Pope Francis is a bit like Naomi Klein in a cassock
The Guardian, by Giles Fraser
Pope Francis’s eagerly awaited encyclical, Laudato Si’, is misunderstood as just a theological echo of secular environmentalism, a churchy “count me in” with the fight against climate change. It is nothing less than a call to refigure our entire political mindset. No wonder Catholic Republicans like Jeb Bush are up in arms. It is a comprehensive counterblast against the root causes of an impending environmental catastrophe. And, as such, it means that the Roman Catholic church is now the foremost critic of capitalism. As the left fades in authority all over the world, the church has regained its voice.
This is my summary: human beings are basically big babies, driven by their desires – me, me, me; want, want, want. The job of a capitalist economy is to meet these desires without questioning them. Capitalism does not, for instance, make any moral distinction between what people want and what people actually need – between, say, PlayStations and penicillin. As far as capitalism is concerned, they all count as the same thing – choice. And capitalism is designed to maximise our choices through a rational triage system called the market. Some people win from this system, some lose. But, mathematically, more people get to realise more of their choices under this system than under any other. But the market has no view as to whether these choices are worthwhile or not. Nor whether they contribute to the common good or the long-term survival of the planet. It just seeks to maximise them.
To add to this, human desire is now given greater reach than ever through scientific and technological advance. With the increasing power of technoscience, more of the world becomes subject to human will and desire, so more wants can be realised. But again, science does not distinguish between wants and needs. For it too is largely subject to the moral agnosticism of the market. But, as the pope says, “our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest and of violence”. How is this held in check? “We cannot claim to have a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint,” he says.
In other words: who says no to the baby? Who says that what you want may not be good for you or good for others? Democracy, once thought to be a brake on the blind power of the market, has itself become a way of aggregating desire rather than challenging it. “Collective selfishness,” the pope calls it. Unchallenged, the market churns out piles of rubbish, meeting short-term wants rather than long-term needs. And the planet is transformed into a dustbin.
Economists have been generally unhelpful too. We live on a limited globe, with limited space and resources, but most popular economic models are premised on the idea of continual and unlimited growth. We borrow now to pay back later when the pie has got bigger – which is the demand we constantly make of innovation and technoscience, that it will keep growing the pie. And so, like Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, we keep on demanding more. The green word is unsustainable. The moral word is greed. The pope is a bit like Naomi Klein in a cassock.
The call in the Francis letter is simple: there is no alternative but for us to make do with less. It’s not all about recycling and carbon credits: we need to develop a proper respect for limit. Human beings are not gods. We need to value what he calls “sobriety”, a sense that there is such a thing as having enough, and finding contentment with enough. And no, this is far from a counsel of despair. There is an enormous personal freedom to be discovered in being content with not having everything. This the sort of boundless freedom reflected in the life of Saint Francis, who gave up wealth to live with nature, and from whom the pope took his name. “Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment,” he writes. Bang on. Bravo. Thank God for Pope Francis.