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The fallibility of critique: A response to Ivo Vegter

The fallibility of critique: A response to Ivo Vegter

Ivo Vegter’s ‘The Eco-Pope: When the infallible fails’ criticises many aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. This is good. Throughout the encyclical Francis invites all to talk about an issue of common global concern, the environment. Vegter’s swift response is commendable, doing precisely what the Pope has asked for – a debate. And so, in the spirit generated by both of them, let us continue the conversation by raising a few points. Fallibly, of course! By ANTHONY EGAN and GRANT TUNGAY.

Though Francis frames his discussion within the paradigms of Catholic theology, social ethics, and embraces a ‘green’ perspective on both environment and economy, at no point does he claim (as Vegter implies in his title, no doubt rhetorically) infallibility. There is a popular misconception, including among some Catholics, that anything a pope says is infallible. When it was formally declared in 1870 (and not without centuries of heated debate within the Church, not least at the First Vatican Council where it was finally adopted), papal infallibility was carefully limited. For papal teaching to be infallible, it has to meet certain criteria. It must have broad consensus within the Church, particularly the bishops. It must also be formally declared as such by the Pope; it cannot be assumed. To this must be added that many Catholic scholars, particularly ethicists, doubt whether any moral teaching can be infallible, given the way in which moral problems are deeply contextual and rely on factual knowledge, which is often limited.

Though Laudato Si’ is carefully researched, it is clearly based on what might be considered the best available knowledge and broad scientific consensus on the environment at the moment. (Note how Francis at one point admits that a definitive judgement on the effects of genetically modified foods is unavailable, a concession to complexity). Above all by calling for dialogue on the issues, Francis implicitly negates any claim to the text’s ‘infallibility’. As an outsider to the Catholic scene, Vegter’s rhetorical flourish – though it backfires on itself – is misplaced, but we can exonerate him on this point. He is unfamiliar with the complex Catholic system of thought on which the controversial notion of infallibility is built.

We are labouring this point because there is a temptation in public discourse to rhetorical reductionism when discussing religion by religious and secular people alike. All too often both embrace stereotypes, whether through ignorance or hostility and rush to judgements based not on evidence or reasoned argument but on prejudice – in its original sense of ‘pre-judgment’. Is Christianity hostile to science or economics? Beyond the rhetorical stereotypes the answer is yes and no, depending on a range of factors. What part of Christianity or Christian figures do you pick? How do you read sacred texts? What epoch do you look at? What aspect of science? Whatever one’s attitude to religion, honesty demands one admit the complexity of any system of thought or way of life. When attempts are made to explain or clarify what is really meant by a claim, the retort is usually a dismissive, “You would say that!” Reducing a debate to the ad hominem is unhelpful, particularly when a matter of common concern is being addressed from different perspectives. We shout louder at cross purposes or indulge in a dialogue of the deaf.

One sees this too in the reactions of many to the issue of environment, ecology and climate change. Hysterical green hyperbole does its cause little good, as does the scientific scepticism of those who doubt there is a problem. As persons with academic backgrounds in law, ethics and history (and our religious convictions notwithstanding), we are interested in evidence, facts and balance of probabilities. Long before Laudato Si’ (which Vegter rightly notes says nothing new on environment per se) we have looked at the environment, weighed the research presuppositions and evidence, examined the sources (not least who has funded what research and the presuppositions funders have had). On a balance of probabilities based on our reading of the research, we tend to see the scientific majority’s case as compelling. We agree with Pope Francis’ diagnosis, therefore, not because he is pope (and certainly not out of any mistaken claims to infallibility, which do not apply in this case) but because his analysis accords with evidence we have examined for ourselves. As do many people who are not Catholic, not Christian, not even religious.

What one does with this agreement, how one addresses the evidence-based consensus on climate change, is the next question. The evidence invites varied possible responses that have complex political, economic, ecological and human consequences. There are choices that must be made, based on ethical assumptions, which have political and moral consequences. These assumptions and consequences are by no means easy. Taking ecologically friendly steps will entail policies and practices that will affect human lives – economic growth and human development (in theory and practice), limitations on individual and group freedoms (however defined), even population growth. Achieving consensus and enforcing compliance will be a challenge. Human values (justice as fairness, obligations to future generations, etc.) and self-perceptions of the human species (running from dominion over all species through to being just one species among many) must inform this. Denial short-circuits this process. The overwhelming evidence there is a serious problem must, however, trump reservations. We are in a crisis; we must do something.

Our strongest critique of Vegter’s analysis is economic. He defends a form of unlimited free market capitalism that is at best dangerous and probably (thankfully) does not exist. While Francis warns that the Earth’s resources are being “squeezed dry beyond limit”, Vegter sees him as economically ignorant, and states that economics is precisely concerned with the distribution of a finite quantity of resources to those most in need. In his words, economics asks “how to satisfy humanity’s unlimited wants and needs with limited resources”.

