George Will’s mental acrobatics on poverty and climate change

George Will thinks himself wiser and holier than the Pope.

In a syndicated column published Saturday, the well-known conservative writer attacked Pope Francis and his stances on climate change, environmental destruction and global poverty. (Most famously, the Pope tweeted that “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” Agreed!) Not only did Will claim that the Pope’s calls for environmental justice are “impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false, and deeply reactionary” with his penchant flair for adverbs and the rule of threes, he even accused the Pope himself of sanctimoniousness. Given this Pope’s commitment to humbly serving the marginalized, this is particularly amusing coming from the mind of a professional conservative author whose words have appeared in this country’s major newspapers for over 40 years.

George Will

Under normal circumstances I would rather not spend my time responding to George Will. But in this case, Will’s words offer such a neat crystallization of the usual myths the Davos set spouts about global poverty, development and climate change that it is hard to resist. According to Will and many other defenders of today’s international status quo, unfettered global capitalism has largely benefitted the poor and even the environment, and to do anything to try and improve the condition of either will backfire. The reality, however, is that without drastic changes to the global economy and major increases in resource efficiency, the poor and everyone else will be condemned to live in a world that is, in fact, an immense pile of filth.

Poverty and inequality under globalization

Will’s primary argument is that global capitalism has reduced poverty more than at any point in human history, and that any attempt at redistributive justice would undo the good that globalization has done. What’s more, front and center in all of this poverty reduction are man’s extraction and ample use of fossil fuels:

Our flourishing requires affordable, abundant energy for the production of everything from food to pharmaceuticals. Poverty has probably decreased more in the past two centuries than in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels… The capitalist commerce that Francis disdains is the reason the portion of the planet’s population living in “absolute poverty” ($1.25 a day) declined from 53 percent to 17 percent in three decades after 1981.

Setting aside for now his assertion about fossil fuels, claims about the extent of poverty reduction since 1981 are a matter of much heated debate. One paper refers the World Bank’s “absolute poverty” measures cited by Will as “How Not to Count the Poor,” laying out a number of issues with World Bank poverty data. The short version is that setting the International Poverty Line at a dollar a day (as it was originally defined, in 1985 dollars) has led to inconsistent results that are hardly comparable across countries or even year-to-year. The one 1985 dollar per day figure was chosen in 1990; ten years later, in 2000, it was revised to $1.08 a day in 1993 dollars. If that sounds overly convoluted, that’s because it is. Regge and Pogge, authors of “How Not to Count the Poor,” pointed out that Nigeria and Mauritania had comparable poverty levels in 1999 (around 31% each, according to the old methodology), but that in 2000, thanks to the new methodology, Nigeria’s poverty level was reported as 70.2% where Mauritania’s was 3.8%.

But even if we were to accept the premise that poverty as defined as one 1985 dollar a day did drop dramatically over the years, rises in income growth may hide other costs as well. Women, for example — in the United States as elsewhere — typically benefit from income growth less than men. Cuts in taxes or other fees may give way to income growth, but often at the cost of reduced social services. And as the book Fair Future points out, “someone earning one dollar a day often migrates to the city and can no longer rely on family networks or the free goods of nature,” and so on. Data are political, and the way Will employs the dollar a day measure obscures qualitative realities not visible from the airports, taxis and 5-star hotels of the world.

One word that George Will doesn’t even mention once in his article is inequality, which would be astonishing were this anyone else. As with measures of absolute poverty, debate rages over whether inequality has increased or decreased over the years, but lately a consensus has emerged that currently it is rising. Across the world, in emerging countries as in developing countries, the top 1% of earners are pulling in more and more of their respective national incomes. The massive attention Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century garnered and its enthusiastic reception among economists is just one example of how inequality has changed the nature of the debate — again, unless you’re George Will.

But here’s the thing: To date, most proposals for tackling global poverty and inequality focus on increasing GDP growth in poor countries such that they can “catch up” to the developed economies. Dire poverty in India and China, thanks to this approach, has sharply dropped. Currently, however, the global economic system already uses up more resources each year than the earth can replenish in the same amount of time. The consequences for this overshoot, moreover, disproportionately fall on the poor. Under the extractive, growth-obsessed model of economic prosperity, the promise of “catch up” remains ever out of reach.

Out-of-control consumption and extraction

Will’s article chastises Pope Francis for taking a stance against “compulsive consumerism,” suggesting that he is a hypocrite for using electricity or flying on airplanes. These two words are, in fact, the only words of Pope Francis’ that Will quotes in his article. But does Pope Francis actually mean that we are not to enjoy the fruits of modernity? Not at all; his stance is against the entrenched model of limitless growth and consumption:

Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They… show no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.

Instead of criticizing individuals for their personal consumption habits, the Papal encyclical Laudato Si’, “On care for our common home,” takes aim at the systemic contradiction between the illusion of limitless growth and the actuality of a finite world. It is about more than just turning the lights out when you leave the room or changing personal habits (though that is all well-intentioned and good). A major restructuring of the global economy will be necessary to reorient our world.

Pope Francis has been called “a Pope for the Poor”

Will brings up issues of land use, fertilizers and pesticides as examples of how technology and progress have improved the lot of humanity, but in fact, this is one of the areas where the global misappropriation of resources is most evident. Since being integrated into the global economy, countries of the global South now largely produce agricultural goods for export and import their food rather than producing it domestically. This is the case thanks to IMF and World Bank policies that encourage exports as a way of bringing foreign currency into developing countries to service their debt (which is in turn furnished to them by the World Bank and IMF). Export crops like cotton, bananas, cocoa, sugar and coffee require industrial-scale farming practices that push out small farmers and demand vast amounts of pesticides and water.

