At the end of last week, I attended a conference at the Vatican to mark the third anniversary of Pope Francis’s encyclical on protecting the environment, known as Laudato Si.
The gathering included 300 people from 100 countries, including representatives of different religions, governments, non-governmental organisations, indigenous peoples and youth. We met to discuss how we could organise to convince governments, businesses and our own communities to do more to tackle the grave threat posed by excessive human consumption and man-made climate change.
The highlight was an audience with the Pope himself, who addressed us before taking the time to meet every single one of the delegates. As well as being a tremendous privilege, the Pope’s message was striking.
His Holiness echoed his predecessor, Pope John Paul II in saying, “We must encourage and support an ‘ecological conversion’”, and said that religions have a particular role to play in this struggle.
The Pope’s approach to the issue is compelling. He makes it accessible by focusing on the human impact of damage to ‘our common home’. Too often, the challenge is described by scientists in complex terms that are inaccessible to most of us, with prescriptions that principally refer to the industrial-scale use of fossil fuels by enormous multinationals. Meanwhile, those of us who try to do our bit, by recycling and trying to avoid plastic where we can, can often feel that the effort is unrewarding, given the enormity of the task.
But the Pope and the Vatican organisers made it real for us by making this a story about human suffering, particularly of the world’s poorest, giving a key voice to the communities on the front line of climate change.
One of the most powerful moments of the conference was hearing from Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, whose stirring poem reflected the imminent threat that her homeland is facing, as it is only two metres above sea level.
Few major Jewish leaders would dispute the importance of care for the environment, but it often comes fairly low down on our community’s priority list.
This could not be a more mistaken attitude. Care of our planet is so essential to Judaism that it forms part of the Creation narrative itself. As it says in Genesis 2:15, “The LORD G-d took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and protect it”.
Humanity is clearly working our earth — to breaking point, in fact — but utterly failing to protect it. For this reason, we must do more with initiatives such as the Eco Synagogue project, which seeks to work with synagogues to make them more environmentally friendly. So far, it counts among its members five of the biggest Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Masorti communities, but many more should join. Please ask if yours will do so.
At the Board of Deputies, we have started asking the government to create incentives for all faith buildings that can to move to renewable energy sources, like solar power, in the way that it has done for schools. This would model environmental leadership to those who use and view our buildings, while saving money too.
All of us must do what we can to protect our common home. If we carry on in this way, we will create a growing level of catastrophe that could even lead to the destruction of human life on earth. Once we are gone, over time, the planet itself would likely recover.
But none of us would be here to see it.