Pope Francis has become something of a sustainability superhero today, finding his picture on the front covers of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and TIME magazine. He has been an outspoken critic of the dominance of the human desire for short term financial success at the expense of the other two sustainability goals of social justice and environmental quality. But I have to wonder if we are not expecting too much from just one man. If we are to realize positive change and a more sustainable world, this Pope needs our help.
Pope Francis surely deserves praise as he has courageously used his bully pulpit to challenge his own management team, the Roman Curia, to examine their collective conscience and self-aggrandizing behavior. He has become a leading voice calling for immediate action to avoid the most damaging impacts of global climate change. And he has challenged us all to be active advocates for the poor, criticizing ideologies that promote “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” and result in ever worsening economic inequality.
The Pope writes “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” The low wages and exclusion from opportunity that many people experience today is the direct result of economic institutions that we support through our daily buying habits. We “say yes or no” to an economy that kills depending on where we choose to shop.
While big box stores provide us with “everyday low prices” they do so at the expense of all of the people who work for these corporations fulltime but still live in poverty. On the global scale, World Trade Organization, which promotes global trade and therefore “everyday” low prices for food and other consumer goods, has the power to prevent member nations from passing worker protection laws, food safety rules, and environmental regulations if these laws are believed to impede international trade. We support this system of inequity every time we choose to shop at the big box stores and supermarkets.
Pope Francis writes “in this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile is defenseless before the interests of a deified market…” The Pope’s critics quickly point out that global capitalism has created millions of new jobs in factories around the world. But these jobs generally produce poverty level wages and have no worker protection standards. In spite of visible cracks in the walls of the garment factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring 2,500 others, workers were ordered to enter this deadly building or lose their jobs. As Pope Francis says “this economy kills.”
Social agreements beyond the “merely economic” are needed to guide human behavior. Pope Francis offers us his version of Christian ethics but other ethical frameworks will do as well. The “sustainability movement” for example recognizes that in addition to economic vitality, two other development goals must have equal value; environmental quality and social justice. The point is that without some larger ethical framework, unfettered global capitalism will continue to harm the environment and widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
Even the “father of capitalism,” Adam Smith, believed in a moral compass defined by God. When he described the economic theory of capitalism in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776, there were two unstated but generally accepted assumptions about the world in place that are no longer true. At that time it was generally the case that:
- . …commerce was personal. That is, a buyer and a seller had a relationship that extended beyond an individual transaction. Therefore, if either felt cheated it would affect their future relationship. It was in nobody’s self-interest to cheat.
- …the universe was governed by a God-derived moral code and no action would be without its punishment or reward, in either this life or the next. Therefore cheating was not in a person’s self-interest.
Today however, most commerce is impersonal and there is no universal sense of right and wrong in business. Cheaters (especially if they are “too big to fail”) don’t have to fear the penalty of their actions in this world (since they are also “too big to jail”). And if they don’t believe in God – well, they are free and clear in the next world too!
Into this situation, steps Pope Francis who offers an ethical framework that “…leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” He declares boldly that capitalism, as it is currently practiced, is immoral. As long as we make personal financial decisions based exclusively or even primarily on our economic self-interest, we “say yes” to this immoral system, even as we admire the Pope’s courage.
Of course, speaking out against inequality hasn’t won Pope Francis universal praise. As one might expect, corporate leaders, national political leaders, andconservative leaders in his own Church try to downplay the Pope’s message. Maybe that is why Pope Francis recently tweeted “please pray for me.”
We do indeed need to pray for Pope Francis, but we need to do more! Inequality grows as the result of economic policies supported by average consumers. When we purchase goods produced by those living in poverty, we reinforce the conditions that create an economy of exclusion and inequality.
While fundamental change in how we practice capitalism is needed, at present our political system is designed to protect the wealthy. Without campaign finance reform we remain powerless to effect substantive change in government. But we can join with the Pope in “saying no” to “business as usual by changing our own behavior.
Pope Francis is asking for our help. If this courageous man is to be more than a “voice of one crying in the wilderness” we need to think twice before buying goods produced in sweatshops. We need to move our savings out of corporate banks and into local credit unions. We need to buy more food grown locally, particularly from cooperatively managed businesses. And we need to pray for this Pope and for each other.
Originally published as an editorial in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
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