Good Capitalism: Business and the Environment

by Peter Knox SJ

Last week, I was one of four representatives of the Holy See at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Apart from a tech-Expo, and multiple side events, the week hosted multilevel discussions about implementing Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. Subtitled “Healthy Environment for Healthy People” the link between destructive envrionmental practices and poor health of millions of ordinary citizens was taken as axiomatic. There were representatives from 174 countries, including 123 ministerial-level delegations. Sessions were presented by businesspeople, scientists, entrepreneurs, NGO’s and various civil-society stakeholders.

What struck me forcefully was the paradigm shift regarding business and the environment. Previous orthodoxy maintained that business was bad for the environment, (and there was certainly enough evidence to support that theory.) The new orthodoxy maintains that the “green economy” is good business. And that the “blue economy” may solve the world’s environmental crises.

In previous international events I’ve attended (the World social Forum in Nairobi in 2007 and the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2001) business was bad, capitalism was evil and the market was the enemy. Civil society was often pitted against government and industry. This year NGO’s and environmentalists were tripping over each other to get closer to the Euros, Yens and Dollars that are going to be the salvation of the planet.

It is true: major industries are responsible for much of the wholesale pollution of the planet. In South Africa, to take one example, just two companies emit most of the country’s greenhouse gases – the national electricity monopoly, and the oil-from-coal petrochemical industry. Mining effluent accounts for most of the toxification of the national water reserves. Land pollution is blamed largely on agri-business and harmful methods in industrial-scale farming. Poor education means that many people do not realise the harm being done to our common home by our ‘throwaway culture.’

Now the green economy makes good business sense, and can promote sustainable use of the world’s limited resources. Businesses are encouraged to go green, and can actually help to undo some of the damage of previous models since the Industrial Revolution. For example, dealing in ‘ethical’ minerals with various certificates of origin and production can help to promote healthier communities. State of the art science in Global Information Systems (GIS) can provide mapping with multiple overlays of data, correlating the topographic, social, economic, floral and faunal landscapes. This allows better understanding, prediction and ultimately preservation of the environment.

Governments alone cannot provide all the infrastructure for the transfer to harnessing renewable energy. The scale is too vast for governments to come up with all the necessary finance. Their role is to legislate against harmful practices and enable good practice. Since Paris and COP 21, there is a ‘can-do’ attitude. Perhaps it is more accurate to call it a ‘must-do’ mentality. The urgency is so great, and finally the logjam caused by obstructionist governments and denialist industrialists has been broken. There is broad consensus that the aim of limiting the world to a 2 degree rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, will demand unprecedented global co-operation. In my opinion, 1.5 degrees was merely a rhetorical flourish. The alarming rate of the loss of biodiversity, the death of corals, the collapse of some nations’ fisheries, the much-publicised ‘plastic sea’ in the middle of the Pacific, were all a timely wake-up call.

There are hopes for lucrative business opportunities in the new economic paradigm. There is talk of re-greening intermediate technology like replacing compact fluorescent lightbulbs (relying on mercury, which ultimately ends up in landfills) with LED’s which are more durable and have fewer harmful side-effects. This is not just ‘green-wash’ but there does seem to be a real motivation to be involved in a new economic model. “Social entrepreneurism” was the order of the day, and former antagonists were listening to each other with a respect and tolerance that I had not previously noted.

“Bad capitalism” was roundly denounced. This takes no account of the expensive ‘externalities’ such as the downstream costs of damage to personal or environmenal health, or the upstream inputs such as subsidies that enable cheaper production. “Good capitalism” takes into account all the capital factors: natural capital and social capital, and not just the finanical and manufactured capital.

The delegation representing the Holy See had a certain justifiable pride in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ as it does not demonise businesses, but with prescience speaks of a collaboration, and even synergy, between the interests of the environment and business.

Peter Knox is a South African Jesuit who is currently teaching theology at the Jesuit Theologate, Hekima College, in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Fr Peter Knox SJ

Rev. Prof. Peter Knox, SJ (born Johannesburg 1962; entered the Jesuits 1983; ordained 1996), is a Professor of Theology at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya, and serves as Deputy Principal Academic. He previously worked at the Jesuit Institute in South Africa.
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