Don’t just think of profits; think of long-term environmental implications

In Chapter Five of Laudato Si describing lines of approach and action to counter environmental degradation, the Bishop of Rome calls on us to take a more long-term approach to addressing environmental issues.

Jul 31, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
In Chapter Five of Laudato Si describing lines of approach and action to counter environmental degradation, the Bishop of Rome calls on us to take a more long-term approach to addressing environmental issues.

The world, he says, is interdependent, so we have to come up with a common plan for humanity, which in turn requires a global consensus. We need to plan for sustainable and diversified agriculture, renewable and less polluting forms of energy, a more efficient use of energy, better management of marine and forest resources and universal access to drinking water.

Fossil-fuel technology based on oil, and even on gas, needs to be quickly replaced with renewable energy.

It is encouraging that the ecological movement has made advances, culminating in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The summit called for international cooperation to protect the global ecosystem, obliged polluters to assume the costs, and made it a duty to assess the environmental impact of any new project. It also aimed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then, advances have been made in controlling hazardous wastes, blocking the trade of endangered species and protecting the ozone layer. But on the whole, the Rio accords have been poorly implemented, especially in the protection of biodiversity and the curbing of desertification.

A big part of the problem is that some countries place their nationl interests above the global common good. Poorer countries too may not be able to cope with the environmental commitments required and may need assistance. These countries need to focus on eliminating extreme poverty and promoting social development. They also have to tackle scandalous levels of consumption among their elites and combat rampant corruption.

The Bishops of Bolivia have argued that “the countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialisation, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused”.

The buying and selling of “carbon credits” may seem to provide a quick, easy solution but it may be a ploy that allows developed countries to maintain their excessive consumption.

Francis says we need stronger, more efficiently organised international institutions to regulate the increasingly transnational nature of the global economy characterised by powerful global banks and transnational corporations. At the same time, we need to eliminate both pollution and global poverty. (But, I should add, we should be careful that such institutions don't themselves get infiltrated by vested corporate interests pushing the agenda of Big Business.)

The reality of power politics, even in Malaysia, is that it thinks of only short-term considerations, with the next general elections in mind. This short-term mindset delays the inclusion of “a far-sighted environmental agenda”. True statecraft, on the other hand, requires that “in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good”, asserts Francis.

Other groups have a role to play. Cooperatives can take on renewable energy projects and create energy self-sufficiency for their communities. NGOs “must put pressue on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls”.

A lot needs to be done to conserve energy. At the local level, we also need to modify consumption patterns, develop sustainable waste disposal and recycling, protect certain species, plan for diversified agriculture and promote crop rotation. “New forms of cooperation and community organisation can be encouraged in order to defend the interests of small producers and preserve local ecosystems from destruction.”

Healthy politics is needed to reform and coordinate institutions, promote best practices and overcome bureaucratic inertia.

As for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for new projects, we have seen how their outcomes tend to be a foregone conclusion, often with little participation of local communities. Francis takes issue with this approach:

“EIA should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition... 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.” EIAs 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. “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.”

Decisions should be made “based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives” to the project. Questions need to be asked: “What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how?” In case of lack of scientific certainty about the impact, the precautionary principle should apply to protect the most vulnerable, and the project should be halted or modified.

Certainly, the maximisation of profit cannot be the sole criterion. “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.”

This does not mean we are “anti-development”. “If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable.” We have to be open to other possibilities that do not stifle human creativity and its ideals of progress, and direct our energy along new channels.

“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,” says Francis. Technological and economic development that does not result in a better world with an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress, he points out.

At the same time, we should be wary of talk of “sustainable growth” which usually becomes “a way of distracting attention and offering excuses”. It coopts the language and values of ecology into the fields of finance and technocracy. Corporate social and environmental responsibility then gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures.

Francis lambasts “the mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment”. This, he says, is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion of the most vulnerable members of society. What we need is “a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach” while regulating business groups who act as if they are exempt from certain rules.

We cannot rely on technology or science alone. Believers must live up to their faith convictions and not contradict them with their actions. They must be open to God's grace and draw upon the convictions about love, justice and peace.

Religions, too, need to dialogue among themselves to protect nature, and build networks of respect and fraternity. Dialogue among the various sciences is needed as well, as is dialogue between the various ecological movements.

Francis concludes that the gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity.

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