It was exciting to be in Paris during the COP talks on Climate. There was an unprecedented united movement of scientists, civil society, progressive business leaders, investors, and activists representing social and ecological interests from around the world, all demanding our political leaders put the common good ahead of national interests and actually lead. Soon we will know the results.
Even the best-case outcome in Paris will be insufficient, that much is clear. And the hard work of implementing the voluntary pledges on the ground lies ahead. Canada, under new leadership, deserves praiseworthy attention for its 180-degree turn to the right side of history. Saudi Arabia deserves global scorn for its continued disingenuous interference with progress. America did its part, but of course could always do more. Yet Congress awaits…
The course for the next five years has been charted. Action is rightly now the operative word. But a second line of inquiry continues to simmer below the headline grabbing pledges and initiatives, like Bill Gates’s $1 billion leadership commitment (1.25 percent of his net worth, it must be said) on the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that will invest in clean energy innovation. Of course innovation is essential. But genuine solutions that address root causes are far more complex. For starters, our short-term obsessed financial system needs its own reinvention to effectively serve this unprecedented challenge.
That second line of inquiry is at the heart of Pope Francis’s courageous, wise, and now controversial Encyclical, Laudato Si’, calling for an “integral ecology.”
Four hundred years ago, the leading Enlightenment thinker Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition under the auspices of Pope Paul V for his belief in Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe. The idea that the Sun and not the Earth was at the center of the Universe was heretical, and seen as a direct challenge to scripture and the authority of the Church. The injunction ordered Galileo:
“to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
Today it is the Pope himself being challenged as a heretic of sorts. He is a heretic to those who subscribe to the conventional, reductionist belief system that sees science as separate from spirituality, and religion as separate from politics and economics. At the core of this contemporary belief system is what Berkeley Ecological Economist Richard Norgaard calls “the Church of Economism,” which has “reshaped the diverse cultures of the world and come to function as a modern secular religion.” This is the “religion” of free market, neo-liberal economics as the arbiter of all questions of the day, as advocated by politicians on the left and the right, by business and financial elites, and even by many environmental advocates. Anyone who challenges this faith, including the Pope himself, had better be prepared for scorn and ridicule, the modern-day equivalent of house arrest.
How far we have come since the birth of the Enlightenment! While the irony is rich, the dangers are great. It’s time for a new enlightenment, grounded in a holistic worldview which understands that everything affects everything, and problems cannot be managed within the expert disciplines that currently define our institutions. The Pope’s Encyclical asserts: “It cannot be emphasized enough, that everything is interconnected.”
Modern science in each of its disciplines understands this to be true: quantum physics for example and the web of life in biology. So too the core religious beliefs, Eastern and Western, express this central idea of interconnectedness, often expressed simply as oneness. Similarly our indigenous wisdom traditions promote the idea of the “unity” and the interconnectedness of all life. Yet in the “house of economism,” and particularly in finance, we insist on breaking down complexity to its component parts so we can better manage them, leaving us with ignorant and dangerous concepts such as “shareholder value.” But in doing so, we lose sight of the interconnected whole as the financial crisis made all to clear.
This reality is central to the Pope’s important message. But unlike so many who challenge the modern “church of economism” with the ideology of resistance, be they champions of social justice or champions of the environment, Pope Francis points to a wiser path. He counsels that the genuine systemic solutions lie instead in our embracing “integral” thinking and decision-making: retaining what’s great about the modern system while addressing head-on its deficiencies and transcending our differences.
“We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”
A recent study funded by NASA, using a cross-disciplinary “Human and Nature DYnamical” (HANDY) model, found that two crucial and contemporary (interconnected) crises—”the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” (climate change is a prime example); and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses [poor]”— have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse” of civilizations in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
The bottom line: The stakes could not be higher: if we don’t change course, we are facing the potential collapse of civilization. Climate change is a symptom of a system-design flaw. So too is the grotesque inequality within wealthy countries and among nations. So too even is the scourge of terrorism. While we move to urgent action post the Paris COP as we must, transforming our energy system in particular, we must at the same time heed the message of the Pope and invest in the search for genuinely integral solutions.
