In the main the Encyclical treats the issue of technology (the focus of my last blog) together with the question of capitalism. It avoids a Heideggerian onto-technological stance (namely the view that the present dominant technological framing of reality is inherent in the very fiber of the Western tradition, with the negativity toward science and technology that this implies). But it does view the modern technocratic framing of reality, along with the dominant economizing logic of Capitalism, as very problematic for contemporary culture. Taken together, technocracy and Capitalism are main elements at the root of the ecological crisis.
It also suggests that to find our way out of the modern crisis we need to foster integral thinking, as opposed to the dominant reductionist thinking fostered by both technocracy and Capitalism. This is to be accompanied by an ecological conversion of the individual, the cultivation of a sense of awe at the beauty of the world, and the spiritual and intellectual transformation of the individual and culture, along with structural changes at local, regional, and global levels. It sees especially philosophy, aesthetics, and spirituality as having a vital role to play in the transformation of culture, which creates the conditions for the structural transformation of society.
This blog will focus on the Encyclical’s critique of capitalism and briefly discuss the principles of the alternative economy it proposes. Main themes include 1) a very brief introduction to Catholic teaching on the economy. 2) That is followed by a discussion of the perils of market-fundamentalism and the relationship between the environment and poverty. This is related to two fundamental principles of Catholic Social Teaching, the universal destiny of goods, and the preferential option for this poor. 3) This is followed by a discussion of the “habits of consumption” that Capitalism fosters, along with calls for resistance and a voluntary lifestyle of simplistic virtue, which, with ecological education and ecological conversion, more could learn to value. Part of this education consists in the need to recognize the ethical character of consumption and purchasing decision. 4) That is followed by a short explication of the view within the Catholic tradition that business and labor are in principle noble, if rightly organized. 5) It finishes with a discussion of the difficulties of overcoming the culture of consumption, and by highlighting the Encyclical’s call for “true statecraft,” which even goes so far as to embrace a policy of zero growth in wealthy countries. The fundamental point is that the economy is one social system among others in a social ecology. It aims ultimately at enhancing life; and to do this it must see to the well-being of humans, but also of the world, which this tradition emphasizes is intrinsically endowed with value as a part of God’s creation.
1. Introduction to the Catholic third way
The critique here fully aligns with a significant existing body of teaching on what is widely known as the Catholic third way—between laissez faire Capitalism and forms of state socialism—but it highlights in particular the relationship between the economy and the ecological crisis, viewing the economy as part of a “social ecology” (which I will discuss in the next blog). This tradition focuses on the value of cooperatives, shared governance models of business, unions, and workers’ councils. It rejects both state centric economies and the laissez faire economy because in both models workers end up being dominated by others. Instead of fulfilling themselves in their labor, individual under these systems all too often are exploited and alienated from there work. The tradition emphasizes that while labor is necessary, the alienated labor generated under both state socialist and laissez faire systems is unnecessary. Labor is in fact a great good, capable of enriching the human experience and of fostering creativity. The economy is viewed as a social system that exists for the benefit of human life. In this Encyclical it is also emphasized that it must operate with an awareness of and concern for its affects on other forms of life as well as its affect on ecosystems, or on “creation” quite generally.
2.1 The Perils of Market fundamentalism
The technocratic paradigm criticized in so much of the Encyclical (and described in the earlier blog) also dominates the economy under global Capitalism, as market forces that aim only at profits are presumed to be able to resolve all ills—whether those of material deprivation or of environmental concern. While robust theoretical defenses of this view are not common, it is the operational logic of the market, dominated by considerations of financiers who find that concerns for profit maximization are enough (par. 109). Again and again, the Encyclical indicates the short-sightedness of such economic fundamentalism. Quoting the earlier Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, this document affirms the particular problem that such economic fundamentalism creates for the environment: “The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” (par. 190). And Francis adds: “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention” (par. 190). Indeed, in alignment with the prevailing Capitalist framework, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor” (par. 190). Quite generally, the reductionist technocratic thinking perpetuated by the Capitalist system is thought to wreck havoc not only on the earth, which increasingly is viewed as a mere resource for making money, but also on the poor, who also are increasingly viewed as a mere human resource.
