Thinking Outside the Box

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.
Laudato si’ (LS) no. 189

In Chapter Five, Pope Francis discusses action. However, he does not identify specific technical or legal action items. Instead, he calls on nations to set aside their self interest, and to cooperate for the common good. He calls on politicians to focus on the long-term – beyond next year’s election. He asks us to redefine progress. It may be time for richer nations to have slower growth, so that other nations may have healthy growth. All of this requires us to think outside the box.

Summary of Chapter 5: Lines of approach and action

Having reviewed the situation, we now examine how to “escape the spiral of self-destruction ….” LS no. 163.

Think outside national interests

Since the mid-20th century, there has been an ever-growing concern for the environment. In this regard, we understand “that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home.” Thus, solutions must take on a global perspective, and not merely defend the interests of a few countries. LS no. 164. For example, we must use less fossil fuels. But the international community has not agreed on how to pay for the transition to other energy sources. LS no. 165.

So far, international efforts have mostly disappointed

There is a lack of political will to deal with the problem. That is why international summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations. LS no. 166. For example, the 1992 Earth Summit accords were “a real step forward,” but they have been poorly implemented. LS no. 167.

There are some positive experiences. These include agreements regarding hazardous waste, international trade in endangered species, and protection of the ozone layer. LS no. 168. On the other hand, there has been less progress on biodiversity, desertification, and climate change. Countries that place their national interest above that of “the global common good” impede progress. LS no. 169.

Strategies should not unfairly affect poorer countries

We cannot pretend that all nations have contributed equally to the problem. To do so imposes on countries with fewer resources the same responsibility as that of more industrialized countries.  LS no. 170. For example, a trade in “carbon credits” will not reduce emissions, but may simply allow some countries and sectors to maintain high consumption rates. LS no. 171.

The priority for poor countries is to eliminate extreme poverty and promote social development. But they must also rein in high consumption by privileged sectors of their societies, as well as combat corruption. Likewise, they must develop less polluting forms of energy production, for which they will need international assistance. LS no. 172.

The need for effective international agreements

Local authorities are not always able to address environmental problems. Therefore, effective international agreements are needed. LS no. 173. This includes how we deal with global commons, such as the oceans. LS no. 174.

We need a better approach both to reverse global warming and eliminating poverty. Global economic and financial sectors have weakened nation states. We therefore need stronger and more efficient international institutions. LS no. 175.

Think outside local political interests

Environmental and economic disparity also exists within the poorer countries. LS no. 176. Local authorities can use the law to regulate bad practices, as well as encourage best practices. LS no. 177. Politics in a consumer-based society is driven by immediate results. Statesmanship seeks the long-term common good. LS no. 178.

Local individuals and groups can make a difference. One example is local cooperatives that develop renewable energy resources.  If we are to prevent environmental damage, local citizens need to control political power. LS no. 179.

Each country or region is different. Therefore, no one recipe works everywhere. Some places need transitional measures and technologies. But much needs to be done, including conserving energy. LS no. 180. Continuity is essential to climate and environmental policies. The public must pressure political authorities to address the problem. LS no. 181.

The importance of transparency

Transparency and a free exchange of views is needed in assessing the environmental impacts of business ventures. LS no. 182. Such assessment must be part of the process from the beginning. The process must be interdisciplinary, transparent, and free of economic and pollical pressure. Decisions should be made by consensus. And the local population especially needs to be included. LS no. 183.

Environmental assessments

Foreseeable risks and benefits should be considered. No priority should be given to short-term gain or private interest. LS no. 184. Certain issues may have a higher priority than others. For example, people have a fundamental right to clean drinking water. This overrides any other factor. LS no. 185.

The lack of absolute scientific certainty does not justify postponing measures to prevent environmental damage. If objective information suggests serious and irreversible damage may occur,  a project should be halted or modified. This precautionary principle protects those who are most vulnerable. LS no. 186. “[P]rofit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account ….” LS no. 187.

The importance of honest and open debate

It is not always easy to achieve consensus. But the Church “encourage[s] an honest and open debate ….” Special interests or ideologies should not prejudice the common good. LS no. 188.

Political and economic considerations

A missed opportunity to create a new economy

A decade ago, the world’s financial institutions collapsed. The public paid the price to save them. We had an opportunity then to create a more ethical economy. But we did not take advantage of this opportunity. Thus, the economy continues to be driven by financial criteria that often have nothing to do with the real economy – the economy of small and medium business which employ people. LS no. 189.

We cannot protect the environment based solely on financial calculations of costs and benefits. The market will not protect the environment. LS no. 190. Some will say that this view stands in the way of progress. But sometimes progress may be achieved by a decrease in the pace of production and consumption. LS no. 191. A more creative development could invest less in consumption and more in problems that families face. LS no. 192.

That being said, we need to accept decreased growth in some places. This is needed so that other places may have healthy growth. LS no. 193. When it comes to our notion of progress, we need to think outside the box. LS no. 194. More on this below.

What is needed

An ethical economy requires that those who incur the economic and social costs of using resources bear those costs. LS no. 195. This requires political resolve. The mindset of the economy alone leaves no room for concern for the environment. This same mindset lacks concern for vulnerable members of society. LS no. 196.

We need a far-sighted political vision, one that thinks outside the box.

A strategy for real change calls for rethinking processes in their entirety, for it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture. A healthy politics needs to be able to take up this challenge.

LS no. 197. Politicians and business people tend to blame each other for poverty and environmental degradation. We are left with conflicts or camouflage. LS no. 198.

Religion and science

Life is not completely explained by science. Religion also contributes to understanding life. LS no. 199. Science cannot solve our serious problems if we lose our compass. Religion contributes to our ability “to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.” LS no. 200. “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good ….” Dialogue requires patience, self-discipline and generosity. LS no. 201.

Focus on thinking outside the box

An economy obsessed with profits does not serve people

Pope Francis challenges us to face the reality of our economic situation. “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?” The answer, of course, is that “[w]here profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature.” LS no. 190.

For the good of the world and its people, we need to get beyond unbridled reliance on a consumption-based economy. This has profound implications. In some cases, decades of “insatiable and irresponsible growth” must be contained. LS no. 193.

We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept a decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.

LS no. 193. “Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.” LS no. 194.

A just economy serves people

Contrary to the fears of some, the pope is not pushing radical new ideas. Well, perhaps they are radical, but they are not new. Francis’s message is, at its core, the same as that always taught by the Church. “Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community.” Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2426.

Jesus himself saw economic activity not as an end in itself, but as a means to serve people. For example, in the parable of the laborers, the vineyard owner paid each laborer the same wage regardless of the number of hours worked. Mt. 20: 1-16. Each laborer no doubt had similar economic needs, which the vineyard owner met in the same measure. “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.” Mt. 20: 16 (NJB).

Next week: Sabbath and ecological spirituality

We need to adopt new habits and attitudes if we are to renew the world. This includes a conversion to an ecological spirituality. In part, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the practice of Sabbath rest. Next week I will discuss the Sabbath and ecological spirituality.