Monday, 22 June 2015

Three errors in Laudato Si' - and why it's ideas are bad for the poor

Goit Stock - a bit of that wonderful nature we love
All the pomp, power and might of the Catholic Church has been used to promote a social and economic agenda centred on an environmentalism that is sweetly bucolic and profoundly anti-development. I'm not qualified to comment on the theology in the latest Papal Enclyclical letter - Laudato Si' on "care for our common home"  - but it steps beyond that theology when it addresses matters of demonstrable fact. The Pope, and the Church he leads, promotes ideas are not in the interests of the poor nor especially helpful in addressing the challenges of a changing environment.

Before we look at three errors in Laudato Si', let's remember that, at the heart of the matter is the idea of 'climate change'. This is not - whatever its advocates want to tell us - settled science. There is enough challenge to the basic 'greenhouse' argument of climate change's causes to merit scepticism. And there is sufficient inconsistency in the empirical record for doubt to be a valid response to the doomladen predictions of some who believe in both climate change itself and also in the idea that man's actions are causing that climate change. These statements aren't a 'denial' of climate change but rather an honest reflection on the debate as seen by one curious layman. We should recall, moreover, that the Catholic Church is not (and would not claim to be) a scientific institution so, in the matter of climate science and environmentalism, is no better qualified to express opinion than I am. Nevertheless, the jury is out on climate change and there remains a very strong case, given this, for preparedness in the face of its possible effects.

My concern doesn't lie, therefore, with the Catholic Church's diagnosis (although I might take issue with some of this) but rather with the consequences of the anti-growth programmes that are more-or-less explicitly endorsed in Laudato Si'.

Pope Francis begins his Encyclical with St Francis of Assisi:

He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

Anyone brought up in the Catholic tradition will know of St Francis's love for the natural world, his rejection of earthly wealth in favour of simplicity and his concern for the poor. So this Saint perhaps represents the ideal patron for an encyclical about the natural world - 'our common home' as the Pope describes it. The idea of stewardship - this is the only world we've got let's not ruin it for our children - flows beautifully from St Francis's preaching to the birds and flowers.

The problem I have is that the Pope, for all his unquestioned concern for the poor and excluded, fails to see that his environmentalism is largely against the interests of those poor people in that it wants to reduce growth in the world's economy so as to better preserve the resources of the Earth. In the developed world there might be a case for less growth (and this is exactly what we have today, largely accompanied by cries about 'austerity') but the idea that less growth is in the interest of the poor - whether in Buenos Aires' slums or the Sahel's isolated farms - is quite simply wrong.

Let us look at three of the Pope's errors in this regard:

Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating.

The error here isn't in the concern about pollution or even that this pollution disproportionately affects the world's poor but rather in the assumption that a developed economy is more polluting that a less developed economy. Using the example of fuel for cooking and heating we can observe that most of us living in developed economies do not breathe in choking, carcinogenic fumes every day from the simple process of feeding and warming ourselves (other than from a barbeque in the garden). This is not true in the poorer parts of the world contributing to over a million deaths a year from respiratory diseases. Even worse the use of 'biomass' for fuel is not very sustainable - something the Pope recognises when talking about paper:

We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.

And - for Europe and the USA at least - the Pope is wrong about paper recycling since over 70% of paper in Europe is recycled and around two-thirds in the USA. Perhaps we could do still better but we should also remember that:

Paper is made from a natural renewable resource, wood, which has the capacity to be produced in an endless cycle. To safeguard this cycle, our forests have to be managed and harvested in a sustainable manner.

The European paper industry, whilst producing approximately 30% of the world's paper, is a responsible guardian of European forests, 33% more new trees grow in Europe than are harvested each year. According to the UN FAO, forest cover in Europe has increased by 30% since 1950. The 6,450 km² annual increase of European forest cover corresponds to a daily increase the size of 4,363 football pitches.

Deforestation is not about paper but rather about either the gathering of biomass for fuel, the clearing of land for agriculture or the replacement of forest diversity with non-food monoculture. For the first of these switching to cleaner fuels (and almost every other fuel is cleaner than burning wood on a fire) represents the right solution and the others require governments to change their attitude to unsustainable subsistence farming methods and the use of productive land to grow biofuels rather than food.

The Pope's next target is water:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.

Here we see the first example in Laudato Si' of the Pope's anti-market message - a message that rather condemns to poor to poverty rather than offering them a route from out of that poverty. As you drive up the M1 from Nottingham to Sheffield you pass Severn Trent Water's treatment plant at Church Wilne attached to which are large signs proclaiming "30 glasses for less than 1p" - this is the reality of a market-led and privatised water system: clean, fresh water delivered by pipe to a tap in your kitchen at less than a penny a gallon. Even better, that penny-a-gallon includes collecting all the waste water, cleaning it up and recycling it!