2.2 The Economy and the Poor
The connection between economic degradation and the plight of the poor is echoed throughout the text. Part and partial of the technocratic and market fundamentalist mindset that views the world as a resource is that it fails to account for the environment and the poor. “The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society” (par. 196). In addition, the Encyclical emphasizes that the economic benefits of the present global order are frequently unjust. “Only when ‘the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations’ (Benedict XVI) can those actions be considered ethical” (par. 195). Concern is expressed at the disequilibrium in economic burden borne by the poor, who suffer from greater water and food shortages because of pollution (par. 27-31) or overfishing (par. 48), as well as the greater dangers because of sea level rise (par. 48). This is despite that in many cases it is the economic actors from wealthy nations who have polluted the poor lands (or neighborhoods) while expropriating its resources for the well off, and that the greater producers of green house gases responsible for climate change are not the ones suffering most from its negative fallout. Such economic injustice leads to migration issues and threatens to lead to an increase in resource wars, another dramatic economic and human cost. In fact, the challenges to the prevailing focus of the global economic order in this document are quite radical. Among the harshest criticisms about the present global Capitalism in the text occurs when Francis asks whether it implicates the rich in the death of the poor and in the probable plight of future generations. He quotes New Zealand bishops, who “asked what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive’”(par. 95). The overconsumption by some, as well as their degradation of the earth’s needed ecosystems, which need to be in tact in order to guarantee life, is directly linked to the unavailability of resources for others.
2.3 Limited Rights to Property
In the context of this discussion, the text even questions the dominant understanding of the right to property. Francis underlines the views of the church on rights, but indicates it does not entail an absolute right of individuals to property as presently understood, especially when such a view of rights results in uses by a few that interfere with many being able to achieve their needs (par. 93). 2.4 The Universal Destination of the World’s Goods and the Preferential Option of the Poor Basic to establishing the proposed integral ecology is a recognition of the need of the development of the whole person that aligns with a common good that is firmly established in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In this context, the document also calls for a recognition of the “universal destination of the world’s goods” and the “preferential option for the poorest.” The two concepts take aim particularly at the imbalances of the present global economic and political realities, dominated as they are by the concerns of the wealthy, and which are wasteful of numerous resources while simultaneously failing to address the severe needs of the world’s poorest (par. 156-58). The idea of the universal destination of human goods is foundational in Catholic Social Teaching. It means that the goods of the earth are to be viewed as gifts for us all—and in this document, “all” is even (implicitly) extended to nonhuman animals. Aligned with this idea, we are not able to do whatever we happen to want with the goods that we have. Wastefulness of food, for example, is condemnable, if others could benefit from that food and are deprived of doing so because of our wastefulness. So, too, overconsumption of resources by some is condemned since it results in the unavailability of those resources for others. The goods of the earth are for the “common good.” The group for which these goods exist extends not only out spatially to all now living on the earth (and implicitly to all species and even ecosystems) but also forward temporally to future generations. Sustainable development must operate on the basis of “intergenerational solidarity” (par. 159). The earth does not belong to any one generation, so there is no absolute privileging of the present over the future. Quoting a letter from Portuguese bishops, the encyclical notes: “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next” (par. 159). Further, the question of the world we want to leave to future generations is also viewed as facilitating a question about ultimate values and purpose of life. The idea of the preferential option of the poor is another foundational concept of the Catholic intellectual tradition more generally. It generally is viewed as indicating the need to consider the needs of the poor as fundamental in personal and public policy decisions. Many view it as supporting something akin to Rawls’ Difference Principle. The present global Capitalist system neither respects the universal destiny of goods nor the option for the poor. The Encyclical underlines ways in which Capitalism is wasteful and generates poverty. In the view of the Encyclical and of Catholic Social Teaching more generally Capitalism is also indicted for being fundamentally mistaken in its view that the good of the individual and the common good do not coincide.
3.1 Habits of Consumption
A further issue with Capitalism is that it fosters precisely the habits of consumption that perpetuate the negative cycle described. The predominant individualist culture perpetuated by Capitalism impedes the needed solidarity—a solidarity needed not only to others in one’s family and one’s society, but to those who will inherit the earth in the future (par. 160) and to nature. The “ecological conversion” and education that the text calls for is meant to address this. The educated convert is to see the virtue of simplicity, as reflected in the virtuous life of St. Francis and in the contemplative labor “rich and balanced” (par. 126). On the one hand, this has implications for labor itself, which should be able to be appreciated in a rich, balanced manner. On the other, it regards consumption habits. The call for education is not merely academic; instead, it also inculcates a move to a change in lifestyle. “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle” (par. 211). The education aims at changing culture. Everything from recycling to energy reducing practices, to tree planting can have a positive effect. “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (par. 212).
