Pope Francis made a statement when he assumed the papacy by taking the name of Catholicism’s patron saint of the environment, St. Francis of Assisi. He now continually fulfills the legacy of his namesake by stressing the interrelationship between how we treat the planet and how we treat one another. He has bravely and consistently spoken out around the world, taking on the most entrenched interests that dominate global society, reiterating the need for a different economic model than the one in force at present, which is a model that exploits both people and planet for the fiancial enrichment of an already privileged class. He has questioned how such a system could hope to serve the needs of our times. He has emerged currently as the world’s foremost champion of Sustainable Development.
An important point must be made here. The term ‘sustainable development’ has a commonly accepted definition. But like the term ‘green’, there is no legal control of its use or misuse. Thus there has been a marked tendency in recent years for politicians, diplomats, corporations and economists to adopt the term as a way to ‘greenwash’ growth economics, which is inherently an unsustainable system *.
We are reminded of the famous quote of Lao Tzu, “Those who know do not say; Those who say do not know.” In this case, however, we will make the analogy that not all uses of the term ‘sustainable development’ are about systems and principles that are in fact sustainable. And on the other hand, not all of those who are champions of true sustainable development have choose to consistently use the term. Pope Francis is one of the latter, talking about the essence of sustainable development without using the buzz word (perhaps because he is aware that the term has been co-opted to some degree by conventional growth economics *).
One can find clear evidence of the principles and postulates of true sustainability in nearly every one of the Pope’s public addresses. Here are just a few quotes to firmly establish the point.
In October of 2014 he told a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements:
“An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands… Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”
From Pope Francis’ now famous Encyclical, entitled Laudato Si’, comes the following quotations:
“The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.”
“The technocratic paradigm tends to exert its dominance also on the economy and politics. The economy takes every technological development in function of profit, without paying attention to possible negative consequences for human beings. Finance stifles the real economy. We have not learned the lessons of the global financial crisis and very slowly one learns that about environmental deterioration. In some circles it is argued that the current economy and technology will solve all environmental problems, the same way one says, with a non-academic language, that the problems of hunger and poverty in the world will be solved simply with market growth. It is not a matter of economic theory, that perhaps no one today dares to defend, but their settlement in the factual development of the economy. Those who do not argue with the words support it with deeds, when one does not seem to worry about the right level of production, a better distribution of wealth, a responsible care for the environment or the rights of future generations. The behavior says that the goal of maximizing profits is sufficient.”
“The culture of relativism is the same disease that drives a person to take advantage of another and to treat him as a mere object, forcing him to forced labor, or reducing him to slavery due to a debt. It is the same logic that leads to sexually exploiting children, or abandoning the elderly who do not serve one’s interests. It is also the internal logic of those who say: let the invisible forces of the market govern the economy, because their effects on society and nature are unavoidable damage.”
Here the Pope gives clear voice to the intergenerational nature of sustainable development, something that is specifically cited in the current climate crisis, as the current generation of political and corporate leaders seek to squeeze ‘economic growth’ from a system they are putting out of balance for all generations to come.
In September of 2015, at the occasion of the commencement of the UN General Assembly’s summit on Sustainable Development Goals *, Pope Francis told all of the assembled diplomats and heads-of-state:
“A selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged…” and later that “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.”
Albeit Pope Francis does not use the term sustainable development at every turn. But the Pope’s message unfalteringly incorporates the very essence of sustainable development, making him one of those who know but do not necessarily say the term directly.
* – Upon close examination, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are seen by many as a kinder and gentler repackaging of growth economics.