Conventional cotton production requires anywhere from 2 to 15 hundred liters of water per square meter; the amount of cotton required to produce one T-shirt alone may use up to 20,000 liters. Irrigation used for cotton draws water from its natural course, deposits salt on the upper layers of soil, and contaminates the land with pesticides. Central Asia’s Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest, is now completely dried up thanks to intense cotton-production in the region that began in the Soviet era, ironically enough, in order to increase the region’s exports, catch up and “develop [into] a glittering Southern showcase of socialism.” This is just one of the ways that current production and resource flows extract value from poor countries and redistribute the gains to rich ones. Cheap cotton raises consumer purchasing power in the developed world, while the negative “externalities” and the consequences of export dependency remain in the developing world.

Water consumption and usage is a particularly illustrative example of how current global consumption patterns cannot be sustained. No one questions the fact that water is a finite resource, the use and overuse of which is ever clearer as we see in California. By far the largest water-guzzler is agriculture, accounting for between 65 and 70% of worldwide freshwater usage. Producing a single kilogram of beef takes up to 16,000 liters of water, where a kilogram of grain takes up to 1,000 – 2,000 liters. Changing diets will be an inevitable feature of future consumption habits, most likely dictated not from above but by prices. Altering the nature of food production will also be vital and genetic modification must necessarily play a role, under the condition that the dominance of a few major players (*cough* Monsanto *cough*) be challenged.

All goods use up water in the production process at some point or another. Few offer such examples of profaning the sacred and destroying our planet, however, quite like the Peabody Western Coal Company’s Black Mesa coal mine, which mixed broken up bits of coal with as much as 480,000 metric tons of clean drinking water an hour from the Navajo aquifer simply to make its transportation more cost efficient (via pipeline). Here the contradiction between short-term resource extraction and long-term cost-benefit analysis could not be clearer.

To save on transportation costs, the Peabody Western Coal Company has depleted the Navajo aquifer to the extent that it will never recover on a human time-scale. Short-term gains currently receive more weight in economic analysis than long-term human needs. An extraction-based consumer economy will never be able to balance these competing interests.

The political-economic window is opening, for now

To his credit, George Will did make an attempt at addressing global capital’s impact on the environment — by citing 19th century author Charles Dickens (not kidding) as an example of how pollution has been solved (seriously, not kidding). Pope Francis “neglects what technology has accomplished regarding London’s air (see Page 1 of Dickens’s “Bleak House”),” Will writes, apparently not having bothered to read the book any further. As outlined above, however, global flows of goods, capital and labor have shifted the environmental costs of production onto the world’s poorest regions. Just look at what technology has accomplished regarding Beijing’s air, George Will!

In all seriousness, however, there are a number of encouraging signs that a sustainable future really is possible if the political and economic will to do so can be mustered within the next few years. Pope Francis puts it this way:

We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.

A new report from Greenpeace asserts that a 100% renewable economy is achievable by 2050, as, for the first time ever, the decreasing cost of renewable technology has caught up with fossil fuels. That — in spite of the lowest oil prices in decades — is nothing short of remarkable. Paradoxically, lower oil prices also mean that the high investment cost of fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline is sure to be unprofitable in the long-term. Meanwhile, the Guardian announced recently that the combined efforts of activists in the fossil fuel divestment movement have pushed large investors to pledge to pull 2.6 trillion dollars out of hydrocarbon investments. And ahead of this year’s Paris Climate Talks in December, the world’s most developed countries have pledged up to $100 billion to help finance sustainable development in the global South. That’s a start. There is growing momentum toward building a renewable, sustainable energy economy.

The fossil fuel industry drives climate change and global injustice

A full transition to a renewable grid will also issue a serious challenge to global inequality, as the fossil fuel industry represents a huge concentration of wealth in the hands of heinous multinationals like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and the state oil companies of repressive, kleptocratic regimes in Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Putting an end to fossil fuel extraction will loosen these companies’ grip on the global economy and decentralize wealth and power worldwide — making further strides toward a sustainable future more achievable in the process.

Nonetheless, the fossil fuel industry and other backwards resource gobblers’ control over wealth and power remains, at present, fixed on maintaining their influence. They funnel enormous sums of money (amounts that top even big tobacco in its heyday) into think tanks, businesses and institutions that act as fronts to promote an agenda fueling climate chaos. And ultimately, we only have a brief window of opportunity to address climate change before its effects become irreversible: for if we exceed what the IPCC has termed the “global carbon budget” of 1000 gigatons as we are on track to do, then an increase in global surface temperatures above 2° C —  a level which would be incompatible with human civilization as we know it — becomes inevitable.

George Will concludes his article by saying that Pope Francis “stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources.” But, pitted as we are in a race between those seeking global resource justice and those who wish to consume every last lump of coal for short-term gain, it is Will who is fighting against modernity, rationality, science, and the open society.

What heavy times these are, what with the weight of the world on each and every one of our shoulders! George Will is undoubtedly a bright individual who, instead of fighting for a better future, clings steadfastly to old ways of thinking out of either indifference or inertia. But, among the many lessons I took from a Catholic upbringing, I try to keep the faith and an open heart.

Will George Will heed Pope Francis’ call to be a steward of the Earth? Will you?

An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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