Where is Pope Francis on Economic Growth?

by David Kane

Maryknoll Center for Global Concerns, Washington DC Oct. 27, 2008 © Rick Reinhard 2008

Those who believe that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection will find Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si (Praised Be), a welcome addition to the literature; as well as an important tool in helping others, especially Catholics, to understand and accept the limitations of economic growth. Pope Francis explains how the environmental and social crises we are experiencing will require “profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.” Few in the world have as large a reach as the pope, so it is encouraging to hear him speaking so clearly on these crucial issues.

Environmental and Social Crises

Pope Francis begins by describing the many ecological crises ravaging the planet today. While the media have focused almost exclusively on his inclusion of climate change, referring to it as the climate encyclical,” he actually discusses a host of other ecological crises as well, from the loss of biodiversity and forests, to water and air pollution.

The earth, our home is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

He then delves into a number of social crises, including inequality, societal breakdown, and declining quality of life, directly relating them to the ecological crises.

Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Causes

Technocratic paradigm

Francis.presidencia.gov.ar

Photo Credit: presidencia.gov.ar

The pope suggests some fundamental causes of these crises including a very interesting discussion around technology. While some have accused Pope Francis of being against, or at least afraid of, technology, that is far from the truth.

Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?

The problem for Pope Francis is not technology per se, but “the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.”

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them… [h]uman 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, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet having every last drop and more squeezed out of it.

In a thoughtful conversation around this technocratic paradigm and its effects, Pope Francis laments how this paradigm tends to dominate economics and political life, degrade the environment, benefit small sectors of society, magnify humanity’s effects on Earth, and create overspecialization, obfuscating the bigger picture.

Culture of relativism

A culture of relativism in which “human beings set themselves at the centre [and] give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” is another root cause of our crises, according to Pope Francis.

 [The culture of relativism] is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.

This same ‘use and throw away’ logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.

Growth and consumption

Another fundamental cause of today’s crises proffered by Pope Francis is the almost exclusive focus on economic growth and ever-increasing consumption as solutions to social problems.

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. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals…That paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power.

Solutions

If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.

On an individual level, Pope Francis speaks of the importance of people experiencing an “ecological conversion” in which they develop a deepened appreciation and love for life in all its forms: “a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” It becomes clear to them that “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Fortified by this conversion, people become more active in their communities usually through one of the “countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban.” Actively engaged citizens are more likely to become environmental educators at their school, in their family, at church, and elsewhere. This education includes “a critique of the ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the market without rules)…and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.”

On a societal level, Pope Francis lays out some principles to guide our actions into the future. He says that for too long, political decisions have been made based on outdated economic ideologies and by specialized technicians seemingly incapable of seeing the bigger picture.

Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.

Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.

Another of Pope Francis’ guiding principles is the need for more long-term thinking. He believes that politics and business have been dominated by short-term thinking for too long, making important changes difficult. He speaks often of intergenerational solidarity and the need to consider future generations in our decisions today.

The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a farsighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.

Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.

Pope Francis says that it is wrong to believe that market-based solutions are always the best solutions.

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.

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?

As an alternative to market-based solutions, Francis suggests treating the climate and other important aspects of nature as common goods (a term he repeats twenty times throughout the document). Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom has documented hundreds of examples of communities organizing their resources as commons. For this to work, another important principle that Pope Francis stresses throughout Laudato Si is the need for subsidiarity—that people affected by decisions should be involved in making those decisions. Too much environmental and social destruction has been caused by decisions being made by people thousands of miles away who will never live with the results of those decisions.

Laudato Si is an important document written at an important time in the history of the cosmos. With the vast reach of the papacy, I hope it and Pope Francis’ exhortations will serve as a wake up call for many and a manual for change for those dedicated to changing the world. He is clear that it is important that we act now.

The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure their dire consequences.

