Pope Francis concludes Laudate Deum, his apostolic exhortation on the climate crisis, by pointing to runaway per-capita emissions in the United States and condemning the “irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model.” Let us, then, engage in an examination of conscience, calling to mind some elements of the American lifestyle. Think of those little daily actions that rarely inspire deep reflection: flipping a light switch, picking up a coffee, flushing a toilet, refrigerating your leftovers. Behind all these actions is a web of interdependence. A cup of coffee is the result of cultivation, packing, shipping, brewing, and service—the work of human hands enlisting the fruit of the earth: coffee beans, soil, water, fuel. When these processes come at an environmental cost—and they usually do—those costs are very often concealed from view. How often do we encounter those who bear the special burdens of environmental degradation, the people who live, in Pope Francis’s disquieting phrase, “at the bottom of the pile”? Even those of us with firm ecological commitments find that we contribute, in countless little and mostly unconscious ways, to the destruction of our common home. And we are damaged by our participation in these processes, even when it’s unintentional—and even if we struggle to find alternatives. (Try, on your own, to decarbonize an electric grid.) As the effects of our actions are hidden from view, we become increasingly numb and thoughtless.
The human species, as Francis repeatedly reminds us in his two ecological writings, has acquired for itself awesome and terrifying powers. Yet, what Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm” is very often experienced as powerlessness, even for relatively privileged Westerners. Every individual is, in fact, radically dependent on the whole of Creation, but the practices associated with the technocratic paradigm allow us to imagine ourselves as autonomous. This is alienation; it is also sin. In Laudato si’, Francis insisted that human beings are created for relationship: with God, with the earth, and with our neighbors, especially the poor. “These three vital relationships,” Francis writes, “have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin.” Social and economic structures that contribute to the rupture of these three fundamental relationships can be properly described as sinful.