Three Global Sustainability Leaders: Pope Francis, Jeffrey Sachs, and Nicholas Stern

Global temperatures are rising, along with droughts, floods, storms, wildfires, and melting of glaciers and tundra. Concern about climate change and sustainable development is necessarily growing. Three of the most important recent books and reports are reviewed here, as an introduction to major thinking about what must be done.

I. Pope Francis on Integral Ecology and a New Dialogue
The most widely-known of the recent documents on environmental issues and the human condition is Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, July 2015, 160p), addressed to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—and beyond. This Encyclical Letter is composed of 246 numbered paragraphs in six chapters, starting with an explanation of “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore”—“Praise be to you, my Lord,” a canticle from Saint Francis of Assisi reminding us that our common home on earth is like a sister with whom we share our life and a mother who embraces and sustains us. Other paragraphs in the introduction refer to Encyclicals expressing ecological concern from previous Popes, echoing “the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking.” (paragraph #7)

After extolling Saint Francis as “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically” (#10), Pope Francis summarizes his appeal: “the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development… I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet” (#13-14).

Chapter One, “What Is Happening to Our Common Home,” questions continued acceler­ation of changes affecting humanity and the planet, coupled with a more intensified pace of life and work. Topics include pollutants producing a broad spectrum of health hazards (#20), dangerous waste that is often non-biodegradable (#21), a throwaway culture that reduces things to rubbish and has yet to develop a circular model (#22), a disturbing warming of the climatic system (#23), melting of the polar ice caps and release of methane gas (#24), the rising number of migrants fleeing from poverty caused by environmental degradation, with widespread indifference to such suffering (#25), the urgent need to drastically reduce greenhouse gases in the new few years (#26), the quality and quantity of fresh drinking water (#27-31), loss of biodiversity as earth’s resources are plundered (#32-42), decline in the quality of human life as many cities become unhealthy places (#43-44), increased violence and growing drug use (#46), overload and confusion in the new digital world (#47), too much blame on “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some” (#50), growing inequality within and between countries (#51), lack of “the culture needed to confront this crisis…leadership capable of striking out on new paths” (#53), too many special interests and “sporadic acts of philanthropy,” too much superficial rhetoric, and the failure of global summits (#54), the rise of a superficial ecology that “bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness” (#59), and “signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation” (#61).

“If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion.” (#63) Chapter Two, The Gospel of Creation, goes on to explain the wisdom of biblical accounts, the responsibility for God’s earth (#68), the mystery of the universe, the mystery of each creature in the harmony of creation, the sense of deep communion with the rest of nature, and the gaze of Jesus who lived “in full harmony with creation.” (#98)

Chapter Three, The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, returns to secular themes with a vengeance, covering the dominant technocratic paradigm (#101), our new era where technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads (#102), the lack of human responsibility to match our immense technological development (#105), “the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument” (#108), how finance overwhelms the real economy (#109), fragmentation of knowledge and technology-related specialization that make it difficult to see the larger picture (#110), an authentic humanity calling for a new synthesis (#112), “the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow” (#113), the “urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution” (#114), modernity marked by an excessive anthropocentrism that prizes technical thought over reality (#115), the incompatibility of concern with the protection of nature and the justification of abortion (#120), the need to take account of the value of labor in any integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings (#124), the need to prioritize access to steady employment for all (#127), the need to constantly rethink the goals, effects, and ethical limits of indiscriminate genetic manipulation (#131), and the need for “a broad, responsible scientific and social debate” on the common good, present and future (#135).

“Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis” (#137), Chapter Four considers elements of an Integral Ecology which “clearly respects its human and social dimensions.” It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions considering interactions within natural systems and with social systems, and such strategies “demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (#139) Other elements include “sustainable use” that considers each ecosystem’s regenerative ability (#140), the need for “an economic ecology capable of appealing to a broader vision of reality” and “a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision “(#141), a “cultural ecology” that protects the treasures of humanity in the broadest sense while calling for greater attention to local cultures (#143), a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures and avoid “attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions” (#144), the need to show special care for indigenous communities and their view of land as a sacred space and a gift from God (#146), authentic development and the ecology of daily life (#147-151), lack of housing in cities and rural areas as “a grave problem in many parts of the world” (#152), systems of urban transport as a frequent source of suffering (#153), respect for the human person underlying the principle of the common good (#157), the broader vision of justice between the generations—the kind of world we want to leave to our children (#159-160), and our inability to think seriously about future generations as “linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development” (#162).

