewed interest in the concept of citizenship since the 1990s. Since then, the language of citizenship has been often used to frame environmental issues in particular.

Governments around the world are recognising environmental rights; activists refer to humans’ duty to the environment; corporations strive to present themselves as good environmental citizens; children are taught to be mindful of their ecological footprint; the media increasingly tells us to reduce, reuse and recycle; and political theorists have begun to categorise all of this behaviour under the term “environmental citizenship”.

As such, Laudato Si’ can be seen as an important contribution to the increasingly complex and diverse discussions of what environmental citizenship means. Given the Pope’s global influence, his encyclical can influence how the idea of environmental citizenship will be interpreted in the 21st century.

What does Francis mean by ‘ecological citizens’?

The first thing to note is the encyclical’s strong emphasis on duty and the “common good” – one of the most repeated terms in Laudato Si’. It is a call for all citizens, believers and non-believers, to be active participants in the protection of the natural environment, to do the right thing for nature and for the good of humanity.

This reveals a strong sense of “republican citizenship”, a duties-based conception of citizenship that privileges the collective, prioritises the common good, and demands that citizens participate actively in the political life of the community.

Pope Francis rejects the neoliberal inflection of environmental citizenship that has become increasingly dominant in the affluent societies of the global North. He sees merit in individual actions, including consumer activism, but opposes the neoliberal shift from the political to the economic as the main space for the exercise of citizenship.

He condemns the transformation of the citizen (a political animal) into a consumer (an economic being), and argues that unless citizens have political power, “it will not be possible to control damage to the environment”.

The encyclical is also imbued with a strong cosmopolitan sentiment, evident in the many references to the planet as “our common home”. This evokes the idea, central to cosmopolitan citizenship, that we are all citizens of the world. The cosmopolitanism of the encyclical is also evident in the extension of duties beyond national borders, to encompass all of humanity, including future generations.

Importantly, in the articulation of these duties, Francis argues the need to take into account both intra-generational justice (across borders) and inter-generational justice (across generations), and the need to address the “ecological debt” owed by the global North to the global South.

A sense of justice and a call to action

The most significant aspect of the concept of ecological citizenship in Laudato Si’ is the focus on justice. As such it is similar to the concept of ecological citizenship outlined by the British political theorist Andrew Dobson, who proposes that it should be anchored on the primary virtue of justice and the secondary virtues of care and compassion for distant others, both in time (future generations) and space (around the world).

Pope Francis’s version, sustained as it is by Catholic theology, adds a stronger focus on the poor and matters of social justice. Perhaps the best term to describe it would be “ecosocial citizenship”.

In any case, his concept reflects a social justice-oriented account of how we should act as citizens, based upon private and public actions to reduce the environmental impact of our everyday lives on the lives of others, particularly the poor.

In addressing his message to “every person living on this planet”, Francis is asking all of us, believers and non-believers, to consider the impact of our actions on “the poor and the earth”. He is asking us to become a particular kind of citizen: politically active, focused on social justice, and with a deep regard for the environment.

This is the global message at the heart of Laudato Si’. The extent to which this message is embraced or ignored will have important consequences for the future of life on planet Earth.

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