Pope Francis and the Golden Rule

On September 24th, Pope Francis delivered a message to a joint session of the American Congress (September 29, 2015 blog). He anchored his message on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12):

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

Wikipedia gives us more background on this famous excerpt from the Bible:

Matthew 7:12 is the twelfth verse of the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This well known verse presents what has become known as the Golden Rule. In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads: Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. The World English Bible translates the passage as: Therefore whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.

Pope Francis framed all of the following issues in terms of the Golden Rule:

  • Global abolition of the death penalty
  • The fight against poverty and hunger
  • Abortion
  • The creation and distribution of wealth
  • The responsible use of natural resources
  • The creation of common goods
  • Aversion of the environmental deterioration caused by human activities
  • Appointing leadership in the service of dialogue and peace
  • Ending armed conflicts
  • The promotion of traditional families

In a sense, this set of topics mirrors the array shown in the tiles of UN sustainability goals that I discussed last week:

UN_Sustainable Developments copy

One can immediately see that several of these UN goals coincide directly with the topics that Pope Francis addressed. One major difference is that the Pope’s speech featured advocacy for direct and immediate change by individuals, whereas the UN goals necessarily take the shape of global commitments to be accomplished by 2030.

The Golden Rule clearly applies to human connections. We are responsible to each other. I am not here to preach any particular religion (regardless of the fact that I am a Jew) but the anchor of mutual responsibility, independent of national boundaries, should be a universal theme and a driving force for action. It is clearly the power that fuels Pope Francis.

But is it enough?

With a global population of 7 billion (October 2012) and growing, whose wealth is accumulating at an exponential pace (the average global GDP/Capita grew by more than a factor of 10 within my lifetime), the world is now a vastly different place compared to that which existed at the time of the apostles. There is an increased need to extend the Golden Rule to the physical environment around us to ensure survival of future generations well beyond the UN commitment date of 2030.

Meanwhile, there is serious discussion regarding changing the designation of our current era from the Holocene (which traces its beginning to about 12,000 years ago) to a new age called the Anthropocene: “’Officially’ the present epoch will be likely to be declared an Anthropocene. The name Anthropocene is a combination of Greek roots: anthropo- meaning ‘human’ and -cene meaning ‘new’. All epochs in the Cenozoic Era end in ‘-cene’.”

The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is an interdisciplinary body of scientists and humanists working under the umbrella of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and tasked with developing a proposal for the formal ratification of the Anthropocene as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale. On occasion of its very first meeting, the AWG together with HKW convene a socio- and science-political forum, bringing together scientific experts, political stakeholders, media outlets, and an interested public. The forum presents insights into current scientific findings in defining a global impact of human activities and debates the far-reaching implications of the Anthropocene hypothesis for science and society alike.

Caring for each other in the Anthropocene is not enough. We are part of the physical environment and must care for that as well. As an example, one of the UN goals (goal 6) is to assure clean water for everybody. This is firmly connected to another common goal (2): zero hunger, since the latter cannot happen without sufficient water to grow the necessary food. Seventy percent of the planet is covered with water, but many places – rich and poor – are already suffering from severe water stress when it comes to fresh water; using less water is clearly not the answer. Instead, we have to integrate humanity into the natural cycles.

The two most important cycles to be considered are the energy cycle and the water cycle. The energy cycle depicts the balance between Earth and the sun: our planet radiates approximately the same amount of energy that it receives back into space, a process that makes it habitable. Without this balance, the resulting temperature on Earth would have long since risen above levels suitable for human survival. The water cycle is a true, as well as closed cycle. Water evaporates from the ocean using energy from the sun. The weather system drives some of the water vapor to land. The clouds that carry the water release it in the form of rain or snow, and the water eventually flows through various routes such as rivers back to the oceans. Only about 1% of the planet’s liquid water is fresh water suitable for direct human use. Water stress does not come from water shortage, but rather from a shortage of fresh water.

My humble extension of the Golden Rule is that humans should move away from their contribution to the energy cycle and play a bigger role in the water cycle.

In the next blog I will give a more detailed description of how humans already participate in these cycles, as well as the required timing necessary to further integrate with them in the most beneficial way.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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