Fri | Sep 21, 2018

The Pope talks sustainability

Published:Friday | June 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM

One way of looking at history is to see it as a succession of competing moral systems. Such competition takes place both between and within religious systems. Even those who advocate secularism have an ethical world view they wish the rest of humanity to adopt.

In our scientific age that respects logic, it is interesting that both the natural and the social sciences claim to be value-free, yet both adhere to a code of ethics in research methodology; and both invest the term 'development' with positive moral character.

The search for meaning to life cannot be answered by science, which asks what, how, when and where, but has no methodology to answer the question 'Why?', which completes the quest for truth.

No better synthesis may be found than the encyclical letter Laudato Si, released just a week ago by Pope Francis. Analyses and critiques of it have already appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Times of India, and elsewhere in the global press, but the Jamaican media declined even to carry the press release issued by the local Catholic Church. We are so closed in so many ways.

One of the most striking responses to the encyclical has come from US Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush (who happens to be a new convert to Catholicism): "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my Pope," he proclaimed. Maybe he should. Catholic social teaching is replete with economic and social policy analysis integrated with theological and philosophical wisdom.

Laudato Si is a long document, but an easy read. I am not yet finished, but I can already discern that it will be a truly great and game-changing reflection and guide for Catholics and for the world.

Concerned that the idea of development was being captured by economists, and limited to growth in per-capita gross domestic product, Pope Paul VI, in his 1967 encyclical, On the Development of Peoples, asserted: "Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete, integral; that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man."

For human development to be authentic, the whole of his person - and not just the material or physical part of his existence - must be developed. There is more to life than economics, and authentic human development must advance the human person culturally, intellectually, and spiritually. That is why authentic human development is 'integral development' - of the whole man.


development 'for all'


And authentic human development must be for all men. As we observe global trends and our local situation, we notice that inequality is increasing. A society in which inequality is increasing is a sinful society, and an unstable society. Even the World Bank has warned that economic inequality is a major threat to world stability.

In Laudato Si, what Pope Francis has done is build on the social teaching of his predecessors. He conducts a critique of industrial society that applies as much to capitalism as to socialism or communism. He embraces the concept of sustainable development, and now speaks of "sustainable and integral development".

He explains sustainability using examples from science; and I must here point out that (like myself), Pope Francis is, by academic training, a scientist, as well as a theologian. He points out (in Paragraph 22) that "the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesise nutrients, which feed herbivores; these, in turn, become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste that give rise to new generations of plants".

Plants and animals operate a system where there is no waste: the output of one is the input of the other, and this natural system is (and has been) sustainable in the long term.

But our industrial production cycle is unsustainable at both ends; raw materials (mostly non-renewable), including energy, are converted into manufactured goods - plus waste, which we now have to dispose of. Pope Francis characterises our lifestyle as a "throwaway culture", which "reduces things to rubbish".

What is morally wrong is that we have developed a perverse relationship with created things, which only have value if humans need them; otherwise, they have no value, and may be discarded.

(More next week).

- Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to