The Planetary Common Good
March 23, 2015
World Bank President Jim Kim’s Global Futures lecture on climate change and development last week at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall offered a comprehensive overview of the problems and possible solutions to the problem of global warming. Dr. Kim covered everything from adaptation for island and coastal states, to clean cities for China and clean, low-energy agriculture. It was enough to give one hope the planet may be spared—if only technocrats could rule.
The dream, of course, is as old as Plato’s Republic: tasking people with the right skills and philosophic wisdom to cure society’s ills. The problem is that in Paris those who would save the planet have to face the realities not just of politics, but of especially fissiparous global politics. They may find themselves in the situation of the philosopher in Plato’s Myth of the Sandstorm. In that story, resonant with memories of Socrates’ persecution by his fellow citizens, a philosopher returns to the city only to find himself buffeted by a blinding sandstorm of interests and cross-cutting opinions that prevent him from carrying out his mission. The reassuring vision Dr. Kim offered of win-win solutions for an array of global ills may likewise be demolished in the crosswinds of global politics.
Though Catholic social teaching, at the local, national, and world level, has addressed the environmental crisis for some time now, there is still no single comprehensive teaching on the integrity of creation. Pope John Paul II taught that a moral development cannot “exclude respect for beings that constitute the natural world which the ancient groups—alluding precisely to the order that distinguishes it, called the “cosmos.” In their 1991 pastoral statement, “Renewing the Earth,” the US bishops called for protection of the "planetary common good.”
“The universal common good,” they argued, “can serve as a foundation for a global environmental ethic.” They continued,
The common good invites regions of the country to share burdens equitably in such areas as toxic and nuclear waste disposal and water distribution and to work together to reduce and eliminate waste which threatens health and environmental quality. It also invites us to explore alternatives in which our poor brothers and sisters will share with the rest of us in the banquet of life, at the same time that we preserve and restore the earth, which sustains us.
Of particular importance are what economists call “collective goods,” like air, water, watersheds, oceans, and marine fisheries on which we all depend. To this list we must now certainly add climate.
In late summer Pope Francis is due to publish a new encyclical letter on the environment in which climate change is expected to feature. There is some talk that he may release the letter in an event with the Green Patriarch, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known for his passionate defense of creation. They have undertaken several initiatives together. It would not be surprising, therefore, for them to speak up on climate change together, since environment is such an urgent concern for both of them. We shouldn’t forget that Pope Francis chose his name partly because of Saint Francis’ love of creation.
A joint effort by the two world religious leaders (and possibly others) may be what is needed to lift the Paris negotiations out of the mire of everyday politics to the level of global statesmanship where a new climate covenant must be forged.
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March 23, 2015