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“On care for our common home”: social theory in Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment

by Gareth Bryant on July 30, 2015

Invitation to workshop with Erik Olin Wright

“On care for our common home”: Reading social/sociological theory in Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment

Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical on the environment has generated substantial global debate. The Papal letter, titled “On care for our common home,” links climate change and ecological crisis more generally with issues of inequality, technology, consumption, markets, power, and culture and calls for radical changes in human relations with nature. This seminar will focus on the implicit social/sociological theory in the document. The immediate context is a forthcoming article by Erik Olin Wright, which will form part of a multi-disciplinary symposium in the journal Nature Climate Change, to be published just prior to the Pope’s address to the US Congress on September 24. Erik will share his ideas before opening up a discussion on the sociological theory embedded in the intervention as well as its normative implications. Participants are encouraged to read the Encyclical and form their own ideas on its underlying theory in order to contribute to the discussion.

When: Wednesday 12 August, 4:00pm-6:00pm

Where: Darlington Centre Boardroom, University of Sydney (in the Institute Building, City Road)

Contact: Gareth Bryant, (please RSVP to confirm numbers and to receive a copy of Erik’s draft paper before the event)

Hosted by the Department of Political Economy, School of Social and Political Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.

Further information from Erik Olin Wright:

I have been asked to write a short essay exploring the implicit sociological theory embedded in Pope Francis’s Encyclical for the journal Nature Climate Change. I have read the Encyclical carefully and am in the process of distilling the sociological ideas which I see as animating its arguments. Of course, in the Encyclical itself there is no effort to lay out a systematic theory of society and how it works and what, given that theory, would help us understand the social causes of the climate crisis and the obstacles to needed remedies. This means that the task at hand is to reconstruct such a theory on the basis of fragmentary arguments and analyses in various sections of the document.

My preliminary ideas on this revolve around the following three main themes:

  1. The dynamic heart of the sociological analysis in the Encyclical is about the effects of culture, specifically technocratic culture, or what is sometimes referred to as the technological mindset or “the technological paradigm.” This culture complex is seen as the critical force that generates the pathologies and injustices with respect to the environment. These effects are magnified because of their connection of markets. While there is some mention of the “interests” of powerful people and institutions, these are not given the prominence of cultural arguments.
  1. The Encyclical does not really contain a theory of why the technological mindset is so pervasive, both at the level of popular culture and among elites. There is one brief place where the Pope argues that at least part of the reason elites lack empathy for the plight of the poor and vulnerable, especially in the global south, is that they don’t directly encounter the lives of the poor. But mostly there is no real analysis of why those in power so broadly adopt the technological paradigm. In places he seems to argue that cultural forms have an inner logic, autonomy and dynamic that explains their spread. It is as if elites are in the grip of a technological mindset, rather than that they adopt and push such cultural forms because it is in their interests to do so.
  1. The basic theory in the Encyclical of the changes required to solve the grave environmental problems and injustices of the world today is moral change, especially among elites. People in power need to embrace a new vision. Struggle and resistance in the form of mobilized confrontations with those in power play no role in his analysis. The core idea is that powerful elites need to become enlightened rather than defeated. The model is conversion rather than struggles over power and defeat of environmentally destructive interests.

The point of departure in the workshop will be a discussion of a draft of this essay, which is available, below. All participants are expected to read the Encyclical, focusing on the chapters where social issues are explored. Everyone coming is encouraged to formulate their own interpretation of sociological arguments embedded in the document.

The implicit sociology in the Papal Encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home”

Erik Olin Wright

Department of Sociology

University of Wisconsin – Madison

August, 2015

Draft 1.1 (short version)

The papal encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” accepts the scientific consensus that human activity linked to the use of modern technologies has significantly contributed to global warming in particular and to environmental deterioration more generally. The sociological analysis embedded in the encyclical attempts to explain why people have behaved in this way, why they resist altering their behavior and what it would take to change the situation. One common answer to these questions revolves around economic interests and power. While the encyclical does acknowledge the role of interests, especially those of powerful actors, it argues that interests and power are not the root explanation of the destructive use of technology. Instead, the fundamental explanation of environmentally destructive human activity is found in certain distinctive aspects of contemporary culture.

The basic argument goes like this:

Contemporary societies, especially in the developed regions of the world, are characterized by a cultural configuration containing a number of interconnected elements: rampant individualism, anthropocentrism, consumerism, relativism, and what the encyclical calls the technological, technocratic or techno-economic paradigm. What unifies these disparate cultural elements is instrumental reasoning, a form of reasoning that focuses on the most powerful means for achieving goals rather than the ethical status of the goals themselves. This kind of reasoning is a pervasive feature of contemporary culture, characterizing the mindsets of both ordinary people and elites, and is contrasted to ethical reasoning anchored in concern with the intrinsic moral qualities of actions.

