Laudato Sii: Are we getting it all wrong on sustainable development?

Pope Francis’ newly issued Encyclical – a sort of extended letter to Catholics, in this case also addressed to all human beings – is widely seen as a powerful intervention ahead of the three crucial United Nations meetings in July, September and December. This is when global leaders will decide on funding for development, future Sustainable Development Goals and a new global framework for climate change.

The document, named Laudato Sii after a 13th century poem on nature by St Francis, is based on the idea that humans and nature are all part of the same common home. It starts with a comprehensive overview of the world’s major environmental and social challenges, which are seen as far more deeply interconnected than people realise. It then praises people who are already working on fighting environmental degradation and on reducing the effects of that degradation on poor people.

“We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”

A new definition of progress

Laudato Sii then invites individuals from all walks of life to enter into a dialogue about the moral and spiritual side of what is being done to the Earth and what the solutions are. Parts of the letter appear to be more specifically addressed to scientists, economists, politicians, architects and urban planners, inviting them to find a new definition of progress. More specifically, the letter encourages efforts to move away from fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy.

“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.”

It singles out solar power as having huge potential to provide energy for the developing world, and the growth in clean energy cooperatives as a sign of hope:

“..while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference “

The document is clear that we need to do more. More controversially, it argues that some solutions to climate change and international development are doing more harm that good, and we should move away from those. This is best understood against the background of Pope Francis’ interdisciplinary approach to global problems.

The Encyclical explains that the climate crisis, global poverty and other major global challenges are a direct consequence of unequal economic, social and political systems including resistance to change by global elites in both developed and developing countries. Corruption, lack of transparency and a pursuit of national and individual interests over the common good are also a problem. In addition, humanity’s impressive technological progress has brought benefits – which the Pope recognizes, including the beauty of airplanes for example – but this technological progress has not been matched by a corresponding level of moral and spiritual progress. The way people’s interactions have changed – for better and for worse – with the use of the internet gets a mention.

Growth and consumerism

The Pope is particularly concerned about the predominance of techno-fixes, or the idea that problems can be solved by technology and markets, and that economic growth can be continued forever. This is a problem because it pushes humanity beyond the planet’s environmental limits, but also because:

“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.”

The constant push to consume has also brought extreme individualism, boredom and indifference to the plight of other human beings (particularly the poor and migrants) and the planet. Apart from causing environmental degradation, the growth of consumerism also stops politicians from taking the tough decisions needed to tackle the crisis.

“A politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far-sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.”

Are we focusing on the wrong solutions?

Even the concept of sustainable growth is seen by the Pope as a concept that may not solve underlying problems as

“…it usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses.”

More specifically, the Encyclical criticizes the concept of carbon trading:

“…it can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide” and “seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.”

This is in line with the position of a number of faith-based climate & development NGOs, which have also been pursuing the broader concepts of “climate justice” that are part of Laudato Sii’s narrative.

Elsewhere, the Pope stresses the need for small scale agriculture as a way to support food security in the coming years, as opposed to agriculture with large economies of scale that ends up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops:

“Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.”

According to a source, this is a criticism of some concepts of industrial agriculture being pursued by some large international institutions, including as a solution to concerns about climate related food security issues.

A change manifesto

Laudato Sii does provide many ideas for solving the multiple crises the world is facing. Some are quite practical, such as those related to how we assess the social and environmental impacts of projects:

“Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety. Economic returns can thus be forecast more realistically, taking into account potential scenarios and the eventual need for further investment to correct possible undesired effects. A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders, who can offer a variety of approaches, solutions and alternatives. The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest.”

Other ideas relate more to morality and spirituality. The main concept is that of “integral ecology” and a move towards sobriety based on the philosophy of St Francis, and promoting ecological citizenship through education. According to Pope Francis, this conviction:

“cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled”.

Written by . Published on June 18, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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