Papal Environmentalism’s “Ecological Debt”


This article of mine was originally published on The Partially Examined Life

That the Pope refers to experts rather than his own scientific research does not nullify Rick Santorum's embarrassment here.

That the Pope cites experts rather than scientific research of his own does not nullify Rick Santorum’s embarrassment.

If you needed proof that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter on care for the environment, Laudato si’, was not only seminal but radical, it would be that it is now being published by Verso, a leading publisher of leftist continental philosophy. It is sad then, that rather than focusing on the ideas themselves, all of the attention being given to this event is to sensationalist reactions to the Pope among conservatives- not least of all when he visited the USA. Even the respected philosopher Robert P. George tried to downplay Francis’ ability to know that climate change is anthropogenic, presenting the consensus on the matter by 97% of scientists as if it were of equal weight to the opposite opinion. But as Francis says in the document, this consensus means that the burden of proof is on the proponents of a business as usual approach to demonstrate that it will not cause serious harms. (§186) In this piece I will engage with just a little of the criticism of Francis, as an aid to clarify the ideas as well as to examine their limitations.

An environmental philosophy can be identified in writings by recent popes, one which is of a no less universal interest for being unmistakably Catholic. Four concepts which are key to this philosophy pertain to themes of debt, ecology, waste, and poverty, and in turn foster four components of a solution to the crises of climate change. In outlining these ideas we will see, in the words of philosopher Giles Fraiser, that they have more to offer than “just a theological echo of secular environmentalism, a churchy ‘count me in’ with the fight against climate change”. They furnish us with new language–and hence new ways of thinking about–this grave threat to humanity in “this century”. (Laudato si’, §24) Due to restrictions of space, I shall take Pope Francis’ concept of ‘ecological debt’ as my focus in this piece, and treat the others in a follow-up piece.

Debt As Analogy

We know that climate change is costly to the economy due to the needs, in the short term, for technological investment and the reduction of polluting activities, and in the long term, to protect people and the environment from destruction. Even the neoliberal IMF has been warning that the longer the international community continues to delay in taking action, the harder and longer the economy is going to suffer.

In this context, ‘ecological debt’ can be seen as an analogy between climate crisis and financial crisis, highlighting (among the many problems of climate change) that environmental damage, like an international debt crisis, is a serious a threat to the health of the global economy. Moreover, climate change is the more fundamental and long term of these threats, and hence policymakers must recognize that it not only requires even more urgent action than they took on the financial crisis, but extensive change to socio-economic structures also. Right from the start of his encyclical, Francis is clear that to deal with this we will need new “ways of understanding the economy and progress.” (§16) Here, however, he is only following in the tradition of his predecessors, as he quotes John Paul II in saying that profound changes in “lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies” are necessary to protect our world. (§5)

An editorial in The Guardian notes that in this philosophy another analogy used for climate change policy is that on nuclear weapons: “Once again we find that we possess the power to destroy the planet… but this time there is no argument from enlightened self-interest that is as clear as the argument against nuclear warfare was in the days of the cold war.” But it is the debt analogy that takes precedence, because it directly connects to the need for financial sacrifice as well as to the broader theme of distributive justice.


It ceases to be simply an analogy, however, as the despoiling of the earth means “the poor world will now pay for the crimes of the rich, and our children and grandchildren must pay for their parents’ self-indulgence,” and hence Francis declares that “a true ‘ecological debt’ exists” (§51). In other words, this is an injustice against the common good for which we owe remedy to future generations as well as to the poor world.

Intergenerational solidarity” he argues, cannot be optional because “the world we have received… belongs [equally] to those who will follow us” as it does to us now. (§159) Francis follows the classic position of John Locke in holding that “each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence”, but in doing so, is bound by “the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” (§67)

Turning now to international solidarity, Francis highlights that the scientific research” is clear that “the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. (§48) The use of the present rather than future tense is significant- as Pope Benedict XVI said back in 2010: who can “disregard the growing phenomenon of environmental refugees” displaced by climate change in countries such as Bangladesh and Bolivia? Likewise, Francis highlights that:

“The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.” (§51)

