It is this fantasy of living in an endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be renegotiated, that shapes the opening reflections of the encyclical and pervades a great deal of its argument. The paradox, noted by a good many other commentators, is that our supposed “materialism” is actually a deeply anti-material thing. The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the foundation of everything””and so its proper working is essentially about creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities and complexities of what we encounter. The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33).
The argument of these opening sections of Laudato si’ repeatedly points us back to a fundamental lesson: We as human beings are not the source of meaning or value; if we believe we are, we exchange the real world for a virtual one, a world in which””to echo Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty””the only question is who is to be master. A culture in which managing limits is an embarrassing and unwelcome imperative is a culture that has lost touch with the very idea of a world, let alone a created world (i.e., one in which a creative intelligence communicates with us and leads us into meanings and visions we could not have generated ourselves). The discussion in Chapter III of the obsessive pursuit of novelty in our lives draws out very effectively how the multiplication of pure consumer choice produces not greater diversity or liberty but a sense of endless repetition of the same and a lack of hope in the future. Once again, the underlying issue is the loss of meaning. It is fully in keeping with this general perspective that what Pope Francis has to say about the rights and dignities of the unborn (120) is seamlessly connected with the dangers of a culture of “disposability” in which the solid presence of those others who do not instantly appear to contribute to our narrowly conceived well-being can so readily be forgotten.