A Vatican official has denounced those companies and countries that plunder the global South “like madmen, leaving behind a disaster”.
The Salesian nun Alessandra Smerilli – a professor of Economics at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences ‘Auxilium’, the coordinator of the working group on the economy of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission and a councillor of the Vatican City State – gave an interview to Vatican News in an interview September 4 about Pope Francis’ prayer intention for this month’s ‘Season of Creation’: “that the planet’s resources will not be plundered, but shared in a just and respectful manner”.
Explaining the Pope’s call – “No to plundering; yes to sharing” – Smerilli said that with those words Francis “points out that if the resources of the planet are plundered, first of all, of course, that creates environmental damage”.
“But since the countries richest in these resources are above all the emerging countries, the so-called countries of the South – which are plundered of their natural wealth – all this also becomes an economic problem”, the sister denounced.
Smerilli lamented that “when goods, in addition to being natural resources, are also food commodities, we have a serious problem of food supply: we have people who are literally dying of hunger”.
In the text the Pope says “No to plundering, yes to sharing”.
In his prayer intention, Francis also uses a very expressive image: he says that we are squeezing the resources of the planet “like an orange”. He wants to emphasise that we are behaving, with those who have these resources, in a disrespectful way.
He speaks of “plundering” because this is what happens in war when the victors conquer a country and take all its wealth like madmen, leaving behind a disaster.
Unfortunately this is what happens in many territories when natural resources are plundered, and in this context the Pope introduces the concept of “debt”, which seems to me to be very effective.
Francis, indeed, speaks of countries and companies of the North that have become rich by exploiting the natural gifts of the South thereby generating an “ecological debt” and asks himself – who will pay it?
It is an expression that the Pope had introduced in the encyclical Laudato si’, number 51, where he made a very pertinent comparison.
To plunder, to pillage, to exploit other countries means to get rich behind their backs and, therefore, it is almost as if one were to borrow these resources, thereby generating a debt.
Now, while in economics when you contract a debt you are obliged to repay it, in ecology we don’t take it into account.
The encyclical reminds us that the countries of the South of the world are indebted to the richest. There are plans to pay back these economic debts; precise conditions are established.
With simplicity and ingenuity, Francis asks himself why this does not also happen with the ecological debt.
He asks himself why we do not oblige those who exploit the resources of others to repay this debt to the poorest countries. Perhaps we should be more attentive to this.
As an economist, what strikes you the most about this reasoning?
I think right now – “today, not tomorrow”, as the Pope says – we should stop considering ecological damage as something “external” to business activity.
In fact they are called “externalities”, as if they were an unintended effect, something external.
The reasoning is: the businessman must produce; to produce he needs certain resources; he exploits other countries; he creates ecological problems, but these are something that occurs beyond his intentions.
We have to stop considering all this as something external, an “externality”; instead we have to learn that all this is part of the activity of companies that must factor into their costs everything necessary to reduce their ecological impact.
The Pope explains that the “ecological debt” increases when multinationals do in other countries what is not permitted in their own.
It is unfortunately a very widespread phenomenon; it occurs at the level of ecology but also at the level of taxation. And perhaps this aspect is the best known.
Many multinational companies – not all, because there are some that are well-managed – put, for example, their tax headquarters in so-called tax havens, such that they can exploit the labour force and enjoy certain conditions in the places where they operate economically but without paying taxes.
The same is done at the ecological level. In the case of companies that operate at an international level – multinationals – it is necessary to have systems of governance, taxation and control that go beyond those of individual states.
Is the ecological and socio-economic crisis that Francis refers to also connected to the COVID-19 health crisis that we are experiencing?
Certainly. The Pope was perhaps one of the first leaders in the world to understand that the health emergency that has arisen with the pandemic is linked to everything else.
This health emergency that we have gone through and are going through – given that in many countries of the world it is still in a growth phase – is leading to the surfacing of socio-economic problems, many of which already existed, particularly inequality of opportunity.
Therefore, this is an opportunity that is given to us to fix some things.
For this reason the Pope had the insight of creating a commission to think through a post-pandemic world: new models of development, and always working in concrete terms: as he always tells us, in the framework of integral ecology.
In particular, in working group 2 – which I am coordinating – we are working together on the themes of economy, security, health, and ecology. Because, if we don’t have a broad vision, we won’t make progress. On the contrary, perhaps in the wake of the pandemic we will go backwards.