Tragically, this warming is only just beginning, as is the increased frequency of “extreme weather events” (§23) against which the poor are less able to defend themselves. With the realization that all human activity is interconnected through the environment, we must come together to create global solutions to protect “our common home” (§3). But in doing so we must “be aware that” for rich and poor “there are differentiated responsibilities.” (§52) Pope Benedict spelled this out on the 2008 World Day of Peace, urging that the costs of protecting the environmentshould be justly distributed, taking due account of the different levels of development of various countries and the need for solidarity with future generations.” The previous year he described an example of this:

“While it is true that industrializing [i.e. poorer] countries are not morally free to repeat the past errors of others, by recklessly continuing to damage the environment, it is also the case that highly industrialized countries must share ‘clean-technologies’ and ensure that their own markets do not sustain demand for goods [especially from industrializing countries] whose very production contributes to the proliferation of pollution.”

This claim remains pertinent because these issues will be foci of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015. But how do the popes justify the ascription of these responsibilities? Broadly, as international matters of distributive justice and remediation for past crimes. If the three effects of our greenhouse emissions on the poor mentioned above (extreme weather, decreased farming yields, and relocation) were not enough, there is a more literal sense in which the rich world owes an ecological debt:

“In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.” (§52)

A clear example of this is provided by the rainforests, which acting as carbon sinks, thereby ‘subsidize’ the air of the more highly polluting countries. But there are other examples unrelated to climate change, and which Francis describes as “new forms of colonialism”, namely: “certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor”. Poor countries are further controlled by their debts to rich ones (§52), while also supplying them with cheap labor and raw materials”, often at great local cost (§51).

Identifying these debts, and the cumulative debt to the industrializing world that they constitute, is innovative because it provides us with a rational and positive way to make sense of the financial sacrifices the rich world must make to secure the intergenerational and international good of the environment. If this language can become embedded in public discourse, the cause of the environment could gain a great deal of currency against those conservatives who have hitherto argued that it is too costly because we must focus first on paying off our debts.


That still leaves the obstacle of denialism about climate change. And while Francis laments that “many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power” (§26) “easily end up trumping [or Trump-ing?] the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected”(§54), the ability to combat this would be another advantage of the new global solidarity that needs to be developed.

Deniers”, Climate Truth points out, “are scrambling to frame themselves as ethical, saying developing nations need fossil fuels to thrive”, but as was implied in the longer quote from Benedict above, the Vatican is taking the strong environmentalist line that the use of fossil fuel technologies “needs to be progressively replaced without delay” (§165) even from industrializing countries. This is because our exploitation of the earth has “already exceeded acceptable limits” (§27) and as Benedict has said “we have to respect the inner laws of creation… if we want to survive”. Hence, as much as industrializing countries must be allowed to thrive, so do richer countries owe them renewable energy technology that will allow them to do so cleanly.

Contrary to the allegations of some conservatives, this is not at all to deny that fossil fuels have been the power behind the greatest increase in the global standard of living in history, but only to recognize that the costs of their use now greatly outweigh the benefits. Nor is it to chase the unfeasible dream of an overnight switch to a carbon neutral society. Francis is clear that the process will be a gradual one, and several steps exist which can advance this, for example: the replacement of fossil fuel subsidies (currently standing at $700bn globally) with ones for sustainable technologies, private sphere divestment from fossil fuels, and carbon taxes.

Leaning towards subsidarity (the partner principle to solidarity in Catholic social teaching) and embodying Jesus’ disdain for hypocrisy, Francis reminds us that apathy on the part of non-deniers is as much a problem as denialism (§14), just as the poor have as much responsibility to protect the environment as do the rich (§8). Fortunately, the ability to found and co-run cooperatives to fight climate devastation at a grassroots level means that everyone can make a meaningful contribution. (§179) Top-down governmental intervention cannot solve the crisis in the absence of instances of subsidarity like this, and such grassroots movements are in turn dependent on the dissemination of effective education for transition to, and mindfulness of, a sustainable human ecology.

Many people have praised the humble Pope for filling the vacuum for much needed international leadership on these issues. And as we have seen above, he has also provided a much needed conceptual backbone to phasing out fossil fuel use: we literally do owe it to our children and to each other. The question which remains open is whether, like the Lannisters in Game of Thrones, “we always pay our debts”?


See the other half of this article: 3 More Climate Concepts from Catholicism


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Papal Paupery | Vibrant Bliss

  2. Pingback: 3 More Climate Concepts from Catholicism | Vibrant Bliss

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