The pope thinks we should view the earth as our sister. I don’t, mainly because I have a sister. While my sister and I have had our disagreements over the years, I haven’t spent my entire life trying to stop her from killing me.
In the opening words of “Laudato si,” Pope Francis quotes a prayer of his Namesake-of-Assisi: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
I agree with the Francises that God created the earth to be our home, to feed us with the fruit of the trees, and to bring joy to our senses with the beauty of the mountains and the aroma of the lilies. However, when Christians consider climate change and environmental issues, it’s also important to remember that, according to the Bible, the fall into sin fundamentally damaged the harmonious relationship between man and the earth, resulting in a planet that frequently needs to be mastered and subdued if you don’t want the same beautiful mountains to bury you in an avalanche or some lily of the valley berries to make your guts explode.
Genesis 1 tells us that God gave Adam and Eve every plant yielding seed and every fruit from the trees, with one notable exception, as food. But in Genesis 3:17-19, as punishment for eating of that one notable exception, God punishes Adam by cursing the ground. To obtain the food and shelter that came with no effort in the Garden of Eden, mankind would now have to subdue and conquer this newly stubborn soil. This curse also implies that the rest of creation, every aspect of the natural world, has now taken on a corrupted character. Not only does the earth begin producing thorns and thistles, but it also begins creating inhospitable land, natural disasters, deadly bacteria, and communicable diseases.
Neither Men Nor Earth Are Pure
Pope Francis does acknowledge this in his encyclical, noting that “the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual” as a result of the same sin that broke the relationship between God and man. However, in the numerous paragraphs before and after this observation, Francis gives the impression that the post-fall sibling rivalry between the earth and mankind has been entirely one-sided, with man needlessly polluting, harassing, and abusing his hapless sister, who only wanted to surround him with gentle breezes and chirping sparrows.
Of course, I don’t deny that humans treat the planet terribly. People overfish the oceans and burn down forests because they’re greedy, prideful beasts. Warmongers destroy the ecological livelihoods of the poor and helpless because they’re giving into the same hateful, murderous sinful nature that first motivated Cain to pollute the ground with the blood of his brother Abel. It’s obvious to anyone who has spent five minutes watching the History Channel that men are brutal to the earth in their quest to unleash their brutality on each other.
But it should be equally obvious to anyone who has ever shivered through a Duluth, Minnesota, December that we have to be a bit brutal to the earth sometimes because “Sister Earth” will totally kill us with frostbite if we don’t rip coal out of her and set it on fire. Likewise, it may be unkind to pump Freon-induced chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere, but that’s the card we’re forced to play each time grumpy “Sister Earth” descends on Port Arthur, Texas, in August and tries to murder our grandmothers with heatstroke.
Earth Is the Greatest Threat to the Poor
Nature is also fond of trying to kill us with various diseases, and consuming fossil fuels has been an essential part of stopping this. If you don’t routinely step in salmonella-infected piles of horse manure on your way down Fifth Avenue, you can thank Henry Ford for replacing the stink-and-disease-producing horse with the gas-guzzling automobile as America’s preferred method of transportation. If you’ve never contracted Hepatitis A because your neighbor accidentally dumped his chamber pot on your head while you were walking your schnauzer, you can thank fossil fuels for helping to build efficient sewage treatment plants that allowed humans to safely dispose of our disease-ridden waste.
And, of course, fossil fuel-produced electricity has played an indispensable role in the development and distribution of drugs that treat or cure countless diseases in every corner of the world. While it may be true that greedy, environment-destroying capitalists are a threat to the earth’s poor, the greatest threat to the poor is the earth itself. While it would be ideal to produce transportation, irrigation, pesticides, sanitation, and medicine with incorruptible, renewable, emission-free energy, until the day such technology is available, the Bishop of Rome should be willing to concede that sometimes “Sister Earth” is the one who’s being an unreasonable jerk and the best way we can keep the poor safe from her murderous impulses is to burn some coal and refine some oil.
I agree with Pope Francis that, in giving mankind stewardship over the earth, God calls us to treat our life-giving home with deep awe, respect, and care. I agree that God wants us to value the wonders of His creation that creep, crawl, swim, fly, sprout, and grow in every corner of the planet. I cherish the earth’s beauty, its mysteries, and its grandeur, and pray that I’ll see the day when clean energy is freely available to all of Adam and Eve’s children.
But until Christ returns in glory and brings peace to the soil that was cursed in Eden, I’m not going to call the earth my sister because I already have a sister, a very nice one named Andrina. To give a comparison, the meanest thing Sister Andrina ever did to me was cut the thumb off my stuffed gorilla that I got after I nearly died of a staph infection. The meanest thing “Sister Earth” ever did to me was, well, nearly kill me with that staph infection.