Four groups of people are likely to be shifting uncomfortably in their seats after Francis, the Bishop of Rome, released his much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (on Care for our Common Home).
- The oil industry bigwigs and other climate change deniers
- The fat cat tycoons and corporate culprits (part of the top one per cent) who pillage our natural resources, flatten our forests and hills and leave behind a legacy of toxic waste in our air, rivers and seas.
- Those responsible for promoting a culture of unsustainable consumerism. There’s a whole industry out there.
- Those who advocate “sustainable growth” and indulge in ‘greenwash’ while all the time quietly promoting unsustainable business/economic strategies, policies, and activities.
Francis has blamed the obsession with economic growth, profit maximisation and the market economy for the deterioration of the environment. The encyclical also tackles climate change and draws a connection with poverty and income inequality.
A significant chunk of the encyclical is, in effect, a stern rebuke of the prevailing model of neoliberal corporate-led globalisation that puts profit maximisation over people (including the poor and future generations) and the environment. Francis calls for new models of development that are less harmful and more in line with an ecological spirituality while taking a jibe at “talk of sustainable growth”.
I skimmed through the 183-page document and these paragraphs jumped out of the screen (emphasis mine):
109. The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.
Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration.
Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy.
They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.
At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”, while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.
194. For new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change “models of global development”; this will entail a responsible reflection on “the meaning of the economy and its goals with an eye to correcting its malfunctions and misapplications”.
It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.
Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth.
In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.
195. The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.
In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”, can those actions be considered ethical. An instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning.
190. Here too, it should always be kept in mind that “environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces”. Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.
Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.
191. Whenever these questions are raised, some react by accusing others of irrationally attempting to stand in the way of progress and human development. But we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development….
Francis’ encyclical, addressed to all people, draws it inspirations from St Francis of Assisi, regarded as the patron saint of “those who promote the ecology”. The encyclical also draws from the throughts of Francis’ predecessors, other Christian church leaders and even a ninth-centure Muslim mystic Ali al-Khawas.
Says Francis: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”
Francis then adds a footnote that refers to al-Khawas as follows:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted…” (EVA DE VITRAY-MEYEROVITCH [ed.], Anthologie du soufisme, Paris 1978, 200).
For the full text of the ecyclical, go here.