The Pope's Message for San Francisco
The landmark environmental encyclical issued by Pope Francis last week implicitly called out his namesake city, San Francisco, where capitalist greed and the reign of the technology industry have effectively subverted the San Francisco values of compassion, conservation and connection to world’s poor and disenfranchised.
Laudato Si, or On Care for our Common Home, is easily the most portentous document to come out of the Vatican in 124 years, when Pope Leo XIII weighed in workers’ rights and private property. But in this traditionally Catholic city, which takes its name from the same St. Francis of Assisi that this cardinal from Argentina chose when he ascended to the papacy, the response has been strangely mute.
Perhaps that’s not surprising given the pope’s stinging indictment of global capitalism, which he squarely blames for the devastating environmental problems we face, from pollution and toxic runoff to global warming and ocean acidification. As he writes, “The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.”
Pope Francis correctly identifies our growth-based economic system, which can’t possibly exist in a finite world without depleting and degrading its natural resources, as putting society on the path to ruin unless we take significant, collective steps to counter that trend. As he writes, “We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.”
Yet growing ever outward is just what global capitalism does. It is central to its nature, and it is up to us to defend the natural world against its ravages, or what economists euphemistically call its “externalities,” such as extinct species and denuded landscapes. Pope Francis takes issue with people’s misplaced and unquestioning faith in markets, explicitly criticizing the cap-and-trade approach to climate change as little more than an investors’ game and way of denying true responsibility for our actions.
Pope Francis explicitly calls out the magical thinking that markets solve their own problems, or that there is a technological solution to every problem that we face, labeling them as the self-serving spin of people who are actually driven by greed and self-interest, criticizing its corruption of City Hall or other supposedly people’s forums.
“The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration,” he writes.
And that’s just the beginning of Pope Francis teeing off on the tech sector, whose wealth and power gives it a responsibility that it has been ignoring. But the pope is calling for a day of reckoning, today, before the environmental problems that we’re creating overwhelm our ability to address them.
“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build,” he writes.
But he notes the technology has become an end in itself in wealthy societies such as San Francisco, rather than a tool that could be used to actually address the world’s problems, as technologists often claim to be doing as they focus on First World problems like catching a cab, finding a date or getting meals delivered to your door.
“The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same,” the pope wrote.
Pope Francis ties the plight of the planet to that of poor people around the world. They are being exploited by our economic system on the front end and then suffering the worst of the environmental impacts of that system on the back end, from polluted water to rising seas.
“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” the pope wrote, adding that emphasis.
It isn’t just the best way forward for those who still believe in San Francisco values -- it is the only way forward for humanity. And despite the dire warnings contained in his encyclical, Pope Francis maintains his faith in people to do the right thing: “Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.”
Maybe, but I’ve long believed that change needs to begin in San Francisco. We’re the ones with the wealth, power and privilege – so we’re the ones that need to show the leadership and make the necessary sacrifices to protect the planet, its biodiversity and the vast majority of the people in the world, present and future. And right now, we’re not. We’re too focused on making money and not nearly focused enough on caring for our common home and its most vulnerable inhabitants.