The contrast - in places where water is either owned in common or owned by the state -  is like this:

Every day millions of people in Africa, usually women and girls, walk miles to have access to any water at all. The length of time it takes to collect the little water they can get means that they do not have time to do anything else during the day. Children do not get the chance to have an education simply because they are too busy collecting water.

To make matters worse, the only water they have access to is from streams and ponds. That water is usually full of diseases and makes themselves and their families very sick. Adults face the decision on a daily basis between dehydration and sickness from the water they drink. Even worse, they have to face this decision for their children.

We give money so charities can install wells with a safe supply, drill boreholes and improve sanitation in urban slums. But the long term solution is the same solution we had in the UK - having the resources to build the systems that deliver water to homes, build treatment systems and ensure quality. This came about because of foresight in investment (often by local authorities) and the ability of people to pay for that water supply. It may be a 'universal human right' to have water but it's a right that's better served in the capitalist world where businesses charge us for supplying clean water than in places where such businesses don't exist.

After pollution and water, the Pope promotes his third error when he speaks of cities:

Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

We see in this observation the understandable reaction to the unsanitary, chaotic, mish-mash that is the developing world slum - self-built shacks precariously perched on hillsides, mud and waste mixed together in the tiny passages between the rows of these shacks, and thousands of people crammed into the tiniest of spaces looking out onto the shinier, cleaner and richer parts of that city. It is a painful sight to anyone who cares for the poor.

Yet people have chosen that life over another life - they have crammed themselves into these places because they think it will be better than the subsistence farm up-country where they were brought up. And cities - by virtue of their very concentration - use fewer resources than dispersed agricultural communities:

For many nations, rapid urban change over the last 50 years is associated with the achievement of independence and the removal of colonial controls on people's right to move in response to changing economic opportunities. The concentration of population in urban areas greatly reduces the unit costs of providing good quality water supplies and good quality provision for sanitation, health care, schools and other services. It also provides more possibilities for their full involvement in government. And, perhaps surprisingly, urban areas can also provide many environmental advantages including less resource use, less waste and lower levels of greenhouse gases.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about the spread of disease, the safety of buildings, the exploitation of children and the provision of education but it does mean the Pope is wrong to suggest that the urbanisation of the past two centuries "has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life". Leaving aside the sort of rejectionist bucolic dream of Thoreau (and generations of hippies since), there is no aspect of life's quality that isn't better today for the mass of humanity than was the case at almost any point in the past two centuries. And for all that wealthy westerners now dream of a rural idyll (albeit with every mod con from running water and sewage through gas and electricity to the now essential broadband) the truth is that the city, despite its crowding and chaos, is an essential element in allowing that better life.

Others (better qualified than I am) will have noted that the Pope's anti-consumption, anti-markets, anti-capitalist message - for all its compatibility with a man who took St Francis of Assisi as his guide - really does the poor no favours. We know (but need reminding time and time again) that the impact of neoliberal ideas on the world has seen the fastest decline in poverty in mankind's history - far from capitalism (for all its sins) being the problem, it is a great deal of the solution.

As so often with these grand proposals, a detailed analysis reveals them to lack the foundations needed to deliver - they are, as the parable goes, built on sand. The Pope, in setting out his Church's 'social teaching', has made too many errors of fact.

It is welcome - it is always welcome - that people, whether religious leaders or not, step back and remind us of our duty to the poorest in our world. And it is right too that we are reminded about the need to conserve and preserve the only planet we've got. But it is not right to so conflate these two concerns that the result is a 'social teaching' that neither serves the interests of the poor nor addresses the imperative of environmental stewardship. The poor stay in poverty, trapped in a back-breaking, hand-to-mouth existence that both fails them and destroys the planet's resources, while the poor old planet gets an endless round of international meetings combined with an almost childish rejection of the very market mechanisms that can both 'save the planet' and also lift the poor from out of that poverty the pope so rightly condemns.

I don't doubt that Pope Francis cares deeply for the poor but I'm afraid he is another victim of sentiment's triumph over evidence. It seems wrong that some have great wealth while other starve and it suits the sentimentalist narrative for that ownership of wealth to somehow be the cause of others' poverty. But it ain't so and it would be more exciting if, instead of simply hugging the poor, Pope Francis had sent the world the message that neoliberalism, market capitalism, property rights and freedom are the central elements in both eliminating poverty and saving the planet.


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