Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 9: From First to Third

August 11, 2015

Last year Oxfam published a report listing the following facts:

“• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

“• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.

“• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.

“• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.

“• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.

“• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.” [1]

These realities are pertinent in the discussion of environmental issues, since it is undeniable that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: ‘Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest’.” [2] In Laudato si’, Pope Francis tells us why this is so:

“For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.”

While none of this can be legitimately disputed, the question remains: What is to be done about it? 

For many, the answer lies in the reduction of the birth rate in developing countries. Thus, “developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’.” But the Holy Father points out the flaw in such thinking, thusly:

“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”

The Malthusian solution of “reproductive health” turns out to be more of a means of maintaining first world levels of consumption rather than being directed to the enhancement of human flourishing in developing countries. And those first world consumption levels are such that they would be unsustainable if the whole world engaged in the same behavior.

Photo by Stephen Codrington
We need a better solution than cynically encouraging the world’s poor to reproduce fewer of themselves. Eventually, we have to bravely confront the reality that our first world consumption levels are both harming the poor and destroying the planet.

One such solution would be to take a serious look at the practice of using the foreign debt of poor countries as a way of controlling them. That this is a matter of simple justice becomes clear when it is considered that the first world owes an “ecological debt” to the developing countries, which is “connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” The injustice of this situation becomes evident when the facts are looked at in detail.

“The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. 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. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: ‘We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable’.”

As Pope Francis points out, “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.” So it is not really the poor countries that are in debt to the wealthy of this world. It is the other way around. Thus, justice requires that countries that have suffered such treatment as described here should have their international debts canceled.

Two things have been proposed here: reduction of consumption in the first world, and cancellation of the debts of the third world. These are one-sided proposals, to be sure. But they are fair nonetheless, because the global problems discussed in Laudato si’ have been caused by the first world. The only caution is that, noting that the inequalities referenced at the beginning of this article, the wealthiest in the first world countries should not find ways of putting the bulk of the burden on the poor within their own national boundaries.

Jack Quirk