I nominate Pope Francis as the leader of this movement


“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

I’m going to come right out and say it: I am jazzed about the Pope’s encyclical, “Laudato Si,” or in English, “Praise be.” I’m excited that it’s getting so much attention from all quarters, even the Wall Street Journal and conservative talk-show hosts. I haven’t felt this hopeful about the environmental / social justice movement since “Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, or “11th Hour” in 2007, or Van Jones’ brief tenure in the White House in 2009. As Paul Hawken observed in his 2007 book, “Blessed Unrest,” this is the largest movement in the world—and it has no leader.

We do prefer charismatic leaders for our big movements. Hawken helped me to see that this one is just too big to have one figurehead. We won’t have our Gandhi or Martin Luther King, because each of us in this movement is part of the earth’s immune response to an infection, a fever. This movement is an entirely decentralized set of self-organizing systems nested within self-organizing systems the way Nature herself works. And that’s as it should be. Still, I admit wishing now and then for someone to come along. Each time it seemed to happen, we were disappointed.

When “Inconvenient Truth” came out, I remember thinking, finally! An unimpeachable public leader stepping up and laying out the facts, plainly, for all to see. Now something’s really going to change. And that indelible image of Al Gore standing on a step ladder at the far right edge of a huge projected slide so he could reach up and point to the present date on the now-infamous “hockey stick” graph of upward trending temperatures.

It was not to be. Al Gore turned out to be a polarizing figure, almost tailor made for the forces of opposition: the fossil fuel industry for starters, but also free market capitalists in general. He became their poster boy for a “radical liberal agenda,” practically writing the playbook for takeover of all free states by the U.N.

Following that setback, our next hope was the film, “11th Hour,” hyped as the sequel of solutions to Gore’s film of diagnosis. This one, backed and narrated by another public figure, Leonardo DiCaprio, was going to present all the appealing, creative, successful alternatives to our current earth-killing industries. Word was, the filmmakers had attended a Bioneers conference and interviewed many of those luminaries of Permaculture, green chemistry, indigenous rights, socially conscious business, and eco-tech. Finally, the wider world (or at least those who self-selected to attend a film like this) would know the well-kept secret that the solutions are already here. They have only to be applied on a wider scale. And, by the way, we’ll all be happier and more fulfilled while saving energy, rainforests, whales, polar bears, and the planet.

Again, it was not to be. The editors indulged in the same uninspiring storytelling of eco-films of that time, spending most of it on diagnosis. Show those oil-coated birds, cut to helicopter shots of belching smokestacks and clogged highways, then bulldozing and burning rainforests. Throw in a hurricane or two, and maybe an out-of-control wildfire or flood to scare the audience into submission. When they’re good and pliable, then and only then, toss in a few clips of people who have dedicated whole lives to replanting native prairies or building with clay and straw or studying the miraculous intelligence and properties of mycelium.

Another disappointment. If Al Gore was a political disaster, Leo DiCaprio, wearing all black and a perpetual scowl, was too serious, too 18th-century Puritan minister, chastising us for our errant ways. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d ordered us to wear a scarlet “A” on our shirts. “A” for Apocalypse, because that’s where we were headed and it was all our fault.

So we regrouped and waited some more, watching for the tipping point. Sometimes, we speculated that we’d already reached it. It was just hard to tell because the media likes to focus on the bad news, the shock and doom. And now, just when the movement is tired of navel gazing and weary pep talks, along comes Pope Francis and his encyclical.

It’s just too tempting not to see him as the leader we’ve been waiting for. He seems unimpeachable, so holy and well-informed, yet down to earth, too. His namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, had a special affinity with the living world. The Pope tells us in writing both scholarly and accessible that it’s our birthright as beings on this wondrous blue-green planet to feel and experience such kinship. This very experience of belonging is what we must embrace if we are to continue our tenure here.

It’s fascinating to see the reactions to the release of “Laudato Si.” It’s as if a gauntlet has been thrown. So-called conservatives suggest that the Pope shouldn’t meddle with things he doesn’t understand—starting with science and politics. By the way, these are some of the same folks who claim moral authority to speak out against abortion or advocate prayer in public schools.

Given his stance on the sanctity of all life, the Pope’s message is internally consistent: it includes the guidance that abortion is morally unjustifiable. As a liberal, I have always felt aligned to “a woman’s right to choose,” that it’s a private decision, a moral one, not something the state should have control over. Simply because his views are laid out clearly and consistently, doesn’t mean that actions inspired by Francis’ encyclical will be easy or uncontroversial.

The Pope is nudging us to a new story of connection, of Interbeing and belonging. A world where we can freely admit our love of all creation, and our feelings of awe and wonder. Truly experiencing this sort of shift will inspire all sorts of different decisions and behavior. I’m ecstatic that a widely respected, even beloved, public figure is willing to stake his office on such a big agenda. To me, it is THE agenda of our time.

I plan to explore this further. It might be fun to look at some of the reactions to the encyclical in the media. And there’s the question of how a Pope can weave a New Story of reunion and belonging from within an Old Story institution like the Catholic Church, with its emphasis on authority, hierarchy and control. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here’s a fun spoof movie trailer for “Encyclical.”

9 thoughts on “I nominate Pope Francis as the leader of this movement

    • A good question. I may have meant that ironically, or maybe my subconscious set me up. If I’m honest, I will admit to having mixed feelings. On one hand, the movement is what it is and is doing just fine without one leader. In fact, this whole thing is a call to let go of wishing for authority and act on my own heart’s connection to the animate world, while also letting go of any particular outcome I might wish for. I guess I’m not done with that Old Story-programming still whispering in my ear that change will accelerate when more people “get it.” Do I really believe that people have been holding out till someone like the Pope tells them this is real and they need to change? We already have the Dalai Lama saying much the same. Well done, Duane. You caught me!

      • A single leader is clearly part of the old story. We need most/all of our supposed leaders to espouse a similar worldview. Movement becomes widely accepted as just the way it is, then we get a new story.

        • Well said, Marcus. In a way, maybe Pope Francis standing up like this will encourage other world leaders to examine the facts and their own conscience and join him. Since we still live with the old stories, the more people of “power” speaking out, the better.

  1. This truly breaks new ground. A Pope has visibly and thoroughly critiqued the existing social/political/economic world order. With courage and conviction Pope Francis has spoken truth to power. A long absent, long awaited voice is now heard in the land. May his bold act of leadership, evoke a chorus of like voices and leadership in the days ahead all over the world.

    • Thanks, Jim. It’s funny — your comment made me think of that commercial where a powerful suit-wearing boss sits at a desk in his corner office in front of floor to ceiling glass. He’s shaking his fist and saying, “We’re going to stick it to the man!!” And the underling standing before him says, “Uh, sir. You ARE the man.” And he gets this awkward smirk. Here’s to the Pope demonstrating an entirely different sort of leadership.

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