The Pope is on a tear. Great evil stalks the world, and he is determined to denounce it. That evil is global capitalism.
In South America last week, Pope Francis cited St. Basil of Caesarea's description of capitalism as "the dung of the devil." Capitalism has made men and women slaves to greed, and has spread death, destruction and poverty throughout the world. Global (read, Western) capitalism is the colonialism of our time. Its agents are rapacious multinationals, international loan agencies, and certain "free trade" treaties, which only enrich the 1 per cent. "Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money," the Pope said, because "that economy destroys Mother Earth."
As one observer said approvingly, he sounded like Naomi Klein in a cassock.
Indeed, it seems Ms. Klein and the Pope are new BFFs. The Vatican invited her to speak there after it published its new encyclical on climate change, which called for an "ecological conversion" among Christians and nonbelievers alike. Both Ms. Klein and the Pope urge us to abandon industrial capitalism to save the planet. Ms. Klein is thrilled to have the pontiff on side. "What Pope Francis is saying is that the roots of poverty and the roots of climate change are the same," she said. "It is this logic of domination and endless greed that has created a broken economy and that is breaking the planet …."
Well, God knows global capitalism is far from perfect. But I'm not entirely sure what alternative these two have in mind. They seem to be calling for a sort of mass enlightenment, wherein the world's rich (that's us) will voluntarily renounce our cars, central heating, air conditioners, plane travel, electronic gizmos and refrigerators, and embrace the low-carbon-footprint life of the original St. Francis, who wandered far and wide as an itinerant preacher.
Alas for us, we're no saints. Also, without modern agriculture and distribution systems, we'd starve. But those are merely quibbles.
Meantime, global capitalism is the biggest anti-poverty program the world has ever known. Capitalism hasn't impoverished the poor. It has enriched the poor. Among other things, it has put cellphones into the hands of poor farmers from Bolivia to Bhutan – and cellphones are a remarkably powerful tool to help them move out of poverty and beyond subsistence living.
Thanks to global capitalism, human existence is no longer nasty, brutish and short. High rates of economic growth in China and India have caused a huge decline in extreme poverty in only 30 years. In 1981, 53 per cent of the world's population lived on less than $1.25 a day. By 2011, that had plunged to 17 per cent.
Global hunger is on the wane, as is child labour. In low-income countries, life expectancy increased by nine years between 1990 to 2012. The child mortality rate fell by more than two-thirds in east Asia, Latin America, and north Africa.
Such are the ravages of global capitalism.
As for global warming, you can take the theological approach or the secular approach. The theological approach (as expounded by Ms. Klein and the Pope) sees global warming as a sort of original sin – the proof of mankind's fallen state. In their view, only moral reform can redeem us. The secular approach regards global warming as an unfortunate byproduct of progress, one that may or may not cause serious problems down the road. Most of the rhetoric about global warming is theological, which is unfortunate, because the real remedies won't be moral. They'll be technological.
But humankind is powerfully attracted to theology, which helps explain why so many secular people in our non-religious age have embraced the doctrine of global warming with such fervour. It offers all the drama of the irrational belief systems they have abandoned: sin, salvation, evil, prescriptions for right living, and the prospect of apocalyptic end times if mankind doesn't mend its wicked, wicked ways. It also offers prophets such as Naomi Klein, who are perfectly at home with the thunderous damnations of the Pope.
"Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farm workers without land, so many families without a home, so many labourers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?" he declaimed the other day (although it could as well have been Ms. Klein).
Yes, we do. We need change. We need to get those people cellphones right away.