Opinions

In 2020, let’s focus on value beyond material wealth

At the turn of the year, many of us think about new and better beginnings. Usually this is a matter of personal behavior, but this year dissatisfaction runs deep in the nation and state, and includes all viewpoints — social, political, religious, economic. Dissatisfaction seems to be nearly universal. We’re all unhappy about something.

I am reminded here of one of the most important documents I have read during the past four years, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home.” This is Pope Francis’ second encyclical. I think it is important to recognize that the wisdom of this document is significant to everyone of every faith, or no faith, and that it points our way forward. We should attend to it.

The thesis of this encyclical letter is both simple and radical in the best sense: that the connection between economic justice and environmental justice is intimate — indeed, they are inseparable — and that it is deeply immoral to thwart economic justice and to neglect or damage our common home.

We are used to discussing these two issues as if they were distinct: On the one hand, the 1%, the homeless, the need for a higher minimum wage; on the other, protections of water, air, and land. Pope Francis demonstrates that this separation does not describe reality.

My copy of the encyclical runs to 160 pages of dense reasoning. Pope Francis’ staff has combed the Church archives for crucial references to statements of previous popes and other divines, and I cannot summarize them here. But a few homely examples may point the way.

For one, why are millions of people living in garbage dumps? This is obviously a question of economic justice, but it is also a statement that we have not cared for our common home, that we heedlessly generate waste and treat some people as if they are waste. So there is economic pressure to, for example, burn the Amazon rainforest, or mine it, or grow drugs within it: All are economic pressures that result from an unnecessary maldistribution of wealth that leads to severe damage of our common home, and of human beings, who are frequently indigenous. But one need not go to the Third World for examples when hundreds of thousands of homeless people occupy some of our nation’s wealthiest cities.

Within our state, beloved Republican Gov. Jay Hammond formulated a simple concept that embraces some of Pope Francis’ thinking: that the economic development of state resources should meet several criteria: that the state receive proper compensation for the use or consumption of its resources, that business ventures pay for themselves and that no environmental harm results from such use or consumption. He linked economic justice with environmental justice in a simple formula. It does not duplicate Pope Francis’ appeal, because Francis’ concerns are global and spiritual while Hammond’s were local and secular. However, they do overlap. (I am recalling the Hammond Doctrine from memory; I could find no written source.)

We can also establish an intuitive connection between economic justice and environmental justice when we observe communities within the United States. An observer can easily find a strong correlation between economic health and environmental health. We find this same correlation throughout the First World. People who focus mainly on wealth might argue that we can afford environmental health because we are rich and/or that environmental health is a luxury that unnecessarily inhibits business; but the reverse can easily be argued, that long-term wealth is based on environmental health. Alaska’s fisheries are one example of many. On the other hand, for a negative example, think about the coal fields of Appalachia. Those mines yielded untold trillions of dollars over the decades, yet Appalachia has been a synonym for poverty and environmental degradation for as long as it has yielded coal, and now the region is a locus of the opioid epidemic. We find there neither economic justice nor environmental justice; we have not cared for our common home and our fellow citizens suffer.

Though “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home” is a Roman Catholic document, its reach transcends faiths and nations. It may be appropriate to point out here that both of our powerful senators in Washington are practicing Roman Catholics (I am not). I know that they must read it if they haven’t; I fear from their actions that they have not. I also fear that conservative Catholics may be suspicious of a Pope who has been labelled a liberal, as if the doctrine of papal infallibility does not apply to him. Ignoring his wisdom for this reason is a grave error.

Pope Francis refers to his namesake Saint Francis when he writes, “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” This catches the sense of the encyclical. Both the world we inhabit and the people who inhabit it have a value beyond their material presence. My view is that they both have intrinsic value beyond their utility. Francis wants us to stop treating our world and our people as means to extrinsic ends and to start treating them as ends in themselves. We can do this.

This isn’t the cheeriest of New Year commentaries, but in a time of severe distress, it is good to know that there is a right way into the future, if we are willing to recognize it.

Clarence Crawford is a retired teacher and a retired wilderness guide, as well as the author of the book “Sunlight North: The Wisdom of the Arctic Wilderness.” He is occasionally shocked that very soon he will have lived in Alaska for half a century.

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