Chapter Five, Lines of Approach and Action, outlines “the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us” (#163).

  1. Dialogue on the Environment in the International Community. On the need to think of one world with a common plan and a global consensus for confronting the deeper problems of sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, universal access to drinking water, and better management or marine and forest reserves (#164). Also considers the worldwide ecological movement (#166), the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio echoing the 1972 Stockholm Declaration (#167), the “wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document” of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development due to countries that place their national interests above the common good (#169), the injustice to poor countries from internationalizing environmental costs (#170), the worry that buying and selling carbon credits can lead to a new form of speculation and could become a ploy that permits excessive consumption of some countries and sectors (#171), the priority of eliminating extreme poverty in poor countries (#172), enforceable international agreements (#173), and governance systems for oceans and the whole range of “global commons” (#174).
  2. Dialogue for New National and Local Policies. On limits for healthy and mature societies related to foresight and security with regulatory norms and timely enforcement (#177), a far-sighted environmental agenda (#178), more cooperatives to ensure local self-sufficiency (#179), promoting ways of conserving energy and modifying consumption (#180), countering “the mindset of short-term gain and results that dominates present-day economics and politics” and promoting “a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society” (#181).
  3. Dialogue and Transparency in Decision-Making. On transparent assessment of environmental impacts of business ventures (#182-185), reassessments when significant new information comes to light, with involvement of all interested parties (#187), encouraging “an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (#188).
  4. Politics and Economy in Dialogue for Human Fulfillment. On an economy that is not “subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy” and “rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world” (#189), openness to different possibilities that direct energy along new channels (#191), correcting the disparity between excessive technological investment in consumption and insufficient investment in resolving urgent problems facing the human family (#192), accepting “decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth” (#193), redefining our notion of progress (#194), recognizing the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources (#195), the principle of subsidiarity which grants freedom at every level of society, while also demanding a greater sense of responsibility for the common good (#196), and the need for a “healthy politics” that is “farsighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach” to the major problems of humanity (#197).
  5. Religions in Dialogue with Science. On the need for religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and “building networks of respect and fraternity”; dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, and between the various ecological movements (#201).

Finally, Chapter Six, on Ecological Education and Spirituality, considers many matters that have to change course as we set out on the “long path to renewal” (#202), a new lifestyle that confronts “compulsive consumerism” (#203), embarking on “new paths to authentic freedom” (#205), awakening “a new reverence for life” and developing a “firm resolve to achieve sustainability” as proposed in the Earth Charter (#207), environmental education that critiques the myths of utilitarian modernity (#210), the nobility of caring for creation through little daily actions in lifestyle (#211), institutions empowered to impose penalties for damage inflicted on the environment (#214), learning to see and appreciate beauty (#215), ecological conversion to bring about lasting change as community conversion (#219), a spiritual growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little (#222), speaking of the integrity of ecosystems and of human life (#224), inner peace reflected in a balanced lifestyle, together with a capacity for wonder (#225), and building a “civilization of love” and making love felt in every action seeking to build a better world (#231).


You don’t have to be Catholic, Christian, or any type of believer to benefit from this broadly and deeply humanistic statement. Seculars can skip over the Introduction, and Chapters Two and Six, and get right into 1) What Is Happening to Our Common Home, 3) The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, 4) Integral Ecology, and 5) Lines of Approach and Action. Seen together, this “different cultural paradigm” (#108), in contrast to the “dominant technocratic paradigm” (#101), is nothing less than the new human-centered paradigm promoted in the pages of CADMUS! For example, see the “CADMUS Vision” facing the Contents page, “New Paradigm Quest” by Alexander Likhotal, and several other related essays in the May 2015 issue.

