Pope Francis vs. vampire capitalism: The real reason why his climate-change encyclical is revolutionary

The head of the Catholic Church might just have inaugurated a vital conversation about how we define prosperity

Published June 18, 2015 8:14PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
(AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

Leave it to  Pope Francis, a  Jesuit trained as a chemist, who has only one lung, to breath new life into a tired global environmental debate.

It has been droning on for so long now that it has become background noise, easily drowned out in the din of the 24-hour news cycle. While the glaciers melt, and close to 2,500 people in India are killed by a heat wave that produced a 118 degree ambient air temperature, we’d much rather dissect the twists and turns of "Game of Thrones" in our air conditioned parallel universe. The brutality of a make-believe place is so much easier to cope with than confronting the cruelty that defines so much of our own real world.

What’s so powerful about the Pope’s Encyclical on climate change is that it does not flinch from doing so. Pope Francis challenges wealthy nations, who use the lion's share of the earth’s fossil fuels, to take responsibility for the ecological impact of their consumption by becoming mindful of the collateral damage it does to planet’s atmosphere and the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. These are populations already feeling the impacts of global warming.

Several weeks ago, today’s Encyclical was presaged by Pope Francis’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which convened an  inter-disciplinary  conference of over 60 of the planet’s top scientists and thinkers under the banner, “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity.” An open letter from the conference participants on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences website linked the trend of growing global income inequality and the planet’s continued reliance on fossil fuels, predicting that if current trends continue, we will see “unprecedented climate changes and ecosystem destruction that will severely impact us all.”

Here’s the bumper sticker take away: 55 percent of the available world’s energy is used by just 1 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people. “Yet the negative impacts on the environment are being felt by 3 billion who have no access to energy,” the panel of experts asserted.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University was one of the panel’s participants. Sachs wrote recently that the group “included not only the world-leading climate scientists and Nobel laureates, but also  senior representatives of the Protestant, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths.” He continued: “Like Francis, religious leaders of all the world’s major religions are urging us to take wisdom from faith and climate science in order to fulfill our moral responsibilities to humanity and to the future of Earth. We should heed their call.”

The biggest challenge to the current world order posed by Pope Francis’s Encyclical is that it calls into question the basic way we measure our success and our accomplishment, the very yardsticks we use. “Problems have been exacerbated by the fact that economic activity is currently measured solely in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and therefore does not record the degradation of Earth that accompanies it nor the abject inequities between countries and within each country,” concluded Pope Francis’s expert panel.

One of the nation’s leading global market analysts, who describes himself as a practicing Catholic, active in his local church, tells Salon that Pope Francis’s Encyclical is a major reset for a global institution that has been a principal beneficiary of capitalism. “It harnessed the revenue growth of capitalism to effectively finance a whole host of institutions around the world.” At the same time it found itself mired in scandals over its finances and the way it handled an epidemic of criminal sexual molestation by priests.

The devout Catholic analyst asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly about his religious convictions with the media. He says Pope Francis's Climate Change encyclical "will not have an impact on the markets" in the short term  "but will add some marginal support for developing alternative energy" that reduces the planet's global carbon foot print.

But he says it will be seismic in compelling a long over due "global conversation of, how do we even define prosperity? Is it just accumulating more dollars or do we have to factor in being accountable for our impact on the planet and the all people that live on it?"

For the veteran Catholic market watcher, the Pope's long term play is to the broader mass audience he's reaching around the world to see their consumer choices as a way to force markets to factor in sustainability in their profit loss equation.

"If we live in the United States, do we really need tomatoes from New Zealand?," he asked.

Historically, manufacturing and extraction industries like mining, as well as oil and gas production, could look at the pollution they generated in our air, water and land as so called cost externalities that in essence acted as a huge subsidy. The transaction was simple. The companies generated massive profits, some people got jobs, society got fuel and the earth got screwed.

Pope Francis's climate change teaching should increase the pressure for internalizing the cost of production to include the impact of the toxic exhaust and discharges in a truly comprehensive cost benefit analysis that gives planetary well being as much standing as the bottom line.

Even before the Encyclical was released Pope Francis was getting major pushback from prominent Catholics like former Governor Jeb Bush, who converted. Bush likes his religious clerics to stay in the abstract world of soul saving and to avoid the nitty gritty of sorting out the inequities of the real world. The presidential contender was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I think religion ought to be about making us better people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

No doubt conservative free market Catholics will be upset the Pope is being so muscular in the world of the living. He is so much more useful to them when he focuses on the afterlife. This crowd wants religion to be a form of social control, not transformation. This is what got the liberation theologists in trouble, being so passionate and righteous about the here and now. It even got some of them killed.

What it all revolves around is how, in a world increasingly connected by mass communication, do you confront the issue  of scarcity and planetary limits? We seem to have at least two approaches here: Deny it is a problem and contend if undermines America's innate "optimism," or do a head fake, insisting that you are really concerned about it, but continue to do business the same way.

Part of America's problem here is that our country was founded by men who thought the natural world had no limits. Sitting on the East Coast in one of the 13 colonies, on a vast continent still unmapped, you could understand how they might think that. Back then it was the Catholic Church that sided with the powers that be, telling  them they had God on their side, and the right to take as a slave the “non-believer” native Americans they encountered. It was this Doctrine of Christian Discovery that grew out of several Papal Bulls issued to insure European rulers respected each others claims as they divided up the “new world.”

Talk about evolution. Now almost 500 hundred years later, a Pope that leads that same church is trying something very different.

By Robert Hennelly

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Capitalism Climate Change Global Warming Pope Francis