Un­likely mes­siah of the en­vi­ron­ment

The Pope is goad­ing gov­ern­ments to stop de­struc­tion of the econ­omy and so­ci­eties by chang­ing the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem

Down to Earth - - LAST WORD -

Wnot yet tear­ing one an­other apart,but we E ARE are tear­ing apart our com­mon home.To­day, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity re­alises what the poor have long told us: harm, per­haps ir­re­versible harm, is be­ing done to the ecosys­tem.The earth, en­tire peo­ples and in­di­vid­ual per­sons are be­ing bru­tally pun­ished.”

Th­ese are not the im­pas­sioned words of an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist hold­ing forth at a global meet­ing to dis­cuss cli­mate change.But in case read­ers have missed the big news of re­cent weeks, here is an­other sam­ple from the same source—and it is not the soap­box or­a­tory of a Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

“Once cap­i­tal be­comes an idol and guides peo­ple’s de­ci­sions, once greed for money pre­sides over the en­tire so­cioe­co­nomic sys­tem, it ru­ins so­ci­ety, it con­demns and en­slaves men and women, it de­stroys hu­man fra­ter­nity, it sets peo­ple against one an­other and,as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our com­mon home.”

Th­ese strong words on the dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment and so­ci­eties re­sult­ing from the ex­ploita­tive cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, comes from an un­likely source: a 78-year-old Je­suit priest from Ar­gentina who took over as the head of the Ro­man Catholic Church just over two years ago. This is Pope Fran­cis, who worked briefly as a chem­i­cal tech­ni­cian and a night­club bouncer be­fore turn­ing to re­li­gious stud­ies and a re­li­gious leader whose grasp of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of the world is sur­pris­ingly acute. His un­var­nished rhetoric as much as his rad­i­cal world­view is riv­et­ing. When have we last heard a phrase such as the stench of the “dung of the devil”re­sult­ing from “an un­fet­tered pur­suit of money”?

Sel­dom has a re­li­gious leader of any stripe spo­ken so strongly on the de­struc­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment or on such a range of fes­ter­ing is­sues. From ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) foods to the burn­ing is­sue of the civil war in Syria,Pope Fran­cis has done his bit to change per­cep­tions and prod­ded gov­ern­ments and so­ci­eties into tak­ing cor­rec­tive ac­tion. Per­haps, he might suc­ceed if he fol­lows up the rhetoric with more de­tailed pre­scrip­tions on ways of chang­ing the sys­tem.

The first task,he says,is to put the econ­omy at the ser­vice of peo­ples. “Let us say no to an econ­omy of ex­clu­sion and in­equal­ity,where money rules,rather than ser­vice. That econ­omy kills.That econ­omy ex­cludes.That econ­omy de­stroys Mother Earth.”Few among en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have been bold to make a direct link be­tween the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem and the cri­sis of the en­vi­ron­ment.

But it is the Pope’s ap­proach to GM crops that should give pause to the US Ad­min­is­tra­tion which has al­ways rushed to quell any pa­pal crit­i­cism of a tech­nol­ogy that it promotes re­lent­lessly world­wide. Some years ago, US State Depart­ment of­fi­cials lob­bied Fran­cis’ pre­de­ces­sor Pope Bene­dict to change what was per­ceived as a crit­i­cal stand on GM crops.The cur­rent head of the pa­pal see has adopted a more rea­son­able tone. Re­fus­ing to be drawn into making a de­fin­i­tive state­ment on the tech­nol­ogy it­self,Pope Fran­cis con­founded the in­dus­try by rais­ing ques­tions on the so­cial and eco­nomic fallout of its use, such as con­cen­trated farm own­er­ship, dis­placed labour and cor­po­rate mo­nop­o­lies.

Once again it is en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns that he touches upon, such as the im­pact of GM crops on bio­di­ver­sity.“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.” The biotech in­dus­try has been no­tice­ably silent. Af­ter all, who can quar­rel with a rea­son­able de­mand for “a broad,re­spon­si­ble sci­en­tific and so­cial de­bate…one ca­pa­ble of con­sid­er­ing all the avail­able in­for­ma­tion and of call­ing things by their name”?

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