An economist to Pope Francis: Don’t blame capitalism for global warming

In his May 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis diagnosed the world’s environmental degradation as a result of mankind’s reckless pursuit of financial gain, speculation and the “deification of the market,” writing:

In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.

Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

In light of the Pope’s previous mentions of the “idolatry of money,” most people have interpreted his letter on the environment as yet another condemnation of capitalism. Pollution, the Pope has implied, would be lower if only the state or some other moral entity could control the rampage of the free market.

But if this were true, it would follow that countries where capitalism does not exist might be free of ecological problems. This is not the case. On the contrary, the management of the environment in communist countries has been and continues to be much worse than in capitalist ones. For example, Richard Fuller, president of the environmental non-profit Blacksmith Institute once identified the former Soviet Union as having “by far and away the worst problems…” when it comes to environmental protection and land use.

The magnitude of communism’s damage to the natural environment is perhaps best appreciated by looking at the giant desert that has replaced the onetime Aral Sea, between modern day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the mid-20th century, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest lake in the world, after the Caspian Sea, and Lakes Superior and Victoria. It was larger than West Virginia. It provided one sixth of the fish consumed in the USSR, and the lands around it produced melons, clover and barley and antelopes roamed the area. To blame our current environmental catastrophe on a single ideology is to ignore mankind’s own day-to-day responsibilities. 

Now there is nothing but a desert and two very small lakes. The sand deposited on the bed of the formerly enormous sea is blown by the wind, contaminating large areas. The wind also contains pesticides and insecticides deposited in the lake and now exposed in its naked bed. This has made the land around the old lake infertile, and all because the Soviet government decided to develop a cotton industry in the area, diverting two rivers to irrigate the new fields.

This is just one of many examples. Reports written in the 1990s show that 16% of the territory of the former Soviet Union, containing 25% of the population, was in a state of environmental risk. About 40% of the population lived in areas where the level of air pollutants was three to four times the allowable limit. Half of the industrial waste water in Moscow was untreated. In the late 1980s, cases of metal poisoning were discovered in several cities.

The Soviet government did begin to show some concern for the environment at the end of the 1980s, when it established Goskompriroda, the state committee for the protection of nature. Goskompriroda boasted a budget of $4 million. But that pales in comparison to the ideologically-opposite United States, which had granted its Environmental Protection Agency a budget of $5 billion at the time.

And it’s not just the Soviet Union. Pollution is famously bad in China, where the government has plenty of power to override market tendencies, if it wants. Air quality in the city of Baoding, for example, is regularly rated as hazardous to human health.

All this does not prove that capitalism is innocent in terms of pollution. It, does however, suggest that environmental woes are not the exclusive product of capitalism. In fact, some of the world’s worst historic episodes of pollution happened in communist countries.

The Pope’s concern about the environment is laudable. However, we cannot blame capitalism for pollution and other environmental disasters. At the very least, we would have to allow for the possibility that both capitalism and communism might be ideologies that cause environmental destruction.

But even this rings somewhat hollow. To blame our current environmental catastrophe on a single ideology or abstract entity is to ignore mankind’s own day-to-day responsibilities. No environmental destruction is the result of some unstoppable system. The culprits behind environmental destruction are all of us.

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