by Manlio Masucci, 17 June 2015
“Pope Francis has shown all of humanity that being truly human means giving up the arrogance of being masters and owners of nature and diverse species
Most importantly he has shown that ecological sustainability and social justice are inseparable”
Dr Vandana Shiva
We need a new paradigm based on a new relationship between science and humanity where the role played by the great economic powers is examined and where the role and values of small farmers and their cultures is recognized. We need a new ecological approach to save the planet and its inhabitants from the effects of an economic system dominated by finance aimed at maximum profit which pays no heed to environmental damage, social and cultural rights in its daily deals. This comes not from an “NGO in arms” or “extremists” but Pope Francis, who has decided to devote his last encyclical on environmental issues focusing on the link between the tyranny of capital, the irresponsible use of natural resources, and is environmental and social impacts.
Science becomes, in this reading, a tool in the hands of the great economic powers which increasingly assert their dominion over creation at the expense of the majority of the population and deprives them of their rights to a healthy life and decent work. An issue that affects all mankind because the planet, its riches, are common goods to be protected and preserved for future generations. A fundamental concept but too often forgotten, summarized in the title of the encyclical which refers precisely to the “care of our common home”. The encyclical is published at a time when the debate on sustainability and the future of humanity has steadily gained attention of the public, which by now are aware of the damage caused by an economic system modeled on the interests of the big multinational companies.
And it is by the evidence of unsustainability of the current economic model and the need for change, that Francis begins his reasoning stressing the serious conditions in which our mother Earth is: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her . We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will”. And as a result of this bitter realization that the Pope launched his appeal: “The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change”.
The change needed is therefore possible but what is needed is a new awareness of the problems which affect all the people of the common home. A process initiated by environmental movements despite all odds: “The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest”. A commendable effort, according to Francis, who recognizes the valuable work done by those who have fought so far the social and environmental degradation, “Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest.
Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded”.
And thus we must begin with the knowledge that the foundations of change have already been laid. The time, according to the Pontiff, is ripe: “Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet”.
A legitimate concern due to a number of factors that continue to harm “our common home”. Pope Bergoglio lists a number of issues including pollution “caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general”. It is, in many cases, of harmful substances released to the environment apparently to solve problems but which actually fail their objective contributing to the environmental emergency. The technology fails, without a vision of wide-ranging and long-term, in its aim to contribute to the welfare of human beings: “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others”. A short-sighted approach also applied to the exploitation of resources: “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production”. The result of this system of exploitation is irresponsible, primarily, the loss of biodiversity: “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential resources to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever”.
Although the pope does not give the GMO a negative role regardless, given that “the risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application”, there is no doubt that the spread of GMOs is behaving huge problems: “Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated. In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production. The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas. The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future. In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers”.
The economic system has, however, triggered a vicious circle, from which you need to go out with determination: “Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful”.
Harmful effects on the environment that can not be isolated from what is happening in the rest of society: “In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked”. Then there is a correlation between what happens to the Earth and the human condition, being an integral part of it, damaged in equal measure. And why the ecological discourse is linked necessarily to the social discourse: “Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.
Earth is on the other hand data to be exploited for the purpose of the profits but must be functional to the welfare of all human beings as “the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone” and ” if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all”. In this context the rights of the great economic powers are to falter in front of the very concept of the commons: “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.
The objective of the change should therefore be to put the Earth and human dignity at the center of the political agenda. A dignity that can only be ensured through work. From this point of view, the system seems to go in another direction: “Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves”.
A race to the bottom that should be stopped thinking about a system that focuses on human health and the environment: “In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of smallscale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops”.
Politics is then called upon to do its part, in the interests of the people and against the interests of part: “Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power”.