Tag Archives: consumerism

Laudato Si – first thoughts

Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’  has been on the horizon for some time. Environmentalists, knowing his interest in the theme, have been looking forward to it. Some opponents have taken a pre-emptive strike against it, suggesting the Pope should stay out of politics. For instance, Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said:

I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.

It even got an (unofficial) movie-style trailer – rather ironically, given the comments on culture in the encyclical. But what does it say, and will it make a difference in human attitudes towards our environment, particularly in the lead-up to the Paris conference this winter? It is a long document (about 100 pages) and it’s only possible here to give a flavour of the main ideas: I plan to be writing more extensively about it and put it in its wider contexts through the autumn. (For now, I have a follow-up piece planned comparing it with Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), which Francis cites, and will also be posting a list of some of the other commentary on the encyclical which I’ve found helpful – or hope to when I find time to read it all!)

What, at root, is it about? This question is not as obvious as it might seem. Through the encyclical, Francis revisits a number of themes from different perspectives. Questions are not “dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again” [para. 16]. While this might appear as rambling, the journey has a purpose and helps us dig down into what is really going on. Compare two sections from the beginning and end:

We have come to see ourselves as [Mother Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, the water, in the air and in all forms of life. [2]

… it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values…. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong. [224]

Much of the first half of the encyclical does deal directly with climate and creation issues: chapter 1 [17-42] contains a recap of the familiar science of pollution, climate change, water and biodiversity. And chapter 2 starts [62-92] with a theological treatise on creation, which “can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” [76].

But even here, there are other issues waiting to come out. One of them is the role of science and faith. Unusually for an encyclical, this is addressed not just to the Catholic Church, but is a desire for “dialogue with all people about our common home”[3, emphasis mine]. This desire is genuine: “the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”[61] But with this comes a strong appeal that faith and spirituality has an important part to play [62-63] and that a purely scientific/technological response must necessarily be inadequate:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.[111]

This leads us into the first of two major anthropological and sociological problems which face us. Our mastery of science and technology has given us an “impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” [104], which has had numerous positive effects [102-103], but “nothing ensures that it will be used wisely” [104, emphasis mine]. A strong case can be made that our maturity as a species has not kept pace in other regards: “we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” [105] Similarly “the same ingenuity which has brought about enormous technological progress has so far proved incapable of finding effective ways of dealing with grave environmental and social problems worldwide”.[164]

Even worse, we have been sucked into this “technocratic paradigm” in which technological advances are necessarily good, our purpose and culture is mediated through electronic communications rather than human relations, and in which everything possible should be mechanised, even if people are deprived of meaningful work as a result [106-110, 115-128]. Along with this comes a dominant globalised economic model based upon the false notions of unlimited growth and resources. [106,109]

The area of economics is perhaps one where the encyclical could perhaps have benefited from further argument. It was surprising to read that “scarcely anyone dares defend” purely market-driven economics.[109] Bjorn Lomborg has done just that, and a further, predictable, critique came from an Acton Institute spokesman, who accused the Pope of having a blind spot when it came to market economics. The Pope, however, is doing nothing new here: the Catholic Church has long taught that owners of private property have the responsibility to use it for the social good, and Francis quotes his predecessor John Paul II (who was no socialist!)[93]. Nevertheless, sections of mainstream economics provide a weightier foe than Pope Francis seems to have allowed for.

The second anthropological crisis is fuelled partly both by technocratism and our economics: it is one of “modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)”[210] Or alternatively, a “relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests”. [122] With such a mindset, we are happy – provided our own financial desires are met – for the “invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage”. We care little for the poor, those in the future, cultures or social structures [143-146] or indeed nature. “The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised”[115] – together with everything in it. Our failure to care for creation and each other are linked.

It is not even as though we as individuals in rich countries are necessarily benefitting.

…people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere…. Our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalised technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. [113]

… although I think many are sufficiently acculturated not to discern this malaise, at least consciously.

A consequence of all this is that any real conception of creation (or anything else for that matter) as common good is lost, whereas we should be thinking instead of extending the notion of common good to future generations also [159]. In our utilitarian, isolationist world, the question of “what kind of world … we want to leave to those who come after us”[160] is alien.

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes ‘a seedbed for collective selfishness’. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume…. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.[204]

But, as one might expect, in Pope Francis’s wider setting, this question alone is insufficient:

When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values…. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the world have of us? [160]

So how do we address such questions and what answers might we find? Francis is clear that our reflections need to be both deep and decisive: “The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.” [161] It is clear that he will be using his influence on all he meets in the leadup to the Paris climate talks.

But that is only one front on which we need to take action. In the final two chapters, a number of avenues are proposed. The most significant, or at least the most general, is the promotion of dialogue between groups and sectors currently separated from each other: rich world and poor world, national and local politics, economics and other spheres, science and religion, one faith and another, and different sectors of the environmental movement. All need to collaborate to devise an integral ecology (in the widest sense of the term) and “a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.”[196]

A second strand is the need for better governance: what has been lacking for the climate are enforceable international agreements, and we need “agreements on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons”[174] with clear transparent decision-making in all relevant areas [182-188]. Better governance is also needed in poorer countries where corruption and high levels of inequality have led both to great environmental damage and the failure to bring many out of poverty.[172]

Part of this has to be the need to reform both economics and our notion or progress to become once again the servant of humanity’s common good rather than the master.

Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. [194]

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. [195]

For this reason, Francis is sceptical of some of the proposed market-based solutions to environmental problems, such as carbon trading and putting a price on nature.

Finally, we need to foster a new heart both individually and socially, educating people towards a new lifestyle. Understandably, Francis describes this in terms of Christian belief and heritage, but most of the concepts fit into an idea of general morality. A few quotations give the flavour:

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. [229]

An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us. [225]

… love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value…. Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. [231]

Creatures tend towards God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment. [240]

Plenty of more abstract ideals there, but some practical ideas are interwoven in, notably thoughts on ways to improve urban planning. However, as has been said, the purpose of the encyclical is more to promote dialogue and encourage people towards accepting ideas already out there than to provide a grand plan for the future of humanity.

I hope that this (rather long) summary gives you a good feel for what is in the encyclical, but do encourage all to read it for themselves and join Francis on the journey. It is written in generally accessible language with only a minimum of Catholic jargon.

Returning finally to Jeb Bush who thinks “religion ought to be about making us better as people”. Unintentional, I’m sure, but that’s probably the best one-line summary of the encyclical you’re going to get, so please read it again, Jeb!




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Intellectual consumerism – Joanne Poyourow

(Colin Bell)

Joanne Poyourow has some interesting thoughts up at the Transition US blog, proposing the concept of ‘intellectual consumerism’. Do some people turn up to Transition and other meetings merely to sate themselves with knowledge, but never put it into practice? She sees it at least partly as a psychological issue – gaining this knowledge becomes a proxy for taking action in a way you feel either inadequate or unable to take. But it also forms an aspect of the same addictive cultural behaviour that leads us to physical consumption. She goes on to propose some helpful practical ways to get people to engage more.

I’m broadly with her in all of this, but would add a couple of other observations as well.

One is the issue of time and community. Turning up to Transition meetings takes time, which conflicts with time that could be spent doing something sustainable (say, gardening as opposed to buying vegetables at the supermarket). Obviously there’s a balance to be drawn. A complicating factor is that Transition is a community, not just informational, and you need to turn up with some regularity to be part of it. Or you feel – with justification – that you want to support events that your friends are organising. So I wouldn’t be quite as cynical about some of these people as Joanne is suggesting.

The second, of course, is that the same factors apply much more widely. Churches see similar behaviour, with an increased attitude of “what can I get out of it?” and a distinct subculture of people who become obsessed with theology, Christian books, particular preachers and the like.

Probably these don’t help in addressing it, except insofar if the culture starts to shift back, it will improve in all respects. In the meantime, as an information junky, I definitely need to hear Joanne’s warnings!


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“Consumer Detox”

(Colin Bell)

I’ve been reading “Consumer Detox” by Mark Powley of the Breathe Network, a Christian network for simpler living (less consumerist and more sustainable). This is the “book of the movement”: a manifesto for a more fulfilling life. Mark describes his own journey towards his goal:

I want to know how to live within the system but without it dominating my life.[23]

He is honest about his own struggles, and seems to get the balance about right between encouragement and challenge, being aware from his own experience of the paralysis that can be induced by guilt or uncertainty what to do. The approach is helped by explicitly avoiding trying to apportion blame for the problems of today’s society, or discussion of how it could be changed. The book also stops short of advocacy: the reader is assumed to see certain things as problems.
The focus is purely on what we can do to benefit ourselves and others, although there are hints as to the wider possible effects in terms like “a love that infects and transforms the system, renewing it from within”.

Though there are many interesting side-issues explored, the main thrust of the argument is that we have a choice between two identities. The first is a consumerist, materialist one where we aim to maximise ourselves by our possessions and achievements, never being satisfied, or really having time to appreciate what we have.

The consuming passion of our culture jars with the ultimate rhythm of life. It’s trying to record an orchestra symphony while Jonny the hyperactive child is messing around on the symbols…. No wonder consumerism damages our health, our communities and our environment – it is in near total contradiction with the grace that animates the universe. [201]

The alternative is to see our identity as people who matter because God made us, and our possessions, time and other people as having value for the same reason. Almost all of us (taking the target audience as the UK) are vastly richer in material than almost everyone else in history and we should take time to appreciate those blessings, and to be generous in sharing them with others, as God blesses us. The last section of the book, together with the questions in the “Detox Diary” provoke us to consider how to apply these in our lives.

As the last paragraph suggests, the book is written from an explicitly Christian perspective, presumably partly with the intention of rooting it in the way a Christian sees (or perhaps should see) the world and making it more accessible and effective to that audience. But also, of course, that it is a deeply personal book and issue and could not be written divorced from such an integral part of the author’s life. This makes it very recommendable to Christians who are in any way sympathetic to the message.

However, those coming from any other faith or worldview are likely to be put off, particularly as the book comes close to asserting that there is no meaning to life outside the Christian faith. Writing a similar book of this sort appealing to “whatever gives you meaning” would be difficult to carry off without excessive vagueness, so perhaps the task is for multiple people to take the approach and produce similar resources applicable to different groups in our society.

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