Book review: “Energy, Justice and Peace”

Energy, Justice and Peace

Energy is perhaps one of the most overlooked global issues of our times. One of the reasons for our obliviousness is that we tend to take energy for granted. The alarm clock that woke us up this morning, the water that flowed from the tap, the food (energy!) we ate for breakfast which allowed us to be productive and perhaps walk, bike or drive to work all tend to go unnoticed. Everyone, rich or poor, needs energy for life – it is a basic condition for human existence. Often times, many great complex global issues such as poverty and climate change evolve in grand narratives that steal the sunlight of our attention and cast energy in their shadow. However, it is impossible to find solutions for global poverty and climate change without tackling the energy dynamics embedded within them.

The Holy See’s latest publication “Energy, Justice and Peace” places ‘energy’ in the sunlight. The book offers a rich, informative account of global energy and provides a clear and balanced proposal on how to move forward. Guided by the social principles of the Catholic Church, “Energy, Justice and Peace” incorporates a breadth of perspectives that include theological, ethical and philosophical considerations along with the latest economic, environmental, political and scientific knowledge. The outcome is a well-rounded account that cuts through controversial and polemic debates and rather offers concrete and positive ways forward on energy and its related issues.

The clear and grounded vantage point from which this latest publication from the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace approaches the energy question is perhaps its greatest contribution. While there are many excellent publications on energy with a wealth of knowledge and information[1], few are able to articulate a clear underlying ethico-philosophical approach that guides their interpretation and application of energy issues to human questions that go beyond scientific and statistical fact making. “Energy, Justice and Peace” is very clear about having the social doctrine of the Church as its foundation, which in turn places human dignity and development as the prism through which energy is approached. In practice, this means that energy is understood in orientation to the betterment of mankind and as a gift from God that must be cared for responsibly. The implication is that environmental concerns and the rights of the worlds poor to energy access are not an afterthought or appendix to global energy functions, but rather are placed at the very center of reflection.

As a corollary to this foundational commitment to social doctrine, we discover that what Pope Paul VI said of development becomes true about energy: “The Church emphasizes the need for a “fuller and more nuanced concept of development”. “Full and nuanced” perhaps best describes the books contribution to energy. The books approach to ‘energy’ is deeply informed by the continuity of the Church’s century old social teaching along with the originality of its many recent contributors such as Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. “Energy, Justice and Peace” draws from this tradition and is filled with insightful terms such as a call for a “sapiential platform” for engaging energy, as well as the risks of “the charm of being green” and considering energy as a “sign of the times”, carrying with it all the weight that this theological term expresses. At the same time the books explicit interest in anthropological and theological issues does not take away from its engagement with the physical and technical dimensions of energy and its implications. With support from the latest global statistics, several specific issues such as deforestation, electrification and climate change are addressed directly. While the brevity of the book does not allow for a specialized review of each issue, there is a clear intent to factually engage the concrete manifestations of the energy question around the globe.

The clearest illustration of how the Church’s perspective enriches the energy question is found in the relationship between energy and development. The publication places the concern for the poor front and center. Energy is recognized as a “primary factor” for integral development and human dignity. An important, forward-looking proposal that emerges from this reflection is solidarity. Solidarity is understood not only as an attitude that follows from a personal change of lifestyle but also as a principle for global action. One example is the call for a ‘solidarity based model of development’ that urges advanced nations to share their energy extraction technology and reduce their energy use of simpler technologies. Solidarity also demands a change in the pace of action and an urgent need to provide those in need with “energy for a decent life” accompanied by an economy of communion.

One other example of the ‘sapiential wisdom’ of Church teaching applied to energy is expressed by its approach to climate change. In continuity with the Magisterium of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis (the first known as the green Pope and the latter soon to publish the first ever environmental encyclical) “Energy, Justice and Peace” is both clear about the great importance of climate change and cautious about speculating on climate change mechanisms, impact and predictions. The book affirms the well-established correlation between anthropogenic activity and climate change but is careful to affirm causality or jump to hasty conclusions. It is not afraid to affirm, along with other climate experts[2], that emissions are unlikely to decrease under current economic and technological conditions, and that perhaps they should not. Adaptation to climate change is encouraged wholeheartedly, with special attention given to the poor, while mitigation is approved of on the condition that is “effective and not too expensive in social terms”.

Finally, “Energy, Justice and Peace” also makes practical recommendations. The entire final section of the book is dedicated to enumerating ten concrete proposals for action. For example, one proposal seeks to recognize energy as a prerequisite for various human rights, which was suggested by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 in “Caritas in veritate”[3] and has been adopted as a Sustainable Development Goal by the UN in 2012. In fact, looking at the practical recommendations one is able to discover the harmony that emerges from a perspective grounded in principles that both respect the environment and the inviolable dignity of the human person. “Energy, Justice and Peace” is an integral reflection on energy that considers nature, people and God in their right order and as a consequence is a breath of fresh air for an issue often stifled under political and ideological debates. It is a great illustration of how the Church thinks and cares about matters that affect mankind and how the wisdom of its tradition can make a contribution to all people of good will who are seriously working towards a better world.

 

[1] See “Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties”, Vaclav Smil, MIT Press, 2005.

[2] See “The Hartwell Paper”, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27939/1/HartwellPaper_English_version.pdf

[3] See Benedict XVI, “Caritas in veritate” 49-50.

 

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