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The Pope’s Climate Encyclical, Capitalism and the Environmental Movement


By Peter Fox-Penner

In 1987, film character Gordon Gekko stood before the shareholders of fictional Teldar Paper and instructed them that “greed is good.”  This cinematic moment came to symbolize an era in which privatization, deregulation and financialization supplanted the mid-20th century model of progressive government, belief in a social safety net, and a mixed economy.  Interestingly, the New York Times reports that the phrase was condensed from a graduation address at the University of California, Berkley business school given by Ivan Boesky, a Wall Street figure later convicted of insider trading.

It has taken 25 years to produce an equally cinematic moment to mark the end of this era.  On May 24, Pope Francis issued what was widely reported to be an encyclical on climate change. Although climate change is discussed, the encyclical is more properly described as a sweeping critique of our market, technology and consumption-oriented society.  His Holiness has produced a document that ranges from the current state of world political and economic policies to the health of global ecosystems, and what he calls:

"The social dimensions of global change ... [including] the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity."

His overall critique of our current economic and social disorder is searing:
" ... 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 behavior shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.  Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion."

Very few aspects of modern life left are unexamined in the document’s 80-odd pages.   Some of the highlights include:

  • A reminder that “nature is God’s art,” and that St. Francis of Assisi considered all creatures on earth his brothers and sisters;

  • A warning against media and digital saturation: “ ... When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously ... True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution ... We should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

  • A robust call for better global water policies: “ ... Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor.  But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance.”

  • Endorsement of an “ecological debt” between the global north and south and rejection of the “internationalization of the Amazon,” which “can only serve the economic interests of transnational corporations.”

  • Urging that economies promote “diversity and creativity,” with particular emphasis on preserving small-scale agriculture;

  • Acknowledgment that while “technology has remedied countless evils”, new breakthroughs such as GMOs should be examined closely for their ethical implications, and sometimes severely limited; and

  • A strong scolding for global leaders’ response to environmental challenges. “It is remarkable how weak international policies responses have been … Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.”

Climate change

As anticipated, the encyclical included a much-awaited Papal climate policy.  There is a forceful description of the implications of “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” emphasizing impacts on the poor – loss of natural food resources, forced migration, and vulnerability to natural disasters.   He then lays out a broad policy direction:
"There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies.

"Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.”

The ideas in this passage echo the advice of many climate policy experts and can be found in many national and subnational climate plans.  However, the passage is noteworthy in several respects.   First, it is less specific and lengthy than it could have been, and does not mention the importance of reaching a global agreement in the coming Paris climate summit.  His Holiness clearly wants a climate solution, but he wants it grounded in broader economic and social change.  Merely swapping high-carbon for no-carbon hardware -- a solution climate geeks used to call the “tech fix” – is flatly rejected.

It is good to see that His Holiness and his researchers have absorbed the verdant literature on the potential for greater energy efficiency and saw fit to give this often-invisible approach a Papal shout-out.  Renewable energy, also mentioned, clearly plays a central role, although His Holiness notes that it is too inaccessible by much of the world’s poor.  Interestingly, the encyclical neither includes nor excludes nuclear energy, apparently leaving that option on the table.

Above all, two very large and very important themes emerge from this masterwork. First, His Holiness forcefully rejects the notion of humanity’s right to shape the earth as it chooses for its private enjoyment.  Rejecting the oft-cited interpretation of Genesis 1:28 that God granted man dominion over earth, he writes:

“We are not God.  The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature.”

His answer could not be clearer:
"This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.

"The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). 'Tilling' refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while 'keeping' means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature."

He likewise rejects the notion of purely private property rights.  Although private ownership of land is permitted, it is something of a fiction, as the ultimate “owner” of the earth is God.  Our notion of ownership is apparently allowed, but only with recognition that its benefits be shared with the broader community:
"The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that 'God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.'

These are strong words. He noted that "a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man."

It is important to see this not as a complete rejection of property and markets, but rather as a severe admonition that these institutions must be rigorously tempered by a purpose beyond pure private gain. Again, quoting Pope John Paul II, Francis writes:

"He clearly explained that ‘The Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.'"

In the end, one forceful and persistent theme permeates the encyclical: the indivisibility of social and environmental problems. His Holiness states:
“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. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Indeed, to my eyes the Pope reserves his strongest language for global elites, who have paid too little attention to the deep connections between global inequality and environmental problems:
"The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas ... This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population."

Francis’ argument that all those who care about the environment must work just as hard to care for the less fortunate comes along at an interesting time for the American environmental movement and the American left in general.   With a deeply divided Congress and equally polarized country, the movement has recognized that greater environmental progress through federal legislation will be nearly impossible for some time.  This would be an excellent time to continue building a coalition in the vision of the Pope, joining economic and environmental issues that share many common roots and drivers.  This is hardly a new idea or effort – many individuals and groups have been working hard on this for years, even decades.   What’s new is that the head of a highly respected Church central to the faith of over 1 billion people has unequivocally not just endorsed the view – he has said there is no other way.

And as for greed being good?  Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew’s exhortation to consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion."

Take that, Mr. Gekko.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Javier 2) Flickr/Peter Rosbjerg

Peter Fox-Penner, principal and Director of The Brattle Group, specializes in economic, regulatory, and strategic issues in network industries. His book, "Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities," examines innovative business models for the changing utility industry.

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