 


 

David Kane (João Pessoa, Brazil) is a researcher for the Faith-Economy-Ecology project of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC). As a Maryknoll lay missioner from 1995 to 2012, he served in Brazil working with recyclers in city dumps and with the Jubilee Brazil campaign, as well as in Washington, D.C. Dave helped found Faith, Economy, Ecology, Transformation, a group of mostly faith-based organizations and individuals inspired to assist in the transition to a more sustainable and equitable economy. Currently, Dave educates and advocates for economic justice, particularly around trade, Latin America, and ecological economics. (David Kane photo credit: Rick Reinhard)

 

Would the Steady-State Economy Be a Miracle?

By Herman Daly

Herman DalyMany people think that advocating a steady-state economy is like wishing for a miracle. I understand their reasoning and take their point—in the present era of growthism it does seem rather like advocating a miracle. But that raises the question: exactly what is a miracle? And how many other miracles are we wishing for these days? Of course science, by definition of its method, rules out the existence of miracles, if by miracle we mean either something not explainable physically in terms of efficient causation, or else overwhelmingly improbable. Consequently, if a miracle did exist science could not see it. Looking for a miracle with science is like looking for darkness in the narrow beam of a flashlight.

Consciousness, reason, and good and evil are undeniably real, yet we have no convincing explanation for them in terms of efficient causation or biophysical evolution. And the origin of first life (as opposed to its subsequent evolution into different forms) also qualifies as a miracle by the above definition. Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, thinks the origin of life on earth is so physically improbable (miraculous) that it must have arrived here from space—”directed panspermia” is the elegant name for this miraculous sidereal ejaculation. Science considers the whole amazing experience of life on earth as just a cosmic accident.

Given that life on earth is, according to science, eventually going to end, why make extraordinary efforts to prolong it, especially if, as the modern intelligentsia assures us, the universe and all life are just temporary accidents? We, as non-miraculous random events, can have no objective idea of what a good life is. Therefore we cannot know how much per capita consumption is sufficient for a good life. Instead of a steady-state economy the default economic rule of scientific materialism seems to be, “more and more (especially for me) while things last.” Yes, I know that most scientific materialists are good people, but I am suggesting that their goodness must have origins other than their professed materialism.

For some of us materialism is just a methodology, not an ultimate worldview in which divine purpose might replace cosmic random. For Christians, for example, hope in the promise of New Creation (Rom. 8; 1 Cor.15) substitutes for despair over the ultimate impossibility of preserving this Creation forever, as well as over our repeated failures to protect it while it lasts. Like this Creation, New Creation would be a miracle—a generalized resurrection of this mortal Creation.It is a grace-based hope that flies in the face of the hard facts of evil, entropy, and finitude. It is a religious belief that death, decay, and oblivion are not the last words, and therefore it is classed as superstition in the modern secular academy, along with other religions.

Belief that the end of the world will occur soon, with lots of life-support capacity left unused (wasted), is a tenet both of some scientific catastrophists, as well as some religious fundamentalists, who consequently consider themselves exempt from the responsibility of Creation stewardship. Why sacrifice for a non-existent beneficiary, they logically ask? However, Pope Francis, for one, in his Laudato Si strongly affirms the value of this Creation, however transitory, and in this regard he speaks for most Christians and many other religious people, as well as for some thoughtful atheists.

Most scientists (and some theologians) will not be happy with talk about miracles, or with hope in New Creation. They fear that such hope will undercut efforts to prolong the present Creation, which they believe is all there is or ever will be. Yet when faced with the ultimate heat death of the universe, plus the increasing likelihood of self-destruction well before then, and with the meaninglessness implicit (and increasingly explicit) in their materialist cosmology, they sometimes flinch. They look for optimism (if not hope) somewhere within their materialism. They invent the hypothesis of infinitely many (unobservable) universes in which life may outlive our universe.

