All the evidence suggests that we have been very slow to respond to the demands of an impending global climate disaster and seek ‘environmental sustainability’, in spite of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. It is suggested that we take proposals for a ‘Green New Deal’ seriously and that current responses to the coronavirus pandemic have provided evidence of the needed solidarity and concern for the common good, if we are to prevent an ecological disaster.
Like most people I am aware that a concern for the issue of ‘environmental sustainability’ was a long time in coming even though I had read some of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s. The CBCEW in seeking understanding of the ‘signs of the times’ in 2003-4 had asked for ‘ecological conversion’ because ‘man is no longer the Creator’s “steward” but an autonomous despot.’ Al Gore had warned us of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Sean McDonagh, who led a day of recollection in my parish, had passionately called for a new concern ‘to care for the earth’ as the Creator God’s gift to humankind. Pope John-Paul II called for a ‘new solidarity’ and an authentic ‘human ecology’. But both Vatican II documents and papal statements tended to articulate a notion of ‘domination’ and only recently has this shifted towards ‘stewardship’.
It was Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015 which significantly raised awareness in the Church that we were heading for a global ‘ecological catastrophe’. He offered a comprehensive review of the ‘rapidification’ of life and work, atmospheric pollutants, the ‘throwaway culture’, climate warming, deforestation, rising sea levels, the urgent need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, the ‘depletion of natural resources’, the privatisation of water, uncontrolled fishing, the prioritisation of the economic interests of transnational corporations and a ‘deified market’, the ‘silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion’ and the consequences of extreme consumerism. But sadly, there was the ‘globalisation of indifference’ and an inadequacy of leadership and a weak culture to confront this crisis.
In seeking an appropriate response, he stresses that God saw His Creation as ‘very good’. He insists there is ‘no place for a tyrannised anthropocentrism’ and rejects ‘the modern myth of unlimited material progress.’ The assumption that ‘might is right’ has generated immense inequality and is at odds with the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity, peace and the common good proposed by Jesus. He insists that there is a need for intergenerational solidarity which requires ‘decisive action, here and now’. This leads him to suggest five major paths of dialogue. Firstly, politics and business need to recognise that global ‘interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan’. Secondly, there needs to be dialogue in national and local politics to transcend ‘the mind set of short-term gain’. Thirdly, there needs to be ‘transparency in decision-making’ and an end to the ‘culture of consumerism’. Fourthly he challenges ‘the absolute power of a financial system’ and politics and business need to be in ‘dialogue for human fulfillment’. Fifthly, the pope advocated dialogue between religion and sciences in seeking the common good.
Five years have passed since the publication of Laudato Si’. My awareness of the threat of climate change and ecological catastrophe was raised when a book review led me to read Ann Pettifor’s The Case for a Green New Deal which responded to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which had urged a ‘clear and trenchant call for action in 2018’. Our awareness of the reality of the impending ecological disaster was recently raised by the raging bush fires in the Amazon and Australia and also by television programmes such as those produced by David Attenborough showing the impact of agricultural and industrial exploitation in recent decades. A particularly striking one showed photographs taken from space over the past thirty years or so. As a result of these I recently attended a meeting of a local Environmental Forum and this revealed an unexpected amount of community and local authority attempts to respond to the challenges posed by climate change. It also introduced two members of the Extinction Rebellion from a local school, a reminder that it is our children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of our lack of concern and response to the ecological crisis.
A useful summary of exactly what this crisis is can be found in an article by William Ripple et al in Bioscience, January 2020 which opens by declaring that ‘scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat… On the basis of this obligation’ and 29 graphical indicators given in the paper, ‘they declare with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world (apparently from 153 nations) … clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.’ They proceed to warn that ‘profoundly troubling signs from human activities include sustained increases in both human and ruminant livestock populations, per capita meat production, world gross domestic product, global tree-cover loss, fossil fuel consumption, the number of air passengers carried, carbon dioxide (CO²) emissions… Consumption of solar and wind energy has increased… but in 2018 it was still 28 times smaller than fossil fuel consumption.’
The authors note that despite four decades of global climate negotiations we ‘have largely failed to address this predicament… (which) is accelerating faster than most scientists expected… threatening ecosystems and the fate of humanity (IPCC, 2019)’. Six important steps are recommended including replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables, curtailing biodiversity loss and protecting the remaining forests, eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products, shifting our concern with GDP growth towards ‘sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality’, and stabilizing the world population. They conclude by urging a prompt response to their warning ‘and to act to sustain life on our planet Earth, our only home.’
So how do we respond to this challenge? Drawing on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, Pettifor advocated a Green New Deal (GND) with systemic change transforming our world and its powerful financial and political systems. Other examples of major systemic change include the railways project in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, the US electrification project in the mid-1930s, the post-war Marshall Plan, Kennedy’s plan to fly to the moon in the 1960s, and indeed the current global response to the coronavirus pandemic. How good it was to hear Boris Johnson reject the Thatcherite denial of society with his affirmation of the national coming together in solidarity in pursuit of the common good.
Ann Pettifor suggests that both the UK and USA versions of the GND economy would be built on seven key principles: a steady state economy which will not exceed ecological boundaries; limited needs, not limitless wants; self-sufficiency within an international framework of cooperation and coordination with the help of wealth transfers to poor countries; a mixed market economy; a labour-intensive economy; monetary and fiscal coordination for a steady state economy, reversing ‘neoliberalism’s elevation of monetary policy over fiscal policy’; and abandoning illusions of infinite expansion. The GND must promote the need for radical structural change across all sectors and at both national and international levels. It demands ‘an end to the toxic ideology and institutions of capitalism, based on extreme individualism, greed, consumption and competition’ and rather aims to ‘build an economy based on social and economic justice …that celebrates the altruism, cooperation and collective responsibility that is a characteristic of human nature.’
I suggest that the public response to the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that structural changes are possible and that a GND would satisfy the major demands of Catholic social thought about the dignity of every human being, solidarity and the common good of all. As the charismatic and prophetic Greta Thunberg has insisted, we all need to respond and ‘act like your house is on fire, because it is!’
Michael P. Hornsby-Smith
Michael Hornsby-Smith is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey and the author of An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought, Cambridge University Press, 2006.