Pirson: Pope’s encyclical adds to sustainability efforts

Michael PirsonPope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si (Praise Be to You), released Thursday morning, laid out a case for a more conscious stewardship of the planet, rejecting what he said was a short-sighted throw-away culture of consumerism and greed.

Climate change, ecological destruction and waste are not only destroying the planet but also contributing to the degradation of humanity, the leader of the world’s Catholics wrote.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet,” the pontiff wrote. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

We asked the Gabelli School‘s Associate Professor Michael Pirson – a founding partner of the Humanistic Management Network, which advocates for a more sustainable and humane approach to business – five questions about what the pope’s encyclical means and how it could affect the dialogue about the future of business.

Here are his answers, edited only for style:

1) Pope Francis, in his encyclical said, “We have come to see ourselves as [the earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” On a global scale, do you think this is true of our business climate? Why?

Absolutely and unfortunately. We operate mostly under the maxim “take, make, waste.” More than 90 percent of the products purchased are in the dump six months after purchase. Raw materials are taken from the earth without much consideration for the people involved (China often uses its prison population to help with that) or the effects on communities and the environment. A restorative economic system that employs smart design for production and consumption in a cyclical manner is not yet the norm.

2) You are an advocate of sustainable business practices. What all does that entail, when it comes to management of natural resources? And how can it help with what Francis calls “the urgent challenge to protect our common home”?

Sustainable business is following a regenerative paradigm similar to nature so that the notion of “waste” is unnecessary. Sustainable business can be replicated over generations and leaves all generations better off. Management of our resources in a sustainable manner means that cellphones, for example, can be broken back up into their original components which can be reused for novel generations of technical gadgets. In Europe, the car manufacturers have to take back their cars, so that the incentive becomes to design the cars in such a manner that parts and material will be reused over and over. Pope Francis suggests that we manage with more care for ourselves and the planet as we are linked. Very few people would willingly live in a toxic dump and given the choice we can clean up our home. The more people see that challenge the earlier we can get to cleaning up. Francis’ encyclical is certainly of help to those that wish to clean up the mess we are in and sustainable business practices can help.

3) Can the words of the leader of a 2,000-year-old institution have a significant impact on the effort to move businesses toward sustainability and a more sensitive approach to the environment?

I certainly hope so.

4) While much attention is given to the role of industry in global warming and the lack of sustainable infrastructure, Pope Francis doesn’t let individuals off the hook in Laudato Si, saying, “Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” How can individuals change this paradigm?

I think everyone can think more mindfully about the ultimate goal here: Is it wealth and status, or is it authentic well-being? I would argue that authentic well-being as a goal can help reframe some parts of the confrontational relationship and move us from the “masters of the universe” to “stewards of the earth”  notion of success.

5) Francis paints a bleak picture of humankind’s management of the planet and its resources, but he remains optimistic in faith. How about you? Are you optimistic that we can change?

I see that some people such as social entrepreneurs can effect huge change. They empower themselves, sometimes guided by faith sometimes guided by common sense. I know that many people yearn to be part of a solution and not part of the problem. As a teacher I am trying to highlight potential pathways to productive action and social change that reduce individual frustration and empower those of “good will” to become more effective changemakers. Anyone interested should check out Fordham’s Social Innovation platforms to learn more about that. http://www.fordham.edu/info/21420/social_innovation_collaboratory


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