 The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 138
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 141
We are pleased to share with you this unsolicited guest blog post from Bob E. Ulanowicz, an American theoretical ecologist and philosopher.
The recent media flurry over Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, appears to have missed his major thrust, which happens to connect strongly with Regenerative Capitalism. Most reviews highlight Francis’ concern about global warming or his Integral Ecology – the manifold connections between the natural world, economics, society, and politics. Yet, while attention to such relationships is laudable, this focus has already received considerable notice in the academic and professional literature. Other analysts point to his critique of unfettered capitalism, yet this too is nothing new – Catholic Social Teaching has criticized unrestrained capitalism since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.
Instead, the radical thrust of this document relates strongly to Jorge Bergoglio’s choice of name as Bishop of Rome – Francis, as in St. Francis of Assisi, the Saint who championed the poor and outcast, and preached that poverty often was the road to deepest spirituality. Pope Francis channels the Saint in his opening section, citing Francis’ “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” [paragraph 11] and relates how Francis always made sure that a part of the friary garden was to be left to God’s plants and creatures. He shows his awareness of the complex ties between the health of the natural and human worlds and the workings of finance and monetary policy by noting that “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule” , adding that the “Economic and financial sectors, being transitional, tend to prevail over the political” . He argues that the “undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm”  of economics in which “the maximization of profits … reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy” . He regrets that “Finance overwhelms the real economy”  – these days by a factor greater than 50:1. Yet, Pope Francis reveals his hand most openly in Chapter 5 when he makes what might be his most counter-cultural statement:
“In any discussion about a proposed venture, a number of questions need to be asked in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how?” .
Such questions about who benefits and who pays also tie into Regenerative Economics’ concern about externalities, and to ecological economist Herman Daly’s condemnation of “growism.” Nowadays, if a shopping center is proposed, the guiding issue is whether the project will achieve a high return to the developer – i.e., high “growth” – all other matters become secondary. In contrast, Francis states that, “a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development” . He cautions we must “contain growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late” . Francis is confident of the need for such slow-down, writing, “the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view”  and we must “leave behind the myth of unlimited material progress” .
These Franciscan prescriptions also speak to regenerative economics emphasis on balance. For example, studies of energy and currency flows in healthy systems show that pursuit of ever greater efficiency and growth pulls the system away from a healthy balance, and heightens the probability of collapse. In contrast, healthy systems maintain a balance between “throughput efficiency” – akin to the kind that fuels economic size and growth – and a diversity that allows for resilience in the face of perturbation. Translated into economics, processes that decrease market efficiency somewhat in order to permit the survival of slightly less-efficient actors may actually improve the system’s overall sustainability.
Studying such dynamics might also clarify how, in a world of very finite resources, to reconfigure economics to achieve a more just apportionment among the “universal destination of goods” . For example, studies of natural systems also tell us that balance is improved by shorter, quicker, lower-level feedback loops – the kind found in well-knit “cooperatives,” in a sense. In contrast, today’s massive corporate structures tend to crush smaller, quicker ventures as soon as they begin to succeed, as happened with the Saturn experiment under GM.
It’s also of note that the balance between efficiency and resilience-enhancing diversity is related to Adam Smith’s balance between self-interest and “sympathy,” the kind produced when we connect to another person’s circumstances as our own. Smith argued that there was a close relationship between moral behavior and the maximization of virtue, and healthy economic behavior which involved the maximization of wealth as a means to a higher end. Self-interest drives wealth; sympathy drives virtue; only a combination of the two drives wealth as a means to a higher end. Regenerative Capitalism also emphasizes the need to balance self-interest and sympathy because the two play important roles in balancing efficiency and resilience. This is also what Rerum Novarum was about.
It remains for people of good will and organizations like the Capital Institute to elaborate the means for dialing back the overall amplitude of the economy without endangering fundamental human needs and dignity. Meanwhile, Francis consoles us by encouraging that we adopt an attitude of “less is more” and a spirituality marked by “the capacity to be happy with little”.