Laudato Si’: Structural Causes of the Ecological Crisis - Part II

What hath air conditioning to do with Jerusalem?
October 1st, 2015

The Market

Francis’s stark analysis of the technological paradigm—outlined in the first part of this article—grounds his forceful critique of the pathologies and injustices of the contemporary global market economy. He argues that the conception of nature as an infinite storehouse of resources to meet human desires (a conception lying behind the “dominant technological paradigm”) feeds the specific illusion of the possibility of unlimited economic growth, which in turn is the chief driver of the environmental and social degradations making up the ecological crisis (§106).

I think this claim is broadly true. It is validated by, for example, our current structural addiction to fossil fuels. In his 2006 presidential State of the Union address, George W. Bush admitted as much, conceding frankly that “we are addicted to oil” (albeit then adding, confirming Francis’s critique, that “the best way to break this addiction is through technology”). Our addiction is grotesquely dramatized in the hugely environmentally damaging oil sands project in northern Alberta. (John Hiemstra has persuasively argued—here and here—that the project is driven by just this addiction.) Francis is right to urge that we need to ween ourselves off such fossil fuel dependency “without delay” (§165). We need to summon the courage and faith to “keep it in the ground.”

But the steps in this argument from technology to economy to ecology need to be spelled out more carefully, as do the specific pathologies of the particular corporations, markets, consumption patterns, and governmental actions that are converting “illusion” into “crisis.” Again, we need to do this if actors in the economy, many of whom sincerely desire to act responsibly, are to be given concrete guidance when faced with complex decisions under tight constraints. For example, Francis boldly asserts that “the economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (§109). On the one hand, he is right to point out that, too often, new technologies are hastily introduced in order to maximize profits (or, more accurately, quarterly shareholder values) even though they destroy the jobs of many who have no alternative sources of livelihood (§128). To respond by claiming that introducing such technology is mandated by the imperatives of global market competition would indeed amount to a form of idolatry (which always enslaves).

On the other hand, Francis’s assertion about the use of technology cannot be admitted without qualification. Many entrepreneurs are motivated not first by profit maximization but by a genuine concern for human welfare and seek to deploy technology to that end. Many businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), strive to protect the jobs of their employees even as they introduce new technologies. And even if they don’t (or can’t), government regulations increasingly require them at least to meet demanding, and costly, conditions protecting other dimensions of human and environmental well-being. The implied contrast between heroic small-scale cooperatives and the malign forces of the “global technological paradigm” is an oversimplification. Thus, the technology required to develop renewable energy supplies (wind and wave turbines, photovoltaic panels, etc.) depends on advanced science, significant venture capital, market opportunities and government licensing, and (sometimes) subsidy.

Three of Francis’s other critiques of markets seem broadly valid. One is that that markets of themselves tend to “externalize” many of the social and environmental costs of economic activity, either imposing them on the public at large or forcing governments to regulate or socialize them, often inadequately (§195).

A second is that markets are inherently incapable of supplying certain categories of human need. Here Francis reiterates John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s claim that markets alone cannot guarantee environmental common goods, integral human development, or social justice (§§109, 190). This stand as a robust challenge to those who seek to marketize as many public goods or services (health care, prisons) or natural resources (land, water, tropical forests) as possible. But while this is true, it must also be acknowledged that none of the above goods could be secured without some role, sometimes a prominent one, for markets.

A third, even more far-reaching claim, is that, left to themselves, market forces are unable to generate internal limits to economic growth or nurture new definitions of growth that would reflect a more integral view of “progress” (§§191–94). Bravely swimming against the tide, Francis ventures that “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). That goal is commendable (indeed it may already have been forced on us by our own economic follies). Again, however, a closer analysis is required of what is meant by “growth” (he probably means slower rates of growth rather than negative growth), of how Western nations can be brought to such a point through the proper “statecraft” he calls for, and how, given that growth is not a global zero-sum game, that might translate into benefits for non-Western economies.

Here, Francis’s colourful attacks on a “magical conception of the market” (§190) or “deified markets” need to be supplemented by more discriminating analyses of the variety of markets that actually exist. Some are relatively open and healthily dynamic; others, deeply distorted and dangerously volatile. Among the latter, of course, are those financial markets (in the United States and United Kingdom, for example, but much less so in Canada) that facilitated reckless—and in 2008, almost catastrophic—speculation, and which still demand further reform (§189).

Francis’s passionate criticisms of economic inequality—both between developed and less developed nations, and within both—and his championing of the rights of the poor are exemplary. Yet while he does acknowledge that “business is a noble vocation” (§129), his analyses would carry greater weight if he also acknowledged that those countries with dynamic market economies—those where the rule of law facilitates entrepreneurial initiative and enforceable contracts, where markets are not excessively constrained by governments, that are open to international trade and that are weaning themselves off corporatism, clientelism, and corruption—have contributed greatly to lifting millions out of poverty over the last thirty years (albeit not without heavy costs to some). Here Francis might have seized on and developed the promising insights in, for example, Benedict XVI’s landmark 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (to which Cardus and the Center for Public Justice initiated an “evangelical” response.

