Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 10: I'm Thinking of a Number

September 3, 2015

The environmental problems that Pope Francis brings to our attention in his encyclical Laudato si’ are immense. But the Pontiff does not prescribe a specific program for dealing with them. On the contrary, he tells us that on “many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” [1]

But there are limits as to what views are legitimate when it comes to the environmental question. As the pope points out, “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair.” Denying that there is a problem, as some do, is intellectually dishonest.

Photo by Casa Rosada
Moreover there are extreme opinions that should not be taken seriously. “At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited.” Neither of these views will lead us to the place where the environmental issues confronting our planet will be resolved.

Instead, viable “future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.” There simply is no way out of our predicament other than a cooperative effort by sincere and serious minded people bringing their insights and expertise to the table.

One proposal should be to fundamentally change the way we assess things. Changing national and international behaviors so as to maximize sustainability has run into the objection that the general standard of living could be decreased by heavy-handed environmental policies. That objection begs the question, of course, as to whether damage to the environment is itself adversely impacting human flourishing. At some point, damage to the atmosphere outweighs the luxury of automobiles.

By Alex1011
Gross domestic product (GDP), “the market value of goods and services produced by a country in a certain time period,” [2] has been the standard measure of an economy’s performance since 1944. [3] But, if all we look to is growth in GDP to assess our prosperity, we’re going to miss a lot of important information. In particular, “GDP does not capture natural capital depreciation, including environmental (notably climate) change, depletion of resource supplies and biodiversity loss.” [4]

But the GDPs limited usefulness in analyzing national well-being isn’t widely appreciated. “Indeed, statements about GDP uttered by the vast majority of journalists and politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, are decidedly uncritical. Even lead editorials in quality newspapers frequently use the terms ‘prosperity’ and ‘GDP growth’ as if they were synonyms.” As Jeroen van den Bergh, ICREA research professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, and professor of environmental and resource economics at VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands, wrote in The Broker five years ago:

“Policies promoting social welfare at the expense of GDP growth would receive less resistance if there was less impetus for unconditional GDP growth. Take the economic assessment of policies designed to avert climate change. Most economic studies view the problem as a trade-off between a policy’s benefits and its costs as measured in terms of reduced GDP growth, as if the latter is a good measure of lost prosperity (happiness).”

By Julien1311
The shortcomings of GDP as a tool for measuring the overall well-being of a nation have inspired attempts to come up with alternatives. One of those is the Human Development Index (HDI), which is used by the United Nations. [5] [6] “The HDI was created to emphasize that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone,” and “is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living.” [7]

Still, the HDI is incomplete. It “does not reflect on” such things as “inequalities, poverty, human security,” or “empowerment….” The truth is, the quest to reduce human flourishing to a number may be a quixotic one. It just might be that human well-being cannot be measured mathematically, and perhaps the environmental and other problems facing the world are too urgent to await the successful completion of this dubious attempt. Good judgment should inform us that no one will prosper if we destroy our resources, and we will never succeed in overcoming the environmental challenges that now face us if we insist on remaining enslaved to measurements that have no relevance.

Jack Quirk