Recently, Pope Francis released his new encyclical letter, ‘LAUDATO SI’ — ‘Praise be to you’ (you can find the full version of the encyclical here). The main purpose of this encyclical is ‘to enter dialogue with all people about our common home’; this implies that the Pope wanted to share his views on the environment and the use of the scarce resources on our planet.
Interestingly, there are references to Saint John Paul II who, in his first encyclical, stated that humans ‘see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption’. This is certainly the basis for utility theory in economics – rational consumers aim to maximise their own utility (satisfaction), no matter what the consequences could be. Utility theory is one of the first lessons taught to economics students around the world, therefore, it is often presumed that maximising utility is a good thing. Intuitively, it seems like a good thing – everyone wants the most out of what they pay for. Whether it be a new laptop paid for with money, or building a new relationship which is paid for with time. Getting the most from our sacrifices appears to be the best possible outcome. However, what does it mean when we say getting ‘the most’? When do we know that we have ‘the most’? Do we ever have ‘the most’?
This is one of the principal issues mentioned in the Pope’s encyclical. As human beings, we always want more and more and more and more and more. It never ends. The truth is, instead of aiming to get ‘the most’ out of what we consume, we should aim to get the optimum amount – there is a big difference between ‘the most’ and ‘the optimum’. As the Pope asks, ‘Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximising profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?’. Yes, there are currently many companies who are taking it upon themselves to react to the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources and combat climate change. For example, the likes of Nike and IKEA have adapted their previously successful business models to work towards a common goal of protecting the environment. However, the efforts of firms alone will not solve this problem because, ultimately, consumers are the ones who decide which firms stay in business and which ones don’t.
Firms provide us with all sorts of goods and services. The Pope recognises this and states that ‘it becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality’ – which is very much true. When you go into your favourite supermarket, it hardly seems as though there is a lack of resources on the planet. Instead, the Earth’s resources appear to be boundless and abundant — why else would there be 10 different toothbrushes to choose from, or 30 different chocolate bars to indulge in? The growth of consumerism has lead to the fact that companies want to find more ways to become competitive. They need to meet the needs of all types of consumers, therefore, they’ve decided to create a variety of ‘different’ products. Despite the fact that these ‘different’ products are all pretty much the same, consumers tend to buy into it. That’s right, we, the consumers, are causing ‘the earth, our home, […] to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’.
Therefore, it’s clear that we cannot rely upon companies, from which we buy goods and services, to protect the environment for us. This is because firms have limited power over what they supply to consumers as it is consumers who demand products from firms. Firms only provide what they know consumers will want. It’s down to us, the consumers, to demand more environmentally friendly products, to cut down on the extensive choice we demand for ourselves, and to preserve our planet.
‘Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal’.
This post was inspired by this podcast.
All other encyclicals can be found here.
The featured image was from The Huffington Post.
Other articles which informed this post: