Much of the media attention on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical focused on its recognition of the causes of global warning and the impact that the Pope might have on international and domestic climate politics, Less publicized, but possibly more impactful in the long term, is the Pope’s call to consumers to wield their purchasing power as a force for change.
Pope Francis writes:
“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. ‘Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.’ Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.” (Laudato Si, Para. 206)
The education and mobilization of consumers to reduce their carbon purchases has barely begun. The vast majority of consumers have no idea how much CO2 they emit, nor any sense of moral responsibility to reduce their CO2 emissions, other than perhaps owning a car that gets more than 20 mpg. Lack of leadership has been a principal driver of consumer apathy. Until the Pope spoke out, there have been virtually no high-profile persons or organizations calling on citizens to examine their lifestyles and to curtail their carbon purchases.
Even the large environmental organizations, from whom one would expect such leadership to come, have been mostly silent regarding the responsibilities of consumers, and have focused instead on high-profile legislative efforts and pressuring oil and coal companies. Churches, schools, governments, and other key institutions have also been silent on the responsibilities of citizens to reduce their carbon usage.
Pope Francis seeks to break through consumer inertia and apathy, advocating for ecological and moral education of consumers to occur at all levels of society—at school, in families, in the media, in the church, and elsewhere. He recognizes that ecological education must involve a profound reordering of the consumer’s role in the capitalist economy, stating that
“Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”
Pope Francis is clear that a change in laws alone is insufficient to meet the environmental challenge, and that consumer education is the essential underpinning to long-lasting change in our purchasing habits and our environmentally destructive economy. He writes:
The existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. (Para. 211)
Pope Francis has opened a space for new and creative approaches to change consumer habits. Climate activists can now push consumers to reject gasoline and other fossil fuels, knowing that the moral, social, and political weight of the Catholic Church is behind them. The Pope’s definition of purchasing as “a moral – and not simply economic – act” is an invitation to engage in new forms of activism to mobilize consumers to curtail their fossil fuel purchases. Who will take up the challenge?