The State

Francis rightly urges the need for a new politics that will be marked by three things: First, resistance to the distorting imperatives of “an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy” and the power of large corporate interests; second, far-sightedness and integral thinking; third, freedom from corruption, more transparency, and a positive seeking out of the voices of those most affected by political decisions, especially the poor (§§183, 189, 197). The latter concern rightly occasions the specific injunction that “environmental impact assessments” in which local voices are heard should be carried out before and not after an environmentally risky development or policy is adopted (§183).

The encyclical does not, however, include a dedicated discussion of the environmental role of state as such. Yet it does, explicitly or implicitly, call on states and other tiers of political authority to implement a wide range of environmental policies pursuant to the common good. Government, Francis says, has a “proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests” (§38).

Quite so. One telling example of where it is likely that public authorities will need to play a leading role is in guaranteeing clean water supplies (§30)—one of the most basic of human “common goods.” Another is the claim that political authorities “have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production.” These are often threatened by the predatory designs of large corporations who, taking advantage of economies of scale, force smallholders to sell their land and abandon traditional production methods, which are not only vital sources of employment but are also more ecologically responsible (§129).

But even in these relatively clear cases, and more so on more complex ones, difficult questions arise regarding what threshold of environmental risk or damage, or what degree of distortion by vested interests, is required to trigger a political intervention. For political authorities cannot oversee every possible environmental transgression. Once such a threshold is reached, the next question is which among the many available policy instruments—proscription, prescription, or permission; regulation or citizen empowerment; taxation or subsidy, and so on—should be deployed to address the problem in view.

While encyclicals typically disavow competence to offer detailed answers to such questions (§188), they are more helpful when they clearly signpost the overall direction of travel they want to commend. For example, Francis quite specifically criticizes carbon-trading schemes, and with good reason (§171). But then one looks for clear criteria as to why he singles out some specifics like this for blame or praise while ignoring other, equally important ones (e.g., tax perks for fossil fuel energy providers), and why on yet others (e.g., GM crops) the document remains agnostic (§134). Again, Francis is good at citing telling example of desirable concrete outcomes of policy but less assured when it comes to sketching the institutional routes by which those outcomes can be secured. Consider three further examples.

First, he eloquently addresses the acute deprivations and indignities experienced by many people living in the world’s exploding “mega-cities” (§148). He generously praises those poor urban communities that practice solidarity even while living in a “hell on earth” (§148–49). And I think he is entirely right to urge giving priority to public over private transport (§153), since crowded urban spaces are evidently common goods that mandate governmental oversight. But apart from a passing mention of “urban planning,” he offers no analysis of how the many other agencies within cities might work in complementary ways to improve urban conditions.

Second, he rightly alerts us to the chronic lack of adequate and sanitary housing in many nations, but he implies that this is first of all a matter for governments: “Lack of housing is a grave problem . . . since state budgets usually cover only a small portion of the demand” (§152 [my emphasis]). He offers no commentary on the indispensable roles of commercial property developers and nonprofit housing associations, nor of the fact that the reduction in the size of households (due, for example, to declining marriage rates or rising divorce rates) is a key factor in putting pressure on housing markets, especially in the West.

Third, Francis powerfully endorses the need for binding international environmental agreements. He rightly praises successful treaties on hazardous wastes, trade in endangered species, and the ozone layer (§168), while lamenting the lack of progress on biodiversity, desertification, deterioration of oceans, and of course climate change (Laudato Si’ has clearly been timed to influence the crucial Paris summit on climate change in December 2015). Francis’s key concerns here are efficacy (better integration and implementation of agreements), persistence (in the face of stubborn national and corporate self-interest), and, most of all, global equity. The burdens of addressing climate change should fall most heavily on those most responsible for it and not further penalize poorer nations by, for example, expecting them to pay the full costs of a transition from fossils fuels to renewable energy (§165, 170–72).

All these are compelling examples of those “global commons” for which adequate protection will require (among many other initiatives) binding and enforceable global political agreements (§173). And Francis is right that these are achievable only through determined and patient diplomacy—progress at Paris is thus of enormous importance—and through “stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions.”

But we may hesitate, however, at his more expansive calls for “one world with a common plan” and, reiterating Benedict XVI and John XXIII, for “a true world political authority” (§175). It is the singular article in these assertions that is troubling. One the one hand, if the emerging international order is to be better equipped to address pressing threats to global common goods, it will certainly need an increasingly well-coordinated array of more powerful political agencies and authorities. On the other, only by maintaining a plurality of such entities will the risk of a slide into some unwieldly and/or authoritarian world state be forestalled. The way forward can only be through dogged, long-term, incremental negotiated reforms to the existing sluggish, underperforming, and sometimes badly dysfunctional institutions of the United Nations.