The central sociological thesis of the encyclical is that instrumental reasoning, especially as it is embodied in the technological paradigm, makes people indifferent to the negative environmental side effects of economic growth and technological development. It also makes people indifferent social injustice and the deterioration of the social environment: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty (§175).  When instrumental reasoning becomes the overarching cognitive orientation of a culture, people develop mindsets that lead them to engage in practices which systematically harm both the natural environment and social environment in which they live.

Given this diagnosis of the problem, the encyclical argues that the most crucial transformations needed to deal with the environmental crisis are cultural: “The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis (§53). All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution (§114).” The heart of this cultural revolution is a new cultural configuration that subordinates instrumental reasoning to ethical reasoning and places the wellbeing of others and the natural environment at the center of human concerns. Without this new culture, efforts at creating new public policies to deal with the environmental crisis will fail because “If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment. (§211)”

Transforming culture, of course, is no simple task. Two principle kinds of obstacles to transforming culture in the required way are discussed in the encyclical. First, elites actively obstruct efforts at change both because they themselves have a mindset trapped in the matrix of instrumental reasoning and because their privileges and power are sustained by the cultural diffusion of that mindset. Second, ordinary people have been socialized and educated into the instrumental mindset and seduced by consumerism and individualism: “Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals…. This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. (§203)”

In spite of the strength of socialization into the dominant culture and the powerful interests opposed to change, the encyclical still argues that a cultural revolution is possible. The key idea in the encyclical that opens up space for this possibility is a proposition about two inherent properties of human beings — their capacity for moral reasoning and feelings, and their capacity to reflect on their own beliefs and change them:

Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. (§205)

This capacity for self-transformation enables people to hear messages and have experiences that contradict their existing mindset, and this opens the door for strategies of cultural change. The basic idea is to touch people in ways that challenge the dominant mindset, provide them with alternative understandings of the world, and stimulate the kind of self-reflection needed to form a new mindset imbued with a spirit of “tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (§91). The process by which this actually happens is referred to in the encyclical as “profound interior conversion (§217).”


The papal encyclical provides a powerful indictment of the social practices that have contributed to environmental and social degradation. And it has identified one important dimension of the underlying causes of these practices. However, its overall account is limited in several important ways.

First, while the encyclical certainly recognizes the ways in which markets and business practices have contributed to environmental degradation, these are treated mainly an expression of the relentless operation of instrumental reasoning and its connected cultural forms. These cultural forms the critical underlying social causes of the processes that damage the environment and perpetuate social injustice. An alternative view treats the capitalist structure of the economy as not simply an expression of some underlying cultural paradigm, but as a relatively autonomous causal process in its own right. The fact that capitalist firms pursue short-run profits in ways that ignore environmental externalities is not simply because the executives of those firms have a particular mindset; it is because of the dynamics of competition and the nature of power relations within a capitalist economy. The mindsets of capitalists and managers are to a significant extent a consequence of the operation of a capitalist economy rather than mainly an autonomous explanation for that operation.  The implication is that in order for the aspirations of the encyclical to be realized, the fundamental task is to transform capitalism.

Second, once it is recognized that that to solve the environmental crisis the structures of power within the capitalist economy need to be transformed, it becomes implausible that this can be accomplished by a cultural revolution of the mindsets of capitalists. The powerful interests that are opposed to genuinely restoring ecological balance and dealing in a serious way with global poverty need to be defeated through political confrontation, rather than simply converted to a more compassionate, ethically grounded mindset. Even if some individual rich and powerful people do reject the dominant culture, the hope for such conversion on a wide scale within the elite is not a credible strategy. Political mobilization needs to be part of the strategy, and in such mobilization one can expect fairly sharp conflicts to occur, with winners and losers.

Finally, if the moral goals of the encyclical require challenging the power structures of capitalism, then there needs to develop effective forms of collective capacity to carry out such challenge. The encyclical is almost completely silent on this issue. The implicit theory in the encyclical is that cultural change, if widespread, more or less automatically gets translated into the necessary collective action for institutional change. The Encyclical states “there needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things…..which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” (§107). There is, however, no discussion of the necessary political vehicles for translating new ways of thinking into effective collective action. There is no theory presented of the capacity for struggle, just of the desire for alternatives. This is a classic gap in social analyses in which a description of grievances is seen as sufficient to explain conflict: grievances ’ collective action. In such accounts the problem of aggregating grievances of individuals into a collectively effective form of struggle disappears. But as we know from countless studies, changes in public opinion are not smoothly translated into public policy because of failures to solve the organizational problems of political action even in relatively democratic political systems. What we need is a theory of collective organization – social movements, political parties, unions – and how these mobilize (or fail to mobilize) people for collective action.

The challenge of our age includes the themes articulated in the papal encyclical: cultural transformation to raise awareness of the ethical issues in our relationship to nature and society; efforts to undermine the power of consumerism and rampant individualism to define the horizons of action; and so on. But if we are to effectively realize the emancipatory values of social justice, democracy, community and sustainability, we also need to challenge dominant structures of power and privilege in capitalist society, and for this to succeed we cannot count on a moral conversion of elites.

Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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