By Anthony James, published in Earthsong Journal, Autumn 2016
This Might Change Everything
Finding shared meaning beyond consumerism
The Pope builds on previous encyclicals over recent decades, as this shift in cultural narrative has been emerging globally. A narrative in which we humans no longer see ourselves as separate from nature, able to control and exploit it as merely a mechanised suite of ‘resources’ and ‘services’ for limitless human ends.
A narrative in which our health and identity is derived in relationship with the rest of nature. Where ‘progress’ is increasingly understood as more than material affluence. And where, on the basis of unprecedented material affluence, and unprecedented social and environmental costs, we are increasingly drawn to explore what it means to live a good life.
The encyclical made a big splash upon its release. And its reception has been instructive. There has been much considered thought. Though as John Fullerton, notably a former Managing Director at (‘the old’) JP Morgan, lamented, ‘Too often, discussion … devolves into the same shallow debate (Capitalism versus Communism or Socialism).’
The local standard bearer for this has arguably been Editor-at-Large at The Australian, Paul Kelly. Recognising the significance of the encyclical, the prospect of its influence only served to enflame his reaction. He lambasted the document as ignorant, accusing the Pope of naïvely trotting out Marxist tenets.
His archetypal nemesis in Australia’s political commentariat, Emeritus Professor at Latrobe University, Robert Manne, grappled more openly and broadly with the pitch of the encyclical. He found that ‘while the revolution Klein looks for is political and economic … the revolution that Francis’s vision requires is cultural and spiritual.’ In pointed reply to Kelly he remarked, ‘Marxism is a materialist philosophy if it is anything.’
Of further interest, Kelly raised the prospect of another dichotomy, describing a‘schism in Christian thinking’ between those applauding the Pope and ‘those who believe human dignity finds expression in economic freedom and markets as the path to individual and social virtue.’
Yet the encyclical doesn’t dismiss the value of markets, as far as I can discern, just the ideology that it is inherently the source of our wellbeing and virtue. What is being engaged here is the context to our economic system, how we establish and assess its purpose and meaning.
But while Kelly has duly attracted criticism for various contradictions and limitations in his appraisal of the Pope’s work, it’d be unfortunate if that resulted in overlooking what lies at the heart of his concerns. For there are important and genuine opportunities to find common ground here, if we can hold our current allegiances lightly enough.
Kelly values liberty, prosperity, and the expression of human dignity and virtue. These are universal human concerns. They are at the heart of the encyclical, and the serious responses to it. This represents an opportunity for sharing a deeper and more widespread examination of what it means to be free, prosperous and secure.
It is a dialogue that has been assumed out of the mainstream for too long in industrialised societies. To some extent that has been understandable, for the correlation between growing economies and material affluence, and our wellbeing, has appeared strong.
However, there is a burgeoning body of evidence to suggest the correlation is weakening. A growing spate of titles like ‘Affluenza’, ‘How Much is Enough?’ and ‘Stuffocation’ speak to the phenomenon. The Pope writes, ‘We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.’
It can be confronting for some to consider what Kelly has called the Pope’s ‘bottom line position’, that ‘The time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world.’
But here is a critical question. What if we find that our freedom, prosperity and security are more assured this way? Above all, how would we even know, if the question isn’t being asked?
In his response to the encyclical John Fullerton concluded that,
‘At the heart of the Pope’s important message is a call for a new way to think, not a preference of one ideology over another, much less one religion over another. It is really a call to rediscover what we already know: the beauty of our essential long-standing humanist values and traditions. The reductionist logic of the “progress” of modernity must be subordinated to these core values. Nothing more. Nothing less.’
The organisation Fullerton has gone on to create, the Capital Institute, sees this as ‘something akin to humanity’s economic Copernican moment.’ Accordingly, Fullerton saw the agreement reached at the Paris Climate Conference last December as ‘encouraging’, but missing ‘Pope Francis as modernity’s Galileo’.
The Capital Institute launched a white paper just ahead of the encyclical last year, titled ‘Regenerative Capitalism’.
‘What we discovered is a new way of thinking about economics and how we manage our free enterprise system, aligned with our scientific understanding of how the universe actually works and with our shared values.’
Wisdom old and new, religious and secular, is increasingly converging on a dialogue about what it means to live well in post-consumerist societies. Leaving aside the context of peak oil and other material limits to growth, which only enhances the need for this dialogue, the rational and moral imperative is clear. To say consumerist growth is a proxy for wellbeing is no longer true; to say we pursue it for its own sake makes no sense.
Manne suggests ‘The first step ought however not to involve propaganda, as Kelly fears, but engagement in a vital but also a difficult debate.’ If this ‘new dialogue’ the Pope has called for can help us transcend out-dated cultural narratives, and tap our enduring and shared concern for freedom, prosperity and security, that might just change everything.
Pic: Greg Foyster
Naomi Klein’s latest book is called ‘This Changes Everything’ but it’s the Pope’s encyclical that just might.
The Pope calls for a fundamental shift in our understanding of what it means to be human. To move beyond consumerist growth economies and ways of being to find more meaningful lives inherently able to ‘care for our common home.’
‘It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.’