3.2 The morality of consumption
Part of the moral framework called for refers back to ideas express by Benedict XVI, in summons to understand consumption and shopping as moral acts, and even acts which have the potential to pressure businesses to change their models and adopt more environmentally responsible production and fairer policies. Quoting Benedict, Francis notes, “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (par. 206). Quoting John Paul II, Francis again affirms: “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle” (par. 206). Indeed, the onus for change falls not only on institutions, but also on individuals. “An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (par. 209). It is important here to notice however that this involves both institutions and individuals. The Encyclical issues forth an educational challenge for the young, especially in affluent countries, who increasingly have an environmental orientation and generosity of spirit but who are inculcated in a consumerist society in which it is difficult to develop other habits (par. 209). The calls for individual changes to a mental framework that are found throughout are important. However, they are viewed as insufficient. In many cases where such a mental shift can be seen, unsustainable “habits of consumption” remain (par. 55). So they need to be translated into courses of action. However, even more, they need to lead to changes in the unsustainable “global system” (par. 61).
4.1 The Principled Nobility of Business and Labor
While the encyclical is critical of global capitalism, the economics of unlimited growth, and the acquisition of short-term profits at the cost of long-term benefits to human life and the environment, it is not opposed to business per se. Rather it calls for business with a human (and environmental and spiritual) face. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (par. 129). “Work should be the setting for … rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God” (par. 127). Humans are to fulfill themselves in labor, consequently the goal is not for technologies to replace work. Instead, “the broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work” (par. 128). The encyclical expresses concern that human labor is being replaced by technologies for short-term profits; and this tendency is viewed as “bad business for society” (par. 128).
5.1 Overcoming short-term thinking with “True Statecraft”
The difficulty of instituting the difficult changes proposed is acknowledged, in part because of the typical need generated by “electoral interests” to focus on short-term interests and to avoid measures with immediate economic costs. However, the encyclical calls for “true statecraft,” which “is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good” (par. 178). The work of various local organizations, like cooperatives, is extolled. Recognition is shown that any changes need to take account of the local conditions, each with their unique problems and limitations (par. 180). While it is recognized that consensus is often difficult, and the church does not “settle policy,” the document calls for a spirit of open dialogue and transparency that aims at such consensus (par. 188) and builds on Christian values. The constant call of the Encyclical is for a reorientation away from mere economic efficiency and technocracity. “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” (par. 189). In the desired social ecological framework, the economy will be broadly evaluated in reference to its contribution to both the well-being of the earth and to human well-being. As Francis notes: “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (par. 49).
5.2 No Growth Policy—Channeling Donella Meadows
The challenges issued by the encyclical are substantial. “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. Benedict XVI has said that ‘technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency’” (par. 193).
5.3 Economics and the Quality of Life—A Call for Ecological Economics
The view of progress in the encyclical contrasts with dominate understanding of it under global Capitalism. “We need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development” (par. 191). In this alternative vision of progress, the question of the quality of life becomes more central. The market, rightly directed, might “generate intelligent and profitable ways of reusing, revamping and recycling, and it could also improve the energy efficiency of cities” (par. 191). A social, political and business order brought under an overarching concern for the well-being might at the same time be more genuinely creative. “This is Productive diversification offers the fullest possibilities to human ingenuity to create and innovate, while at the same time protecting the environment and creating more sources of employment. Such creativity would be a worthy expression of our most noble human qualities, for we would be striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality of life” (par. 192). In sum: The holistic framework called for should readjust this and foster the understanding that the economy exists for the good of people and the earth, not that the people and earth are for the benefit of the economy. “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. 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” (par. 194).
 Few are familiar with social and cultural ecology models. For a general introduction to Kenneth Boulding’s important early social ecosystems model, see my text “Kenneth Boulding’s Theory of Social Ecosystem.” The text can be downloaded at http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.1.3781.1368.