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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Global Responsibility, Volume 6, Issue 2
A Papal encyclical is something like an open letter, in this case an open letter to the world. The Pope’s most recent encyclical has a planetary health theme, but does it constitute global responsibility? It certainly examines issues around biodiversity, global warming and technology.
The letter will not be appreciated by disciples of growth, because its strongest rhetorical power is focused on a criticism of consumerism and a call to reduce the amount we consume:
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.
At times the argument appears to be influenced by Ecological Economics, which insists that the economy ought to be harnessed to serve the environment rather than the reverse.
Another key secular and disciplinary influence seems to be systems theory, as much is made of the interconnectedness of all things and in particular the interconnectedness of humanity and natural systems:
I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human meaning of ecology, the need for forthright and honest debate, the serious responsibility of international and local policy, the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle. These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again.
The arguments are also buttressed by biblical interpretation. The idea taken from Genesis (especially popular during the industrial revolution) that mankind was given the earth to dominate and subdue it is reframed in a contemporary way:
[…] we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.
The Pope argues that our industrial progress has contributed to a dangerous level of hubris. Our creation of technology has encouraged us in the belief that we are almost limitless in our powers. He uses the term “anthropocentrism” by which he means the belief that everything exists for our own sake and is to be used for our own gratification:
Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.
The language in the encyclical is at times apocalyptic. It is uncomfortable with capitalism and will make capitalists who are also concerned with global issues bristle. Technology and economics are helping us to address climate change. Calls for “slowing down” would also mean a slowdown to existing mechanisms for reducing poverty.
While the framing of the encyclical is a global concern, the encyclical cannot be said to be fully fledged global responsibility until it deals with the other great global concern: population. One way to reduce consumption to sustainable levels would be to manage population. This discussion is absent from the encyclical. However, in fairness, raising the issue of population would elevate the encyclical from bravery to valour, and medals for valour are often awarded posthumously.
The significance of the encyclical is not the breaking of new ground, but rather that an important message is coming from a high status source. Such a message has power and will reach elements of the population previously unchallenged by reality. It gives permission to question the existing state of play. It challenges conservative Catholics in senior positions who are, for example, climate change sceptics. It also provides Catholics with a role model for critical and dissenting discussion.
Editor in Chief, School of Business, Australian Catholic University, Sydney, Australia