Divided into six chapters, the Encyclical gathers various reflections of the Bishops' Conferences of the world and concludes with two prayers, one interreligious and one Christian, for the care of Creation.
Our mistreated and plundered earth calls for an "ecological conversion", a "change of course" so that people assume responsibility for a commitment to "care for the common home". This commitment also includes eradicating poverty, caring for the poor and ensuring fair access for all to the planet's resources. All people of good will are invited to become interpreters of an "authentic human ecology", an "integral ecology" capable of affecting the "structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting growth models that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment".
The ills from which the earth is suffering today are many. In addition to pollution, the throwaway culture transforms "our home into an immense rubbish dump". "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods", as is access to safe drinkable water, which must be protected as "a basic and universal human right". The loss of biodiversity, with the disappearance of thousands of animal and plant species, is another of the scourges of our planet, and our children in particular will pay the price.
It is therefore urgent to understand that the environment is a collective gift, the heritage of all humanity, a common inheritance to be managed responsibly and not destroyed: "The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness ", and that every creature has a function, none is superfluous.
But it is also necessary to recognise that the ecological crisis has a human root, and that there is an urgent need to rethink the dominant technocratic paradigm. If “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity", we also have to recognise that "nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power". Today, "The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit. [...] Finance overwhelms the real economy", and there is no understanding that "yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion". "Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth [...]. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit".
It is clear that "the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves". In fact, "we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental". The concept of integral ecology "is inseparable from the notion of the common good", and for this reason it must also involve politics, economics, finance and technology in order to renew them, recognising in every sphere the centrality of the human person, and must inspire solidarity-based behaviour with "a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters".
A "social ecology" requires institutional systems that take responsibility for the suffering of the population and guard against forms of illegality. If "the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet", today "we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor". The dignity of work, which "part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment", must also be defended: "To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society".
A "cultural ecology" then "involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity", and "calls for greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems". "The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems".
Integral ecology must therefore inspire a new paradigm of justice and lead to a redefinition of the concept of progress, which must be linked to improving the quality of people's lives. A renewed commitment to education can generate new lifestyles, production and consumption: "sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating" and "happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us".
Ultimately, what is needed is a global governance that deals with the global commons, and "a new economy more attentive to ethical principles", a "new ways of regulating speculative financial practices", a slower rhythm of production and consumption.
An "ecological conversion" can lead to recognising "the world is God’s loving gift,", and to moving towards "growth marked by moderation". Integral ecology requires "an attitude of the heart".