Monkey-typingThey were led to this extraordinary idea in order to escape the implications of the anthropic principle—which argues that for life to have come about by chance in our single universe would require far too many just-so coincidences among the magnitudes of basic physical constants. To preserve the idea of chance as reasonable cause, and thereby escape any notion of Creator or Telos, they argue that although these coincidences are indeed miraculously improbable in a single universe, they would surely happen if there were infinitely many universes. And of course our universe is obviously the one in which the improbable events all happened. If you don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, you can claim that infinitely many monkeys pecking away at infinitely many typewriters had to hit upon it someday. That such a deification of random would take the meaning and pleasure out of reading Hamlet—or studying anything in “creation” at all—is a carefully repressed thought.

The idea of infinitely many universes, or monkeys for that matter, is speculative—at least as speculative as the idea of New Creation. The only evidence that could be offered to support hope for the future miracle of New Creation would be the occurrence of a similar miracle in the past, namely the present Creation. Science understandably tries to account for this Creation, as far as reasonable, in its own materialistic terms, and of course from the beginning rejects “miracle” or God as an explanatory category. I am not objecting to that self-imposed, defining limitation of science. I am just saying that New Creation is not a scientific concept rooted in efficient and material causation. It is a religious hope rooted in the idea of final causation and ultimate purpose. As such it is neither contradictory to nor dependent upon science.

Whether ad hoc postulation of infinitely many unobservable universes violates the self-imposed limitation of science, and belongs more to the category of miracle, I will leave to the reader’s judgment. But the working hypothesis of scientific materialism, however fruitful it has been, should not be sanctified as the Ultimate Metaphysics of Chance. Nor does adding Darwinian natural selection to Mendelian random mutation alter the picture, since the selecting criteria of environmental conditions (other organisms and geophysical surroundings) are also considered to be a product of chance. Mutations provide random change in the genetic menu from which natural selection picks according to the survival value determined by a randomly changing environment.

Such a Metaphysics of Chance precludes explanation of some basic facts, pushing them into the category of miracle: first, that there is something rather than nothing; second, the just-right physical “coincidences” recognized in the anthropic principle; third, the “spontaneous generation” of first life from inanimate matter (which has apparently never happened again); fourth, the creation of an incredible amount of specified information in the genome of all the irreducibly complex living creatures that evolved from the relatively simple information in the first living thing (in spite of the fact that random change destroys rather than creates information); fifth, the emergence of self-consciousness and rational thought itself (if my thoughts are ultimately the product of random, why believe any of them, including this one?); sixth, the amazing correspondence between abstract mathematical thought and empirical natural order; and sixth, the innate human perception of right and wrong, of good and bad, which would be meaningless in a purely material world. Explaining these facts “by chance” strains credulity at least as much as “by miracle.”

Metaphysical humility remains a virtue for both science and religion. The longevity of a steady-state economy is a metaphysically humble goal appropriate for limited creatures in the face of ignorance and mystery. Christianity and science both recognize the fundamental finitude and frailties of this Creation. Christianity offers ultimate hope in New Creation; science necessarily remains mute about that. Scientism, however, seeing no limits to this Creation, offers, instead of hope, the campaigning optimism of, for example, the Coming Singularity of the digital “new creation” with immortal silicon-based consciousness, or IBM’s new creation of “building a smarter planet,” or NASA’s new creation of colonizing Mars.

A moment’s reflection, however, shows that a spaceship, and a space colony, as well as a population of infinitely long-lived silicon “people,” must all operate as the strictest of steady-state economies. If we cannot manage a steady-state economy on the large and forgiving earth out of which we evolved and to which we are evolutionarily well adapted, then how likely are we to manage it on a barren rock under alien conditions, including extreme cold and intense radiation? Yet large amounts of taxpayer’s money is wasted in pursuit of the unnecessary miracle of colonizing Mars, while nothing is invested in the necessary and smaller miracle of attaining a steady-state economy on our finite earth. The pseudo-religion of scientism leads those who reject a steady-state economy on earth as a “miracle” to imagine even bigger miracles to escape it.

 


Notes:

1. For more on the theology of New Creation, see, Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2012; John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2003; and N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope. New York: Harper Collins. 2008.