The other lacuna in the document’s treatment of political authorities is that it does not sufficiently spell out how many of the eminently desirable goals on which it urges international political consensus—sustainable and diversified agriculture, renewable energy, better management of marine and forest resources, access to drinking water (§164), the elimination of poverty (§175), and more—are already being advanced, and could only ever be further realized through the primary initiatives of nongovernmental entities: enterprises (commercial and social), universities and research institutes, trade unions, households, and many more. Precisely how political authorities might collaborate with, support, regulate, constrain—or just leave alone—these entities is the key challenge for public policy. Laudably, Francis praises and endorses, more than any other pope, the campaigning and oppositional efforts of grassroots community organizations toward such goals (§§179–81, 206). He might also have given greater prominence to the indispensable role of those other institutions that will usually be the ones actually delivering the desired results.

Over to Us

The absence of adequate meso-level structural analyses of technology, markets, states, and other institutional sectors that I mentioned in the previous part of this article is somewhat puzzling, as Francis could have helped remedy the deficit merely by making better use of the existing battery of Catholic social principles. He mentions some of these briefly: as noted, he invokes the “common good,” and specifically, he cites the natural environment as “a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” (§95).

He identifies three further specific implications of the common good. One is the need to respect the “dignity of the person,” from which flow, for example, the right to life (§120) and the right to work (§§94, 124ff.), on both of which Francis has much of value to say. The second is concern for the “overall welfare of society,” including its intermediate groups (notably the family) pursuant to the principle of “subsidiarity.”

A third is the need for a “social peace” including “distributive justice.” Given current global injustices, “the principle of the common good immediately becomes . . . a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest” (§157). For God calls humanity to a “universal communion” (§89ff.), and thus to the principle of the “subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods and . . . the right of everyone to their use” (§93). Distributive justice also implies a duty of justice to future generations (§159).

But there is no sustained demonstration of how these foundational Catholic social principles might explicitly direct an architectonic analysis of the causes of the ecological crisis or point us to the remedies to it. In what I find an overly negative account, R. R. Reno may exaggerate when he claims that the document contains “no clearly articulated principles guiding analysis of the ecological and social crises precipitated by global capitalism.” But he is right to complain that it “begs for analysis in terms of the classical notions of solidarity and subsidiarity.”

Subsidiarity gets only half a paragraph. The principle, we are reminded, “grants freedom to develop the capabilities present at every level of society” (§196). Readers might miss that subsidiarity, in fact, is the reason for the strong preference in Catholic social thought for an open (if “social”) market economy over a state-dominated one. Francis then immediately warns, rightly, that the principle also demands “a greater sense of responsibility for the common good from those who wield greater power.” But what subsidiarity might further imply for a normative framework of state-business relationships in a globalizing market economy is left undeveloped.

There are also occasional references to “solidarity,” but the structural implications of this pregnant term are left unexplored—even though much of the document’s diagnosis of society is in effect an extended lament on the destruction of human solidarity. Francis cites Benedict XVI’s striking statement that “every violation of solidarity . . . harms the environment.” He then rightly adds that “social ecology is necessarily institutional [gradually extending] from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities” (§142). But he passes by the opportunity to draw on the church’s rich body of reflection on plural intermediate communities as distinctive sites of solidarity, each oriented to a particular dimension of human flourishing. Had he done so, he might have been able to outline how failures of solidarity both within and between these communities generate specific manifestations of environmental irresponsibility—agribusiness using polluting fertilizers, unions clinging on to fossil fuel employment, and so on—and how they might offer distinctive forms of ecological healing. Some of the ingredients of the latter are mentioned here and there—the educative role of the family and religious communities toward an “ecological spirituality” (§§213–14, 216ff.), and the environmentally friendly practices of small cooperatives, for instance—but they are not integrated into a larger account based on a coherent set of social principles.

There is, then, much work to do in complementing Francis’s powerful and inspiring summons to ecological conversion by supplying fuller diagnoses of the ecological crisis and more precise prescriptions for responding to it. These won’t, of course, resolve all disagreements, but they might at least enable a more focused and informed debate about the structural dimensions of the ecological challenges so passionately conveyed in his encyclical. They would, so to speak, add “torah” to “prophecy.”

Let us respond to whatever lacunae we might find in Laudato Si’ by taking up the challenges of elaborating in numerous concrete ways what the shape of an “integral ecology” would look like. The larger goal of that patient, laborious, and often unglamorous project should be the vision that Francis has himself so winsomely set before us—a world in which all creatures, accompanied by the gentle priesthood of humanity, are liberated to offer up their signature voices of praise to the Creator and their unique expressions of service to one another.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is currently Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.


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