The image that comes to mind when one reads Vegter’s comments about the free market is that of a wise grandmother handing out sweets to her grandchildren. She knows just how much she has to give, and maternally ensures that the sweets she gives out benefits those of her grandchildren who are most deprived of nutrients. But of course, the free market doesn’t work like that. The free market is about economic agents making rational choices in their self-interest. This provides the demand in the market and as Vegter points out, it is unlimited. If there is a supply of what is demanded in the market, and the price is right, the exchange will happen. All you need is a willing buyer and a willing seller. This is the key point. There is no internal mechanism in the market to regulate this exchange, apart from the price. As long as you are not buying tik or the opportunity to host the next World Cup, you are free to participate in the market, buying and selling what your heart desires.

But this presents a potential problem. What if folks are buying items that are harmful to the environment, or consuming in unsustainable quantities? We have a limited number of resources which could potentially be damaged by the unregulated purchasing habits of economic agents. Equally, seeing that our resources are limited, we could run out. Because there is no internal mechanism regulating the market, these outcomes are distinct possibilities. Vegter could always argue ‘don’t worry, these are scare tactics. Our actual spending patterns are ok. We are not overdoing it. We currently are spending in a sustainable manner’. However, there is nothing to stop us if we wanted to over-consume or consume in a way that is harmful apart from government intervention.

It is this reality that the Pope is pointing to when he says we as consumers assume there is an unlimited supply of resources. We act as if there is. All one has to do is to look at the pattern of consumption worldwide to see what effect our demand seems to be having on the environment. If we are to believe the statistics in the Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme last year, just over half the countries with available consumption data had ecological footprints above global carrying capacity. The 2012 World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report supports this pattern of consumption, with the report stating rather dramatically that our current rate of consumption could only be supported by the equivalent of the resources contained in 1.5 planets. We certainly seem to be living beyond our means.

This lack of an internal mechanism in the market preventing unwise economic choices is well illustrated in Garret Hardin’s paper in the 1960s concerning the tragedy of the commons. Hardin’s point was that human beings make consumption choices concerning common resources but only take into account the personal cost of the transaction and ignore the cost to the whole group of such choices. Due to the fact that the cost to the group is never taken into account, the individuals never choose to stop consuming. As a result, the common resources are impacted. This lack of consideration of the cost to the group makes the individual purchasing choices inevitable. The inevitability of the depletion of common resources makes this situation a tragedy in Hardin’s paper.

We are constantly faced with the moral question, ‘Are we being responsible in our uses of limited and common resources’? Within a ‘free-for-all who can afford it’ (of course) model Vegter seems to embrace we can only hope that people are being responsible. One of us, a historian who shares a lot of Augustine’s pessimism about human nature as a result of his researches, would say that this is a risky venture – and something that is not helped by systematically downplaying compelling evidence of environmental dangers.

It is somewhat disingenuous (we are being polite) to paint a picture that suggests unfettered free market practices are eco-friendly because wealthy areas are less polluted then poor areas, and that promoting poverty (read: controlled capitalist development serving an environmental agenda) is the real cause of ecological ills. Wealthy areas are less polluted because they have the capacity to pass on their waste to poor areas: how many rich neighbourhoods are built on or near city dumps? Rich communities tend to consume much more than poor communities. The consumption pattern of the wealthy is illustrated by the World Bank Indicators in 2008, which show that the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population can account for 76.6% of total private consumption. As such, they tend also to produce proportionately more waste. They can afford to. And being rich means never having to live with the waste. Highly polluting industries are not in poor areas and countries by choice: they are there because poor areas have often little choice if they wish to survive. (Did someone just say free choice or free markets?).

Now, let us not treat these observations as anti-capitalist rants. Like economists Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and former World Bank guru Joseph Stiglitz, to name but two, we see that capitalism works better than any other system. Like them we see its limitations too. It is not free in that power makes genuine freedom to seek the good (or at least better) life for most people impossible: ‘comply or perish’ is not a free choice but an ultimatum. (Remember the Godfather movies, ‘We’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.’). We also agree that the model of capitalism Vegter seems to advocate simply does not exist. It’s a myth. Capitalism is to varying degrees highly regulated; protectionism rules (not least in US and China, the world’s biggest economies – and polluters). The question rather is who benefits from regulation.

Regulating capitalism in the interests of environmental sustainability – what Pope Francis seems to be advocating – is not some radical leftward leap that will destroy the global economy if implemented. It is merely the readjustment of the status quo that would promote greater equality through creating a more equal culture that offers the best chance of containing and ultimately reversing human inequality and reversing ecological degradation. This moral value that more and more people see as not simply just and generating social stability, is also good for business. And by rooting it in ecological renewal it offers all of us a better chance of survival.

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of environmental crisis, given too that capitalism is already highly regulated, the onus is on the sceptics to disprove the evidence. The sceptics are taking a massive chance with the future. An image from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films comes to mind. Harry/Environment stands over humanity with his .44 Magnum, saying, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Well, do we? DM

Dr. ANTHONY EGAN is a Jesuit priest based at the Jesuit Institute South Africa, Johannesburg. A historian and ethicist by training, he also lectures part-time in medical ethics at Wits Medical School and has taught at various universities in SA and the USA.

GRANT TUNGAY is a lawyer by training and recently specialised in human rights law. He did volunteer work at the SA Human Rights Commission and also worked as an intern for the Centre of Applied Legal Studies at WITS. He is currently working at the Jesuit Institute South Africa in the area of social justice and is interested in the overlap between law, social justice and spirituality.


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