On September 1, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement in commemoration of the ecclesiastical Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. As has become typical, this statement expressed concern for the well-being of the poorest of the poor while simultaneously overlooking the primary means by which their poverty has been and is being alleviated: development through industrialization and liberalization.
The hierarchs warn, “The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.” Indeed, if trends continue, many project that climate change could increase the spread of disease, famine, water contamination, and so on in the developing world, which is currently most vulnerable to such dangers.
But there are serious problems with this point of view. First of all, the developing world, as the term indicates, is developing. Their situations are not static and unchangeable. They need not be vulnerable in the first place. There would be much less grounds for concern if global poverty were significantly reduced, since environmental care and adaptability correlate with development, industrialization, and economic freedom. To be clear, one can accept what the statement refers to as “the consensus of the world” regarding anthropogenic climate change and still have a discussion about what issues and policies should be prioritized and practiced.
For my part, I agree that we ought to prioritize the plight of the poor. Doing so, however, requires us to face an uncomfortable truth: in recent decades, extreme poverty is being alleviated the fastest in developing nations like China and India, which, through rapid industrialization and moderate economic liberalization, are two of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. The United States’ high ranking is an outlier in the developed world and should not be used as a baseline. Canada and Australia, for example, are more economically free and contribute far less carbon emissions.
The degree of poverty alleviation since the Industrial Revolution is astonishing. As Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina state in the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data entry on “Global Extreme Poverty,”
The available long-run evidence shows that in the past, only a small elite enjoyed living conditions that would not be described as “extreme poverty” today. But with the onset of industrialization and rising productivity, the share of people living in extreme poverty started to decrease. Accordingly, the share of people in extreme poverty has decreased continuously over the course of the last two centuries. This is surely one of the most remarkable achievements of humankind.
It notes, “Closely linked to this improvement in material living conditions is the improvement of global health and the expansion of global education that we have seen over these last two centuries.” Furthermore, “After around 1970, the decrease in poverty rates became so steep that the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty started falling as well. This trend of decreasing poverty – both in absolute numbers and as a share of the world population – has been a constant during the last three decades.”
If we truly care about climate change and the poor, shouldn’t we support whatever would make the poor less vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change? From the economic record of the last two centuries, we know that doing so means supporting development, and development requires industrialization and liberalization. As Vladimir Soloviev put it, our ideal relation toward creation is neither (1) passive affirmation of its natural state nor (2) antagonistic struggle for domination over it but (3) a “positive relation, in which man uses his superiority over nature for the sake of uplifting it as well as of raising himself.” Yet Soloviev had the clarity to see that civilizations need to ascetically pass through (2) to get to the ideal reciprocity of (3).
The Pope and Patriarch say some wonderful things about humankind’s need to “cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment,” grounding them in the biblical account of creation. And indeed, I fully agree with them that finding effective ways to reduce our carbon footprint in the face of climate change should be a part of that. However, unlike Soloviev, conspicuously absent from their environmental theology is any theology of civilization.
They reference Psalm 127 (126) but do not actually quote it. While it might be applied to our care for creation, the concern is more directly with households and cities, i.e. civilization:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city,
The watchman stays awake in vain. (127:1)
God planted a Garden in Genesis 2, but promises a city in Revelation 21. He made humankind not only “to tend and keep” creation (Genesis 2:15), but “to till the ground” (2:5), “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; [and] have dominion” over all creation (Genesis 1:28). We are meant to make something beautiful out of God’s beautiful world, i.e. to be economically productive.
Of course, beauty is not what most people think of when they see a factory – I don’t mean to say that smog, for example, is a good thing. What I am saying, however, is that poverty alleviation is beautiful. Life-saving medical technology is beautiful. The opportunity to develop one’s mind through education and choose a career for oneself is beautiful. The luxury of leisure, the rest that characterized the “seventh day” that God “blessed” and “sanctified” (Genesis 2:3) is beautiful. And the more people are able to rise out of conditions of extreme poverty, the more they get to share in those experiences of beauty.
Summarizing Gallup, Roser and Ortiz-Ospina state that “broadly speaking, people living in poorer countries tend to be less satisfied with their living standards.” Another way to say that is that they aren’t as happy. “This suggests that economic prosperity is not a vain, unimportant goal but rather a means for a better life.”
By contrast, the only reference the Pope and the Patriarch make to economic growth is negative, bemoaning “our greed for limitless profit in markets.” I know of no economist, businessperson, or policy maker who thinks “limitless profit” is an attainable goal. Not even the greedy ones! Profit is always finite and thus cannot ever be “limitless.” Yet this incoherent and dismissive rhetoric is what passes for serious engagement with precisely the best means for alleviating the suffering of the poor, increasing their human flourishing, and raising their civilizations up to a place where they would no longer be vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change but have the means necessary for adaptation.
Christians, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or otherwise, deserve better from their leaders. And the poorest of the poor deserve a better witness of the Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who told his followers that whenever they served “one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
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