This is the fifth in a series of articles where Adrian Statham summarizes Pope Francis’ papal encyclical Laudato Si’
Note: numbers in brackets refer to the paragraph numbers of the papal encyclical “Laudato Si”
Chapter Five: Lines of Approach and Action
The international community is “one people living in a common home.” “A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems, which cannot be resolved by unilateral actions on the part of individual countries.” (164) Whilst we develop suitable renewable sources of energy, we should use the least polluting of the fossil fuels i.e., gas rather than oil and oil rather than coal. “But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition.” (165) The urgency of the challenges ahead demands much speedier responses from politicians and business leaders. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro “enshrined international co-operation to care for the ecosystem of the entire earth, the obligation of those who cause pollution to assume its costs, and the duty to assess the environmental impact of given projects and works. It set the goal of limiting greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere,” (167) but it lacked the mechanisms to enforce the rules, unlike “the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes with its system of reporting, standards and controls.” (168)
We need honesty, courage and to own the problem. “International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to…countries which place their national interests above the global common good.” “We believers cannot fail to ask God for a positive outcome to the present discussions, so that future generations will not have to suffer the effects of our ill-advised delays.” (169) Poor countries should aim to eliminate extreme poverty, reduce corruption, and should recognise that some of their privileged countrymen scandalously overconsume. Countries “which have experienced great growth at the cost of the ongoing pollution of the planet” should help the poorer countries “develop less polluting forms of energy production via “technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources.” The costs of this would be low compared to those of climate change but, “these are primarily ethical decisions, rooted in solidarity between all peoples.” (172)
The twenty first century is seeing a weakening in the power of national governments mainly “because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political.” We need ”stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.” (175)
Dialogue about new national and local policies is needed, both between countries and between different groups within countries. We need to pay more attention to environmental issues, both nationally and locally. One way for a society to “plan and protect its future amid constantly developing technological innovations” is through the law. A healthy, mature society should have laws which bring security, the elimination of corruption, “effective responses to undesired side-effects of production processes, and appropriate intervention where potential or uncertain risks are involved.” (177) We need a “far-sighted environmental agenda” but the need to win elections leads to governments being “reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment.” (178) “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy.” “There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations.” We need policies to conserve energy, reduce the use of raw materials, discontinue those products which pollute too much or use too much energy, and to encourage energy efficient buildings. We need to invest in agriculture and rural infrastructure in poorer regions, e.g. improved irrigation. We need policies on the environment which do not change with each change of government. “Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term.” Above all we must have public pressure to overcome the short-term thinking “which dominates present-day economics and politics.” (181)
Dialogue and transparency in decision making are needed, not “the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favours.” (182) We should consider the environmental impact of proposals from the start, not after the business case has been agreed. “We need to stop thinking in terms of “interventions” to save the environment in favour of policies developed and debated by all interested parties.” (183) We should establish a consensus among the various stakeholders, with particular emphasis on the concerns of the local population. Rather than “rubber-stamp authorisations or conceal information” all parties need to be kept informed about the risks throughout the life of the project and its follow-up activities. We need to decide if a project “will contribute to genuine integral development,” with particular emphasis on what it will achieve and for whom, also on its risks and costs. Some things need priority protection, e.g. clean drinking water. The 1992 Rio declaration states that lack of scientific certainty about something causing serious environmental problems should not stop counter measures being taken. “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof.” (186) In other words, the burden of proof is with the organisation requesting the change rather than, as currently, with environmentalists to prove that significant damage will be done. Where consensus is difficult to obtain, Pope Francis is “concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.” (188)
Politics and Economy in dialogue for human fulfilment. The response to the 2007-08 financial crisis missed the opportunity of reforming the economy. “Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery.” (189) If profits alone matter, businessmen will not try to protect nature, ecosystems or people’s culture or to address the needs of the poor. Pope Francis does not want to block progress, but to encourage more sustainable use of natural resources and environmentally friendly forms of production. We need to be open to new possibilities and to direct our energies along new channels. We should look for ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, small ways towards an “equitable development.” After decades of “insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour 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 decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.” (193)
Is technological and economic development actually producing a better world? “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.” (194) We need a new model of progress.
The current economic system aims for the maximisation of profits, and rarely includes the cost of environmental problems its calculations e.g. “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.” (195)
We emphasize success and self-reliance which does not help “the slow, the weak and the less talented.” We need to be more inclusive. “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach”. (197) We need politicians who are prepared to act on their responsibilities. “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.” (197)
“Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation.” (198) They need to work together.
Religions in dialogue with science. Ethical principles can be expressed in various ways including religious language, and “should not be ignored just because they are in a religious context.” (199) “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.” (200) The church and other religions too, have in the past justified some of the abuses of the planet as well as wars: we must all return to the original sources of our religions, e.g. the bible, to tell us how to behave properly. “The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity.” Scientists too and environmentalists need to put some differences of approach aside so that these don’t prevent us taking measures to protect the environment. “The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity…” (201)
The full Laudato Si’ Encyclical is available here.