The only complaint that seculars will likely have is the Pope’s position that there is too much blame on population growth and not enough on consumerism (#50) and the corresponding defense of the Church’s stance against abortion (#120). We can discuss this.

The striking Encyclical Letter from Pope Francis is widely seen as an urgent statement about climate change. But it is much more. The “Integral Ecology” promoted in Chapter 4 is a wide-ranging humanistic worldview that confronts the narrow outlooks taught in our educational institutions and prevailing throughout society. And the “paths of dialogue” outlined in Chapter 5 point to what is needed for the environment, politics, and human fulfillment. We need much more genuine dialogue, and “honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views” (#61). Unfortunately, there is no suggestion as to how serious dialogue and debate can be promoted in an era of complex issues with many specialized experts and opinionated interest groups.

ALSO SEE the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change issued by the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Birmingham UK (, resulting from the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul, August 2015 ( .

II. Jeffrey Sachs on Planetary Boundaries & U.N. Sustainable Development Goals
A very different but equally worthy message is conveyed by Jeffrey D. Sachs in The Age of Sustainable Development (Columbia University Press, March 2015, 543p, $34.95pb), the companion volume to a MOOC with the same title distributed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (;, which is directed by Sachs, who also heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University and served as special advisor to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. SDSN is also offering a course on Laudato Si’ and promises “more than 30 courses in the next three years.”

In the Foreword, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that “Sustainable development is the central challenge of our times.” (p.xi) This is followed by Sachs’ definition of sustainable development as “both a way of looking at the world, with a focus on the interlinkages of economic, social, and environmental change, and a way of describing our shared aspirations for a decent life, combining economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Our new era will soon be described by new global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals.” (p.xii)

Chapters provide an overview of sustainable development, and discuss an unequal world, the history of economic development, why some countries remain poor, how to end extreme poverty, planetary boundaries (as concerns climate change, oceans, pollution, food, and energy), social inclusion, education for all, health for all, food security (sustainable supply and the end of hunger; how environmental change threatens the food system and vice versa), resilient cities, climate change and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, saving biodiversity and protecting ecosystem services, and sustainable development goals (ending extreme poverty, economic development within planetary boundaries, effective learning for all children and youth, gender equality and human rights for all, health and wellbeing at all ages), improved agricultural systems, inclusive and resilient cities, curbing greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050 as the world economy grows perhaps threefold, sustainable and transparent management of water and other natural resources, and transformed government for sustainable development (ending corruption and tax havens, more accountability, and transparency).

“Simply speaking, sustainable development is the greatest, most complicated challenge humanity has ever faced. Climate change alone is extraordinarily difficult, but then add in other challenges of a rapidly urbanizing world, a great extinction process underway due to human domination of ecosystems, increasing population, over-extraction from oceans and land resources, massive illegal trade, and other issues. These are complex problems, and are science-based issues without the necessary worldwide public literacy in the scientific underpinnings. These are issues of tremendous uncertainty in chaotic, nonlinear, complex systems. This is a multigenerational problem that we are unequipped by tradition to think about. It goes to the core of our economic life.” (p.506)


ALSO SEE: Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries by Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum (Max Strom Publishing, May 2015, 205p), an introduction to the “planetary boundaries” concept pioneered by Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Institute, which emphasizes the Anthropocene era resulting from the great acceleration of human “big world” pressures on the planet. Rockstrom has also contributed a MOOC on “Planetary Boundaries” to the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

The Age of Sustainable Development is aimed at college-level students and readers.

A more popularized alternative is the Sustainable World Sourcebook: Critical Issues, Inspiring Solutions, Resources for Action (Berkeley CA: Sustainable World Coalition/Earth Island Institute, 4th Edition, 2014, 164p, $25). This ‘Essential Guidebook for the Concerned Citizen” has a Foreword by Paul Hawken and chapters on environment and healing the web of life, smart energy, a just society in a world that works for everyone, economics that values life (inspired by David Korten and the New Economy Working Group), living well together in strong and nurturing communities, and creating a sustainable future with our daily actions.

Michael Marien: Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science; Co-Principal, “Security & Sustainability Guide” to 1,200 Organizations (in process)

Pages: 1 2