“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” -Pope Francis

Those working to advance sustainability have found a new ally in one of the world’s most powerful people, Pope Francis, who takes his name from Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. As the spiritual leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, his words and actions matter and could have far reaching cultural and political implications.

Francis has been making news in sustainability circles ever since the release earlier this year of his encyclical letter Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. In the encyclical the Pope is not just speaking to Catholics, but to everyone. He says, “I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Pope Francis gives it to us straight: things are bad, really bad. Climate change. Pollution. Resource depletion. Water scarcity. Biodiversity loss. Income inequality. Social injustice. Rampant consumerism. Cynical politics. Unbridled exploitation.

Yet not all hope is lost.

The Pope is convinced that we can make a difference and change course. He believes that together we can aim higher and do better. In a speech given at the White House in September, he said, “When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change."

Connecting the dots

Central to Laudato Si is the concept of integral ecology. What does it mean? Simply that human and natural systems are interconnected and interdependent. Issues of social and environmental justice are inextricably linked. We can no longer afford to deal with problems in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, the approach must be holistic and integral, based on a broad vision of reality.

“Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live,” says Francis. “It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and one social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

Towards a caring economy

Critics of Francis tend to focus on his denunciation of unfettered capitalism – that ours is “an economy of exclusion and inequality,” an “economy that kills.” Francis nudges people to think about some uncomfortable things. As one commentator recently wrote, the Pope brings tough love to America.

But Francis has made it very clear that he’s not anti-capitalism. Echoing the encyclical, in his address to Congress, he called business “a noble vocation…especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of service to the common good.” His call to action is not to abandon capitalism altogether, but rather to re-imagine an alternative economy that harnesses the spirit of enterprise to be more “modern, inclusive and sustainable.” Francis wants us to rethink how we orient ourselves and our society, and calls on us all to be better human beings.

The future that Pope Francis hopes for is one of democratic, cooperative economies working together to advance the common good. That kind of economy promotes a different set of values and a different kind of wealth.

This new form of capitalism is already beginning to emerge, as evidenced by the rise of B Corps, the sharing economy, the maker movement, open source technology, and cooperative enterprises. According to Francis, we each have a role to play in resolving the problems of society.

With more people joining the cause everyday, Francis’s vision for a flourishing world is looking less like it will take a miracle.