Response to David Brooks

Last February, American climate change deniers used the bitterly-cold temperatures to make a political point. Senator James Inhofe famously tossed a snowball across the Senate chamber. But here’s the problem: February 2015 was actually the second warmest on record. If you look at the maps, you will see a world of red with a big blue patch across the eastern half of North America. In other words, the abnormal cold was a purely local phenomenon, and looking at it in isolation would present a highly misleading picture.

Yet this is akin to what David Brooks does in his recent column criticizing Pope Francis and his encyclical. He misses the point that the entire global economy is interconnected, even though Pope Francis repeats his “everything is connected” mantra over and over. One of Brooks’ main points is that richer countries have healthier environments and should get credit for it. But he ignores that fact that the direct counterpart of this is often environmental degradation in poorer countries. Pope Francis is pretty blunt when he talks about the damage done by multinationals seeking short-term financial return. Quoting the Argentinean bishops, he notes that 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..”

It is clear that business interests from the developed world often treat developing countries in a way that they would never treat their own homes. When somebody like Cardinal John Onaiyaken of Abuja talks about oil being extracted in a “most savage way”, making it tantamount to a “crime against humanity”, he is talking about western oil companies. Think also about the appalling labor and safety standards abetted by powerful multinationals across the developing world, which use the threat of moving to a more amenable location to halt any efforts to improve pay and conditions. Think of the shameful refusal of American clothing companies to endorse a plan to improve worker conditions in Bangladesh after a devastating accident killed over a thousand people.

And while—as Pope Francis notes—the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all, Americans have the largest carbon footprint in the world. In turn, the ensuing climate change is hurting the world’s poorest people—the very people with the lowest carbon footprint. Pope Francis is right to point to a serious ecological debt between north and south.  

But saying that corporations behave like angels at home and devils abroad is too simple. They are quite capable of bad behavior at home too, but they are less able to get away with it! Although they try—in the US in particular, business interests lobby ferociously against all attempts to tighten environmental standards. They refuse point blank to pay the social cost of the damage they cause. And they throw enormous amounts of money to defend their financial bottom line. The Koch brothers, for example, plan to spend almost a billion dollars to influence the next election.

All of this reflects a profound lack of virtue, and Pope Francis identifies the problem: a short-term focus on profit and financial return, a rampant and unthinking consumerism, a throwaway culture where people in poorer countries are considered to matter less. It is a vital part of the equation that David Brooks ignores in its entirety.

Brooks also clings to a blinkered and outdated idea of progress as economic growth alone. But the new paradigm must be sustainable development—adding social inclusion and environmental sustainability to economic prosperity. And the market alone can achieve neither of these.

There is certainly no indication that the market alone can eliminate poverty. Growth can take you so far and no further. How much more growth must the bottom two billon wait for to have their dignity respected? Yes, there has indeed been a dramatic reduction in poverty over the last few decades, but much of this reflects special circumstances—the emergence of two very large countries (China and India) from closed and collectivist systems. And declining poverty in Africa reflects initiatives like debt relief and the Millennium Development Goals as well as economic growth. Ultimately, whether economic growth is compatible with equity or poverty reduction will depend a lot on the kinds of policies that underpin sustainable development. In other words, what matters is not just self-interest or “raw and rugged capitalism”, but solidarity and mutual responsibility--and virtuous business practice too, for that matter.

If the market cannot eliminate poverty and ensure inclusion, it certainly cannot protect the environment. Brooks again seems blithely indifferent here. His dismisses the “catastrophic pollution” in China as a mere short-term side effect of development that will somehow magically resolve itself.  He strongly endorses fracking, and while gas is certainly cleaner than coal, he shows no awareness that we need to start moving away from fossil fuels today, instead of making investments that will be hard to reverse down the line.  He doesn’t get the sense of urgency. And the kind of technology used by fracking sounds an awful lot like the technology of conquest and mastery that is so vigorously criticized by the encyclical. It has a distinct Saruman-esque quality.

So no thank you, David, I’ll stick with Pope Francis. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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