Prologue: Unholy Development

Photo: Alexander D’Aloia (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Photo: Alexander D’Aloia (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Wolfgang Sachs

Traducción: Adrian Beling

Translation into English: Maria Eugenia Giraudo & Jack Copley

Diplomats, dignitaries, and elite soldiers gathered at the side of the walkway of the just landed Alitalia Airbus in Washington. The scenario is familiar due to the countless TV images; the guest of honor, is not so common: Pope Francis is received by President Obama and his wife Michelle in his first visit to the United States, on the  September 22nd 2015. The most puzzling aspect of the situation, however, was his vehicle – a Fiat 500L! The reporters positioned there were left gaping, not to mention the millions of people watching live on TV across the world: among the heavy limousines and tinted SUVs that arrived to the air field, the Pope sat inside the smallest car! Rarely the show of a parade of limousines had been so mocked as by this performer from Rome. Pure provocation; but it sent a very clear signal. To the eyes of the world, Francis had made his strategy clear: the humbleness offensive. 

The Pope also came to New York to speak in front of the United Nations General Assembly. This was not a routine meeting in the tall, slim office tower by the East River: heads of state from around the world met to vote for the UN’s adoption of Agenda 2030. A central element of Agenda 2030, in a context of euphoria and certain self-congratulation, were the Sustainable Development Goals. The Pope’s speech was anticipated with great expectation; after all, his encyclical Laudato Si’ had shaken global public opinion only three months before. Both documents, Agenda 2030 and Laudato Si’ tackle global problems by focusing on poverty, wellbeing, and the biosphere. What position would Pope Francis take on the issue of “development”?

After all, the year 2015 can be understood as the axis of debates on development in this decade, especially if we add the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015. It is worth remembering: during the second half of the 20th century, the ideal of “development” was crowned as a powerful ruler over all nations. It was the great world political programme of the postcolonial era. This concept, harmless in appearance, paved the way for the West’s imperial power over the world. “On Earth as it is in the West”: this was, in sum, the message of “development”. This thinking is still present in the United Nations Tower, even in Agenda 2030, although broken. And how does Pope Francis relate to the development discourse in his speeches and in Laudato si’? Or can the Pope’s cosmovision be classified under the rubric of post-development?

My answer is yes. In the Pope’s world vision, there are three fundamental assumptions of developmentalist thinking that are absent: he does not speak about progress, rejects the hierarchy among nations, and rejects the gross domestic product (GDP) as a proxy for wellbeing in society. In its place, he proposes the interdependence of all living beings, demands bottom-up justice, and urges a politics of the common good. But, one step at a time.

From the perspective of its meaning, the word “development” is rooted in a certain idea of time. It is not tied to any culture in particular, but it is universal; moreover it is not cyclical, it is linear. All the people of the Earth advance on the same path, where time is straight and constant – up and onwards. This path only admits two senses of circulation: forwards or backwards. Its destination is technical and economic progress, which, nevertheless, ends up being eternally elusive and unreachable. In times of Marx or Schumpeter the word “development” was used in an intransitive way, in the same sense that a flower develops to reach its state of maturity. In current times, however, the concept has been interpreted in a transitive way, as the active transformation of a society that should be accomplished over the course of decades, or even years.  

Pope Francis, however, does not know of a universal nor linear progress, let us not even say promises of the future. He is under the impression that the arrow of time that marked the perception of history during the last two centuries has been eradicated. Faith in progress, the idea of a progressive improvement in the future and the associated expectations have disappeared; we are presented instead with a sober and nuanced contemplation of the present. In the encyclical Laudato si’ the main dimension is space, not time: “ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME”. The axis of rotation and crucial point is the vulnerability of the creation. The injuries committed against it will be considered as crimes against the systemic connection of all living beings, including humans. In fact, the entire encyclical can be read as a declaration of interdependence, which contrasts with the declaration of independence in the era of the nation-state. If one wants to read the encyclical in a temporal note, one can say that it has been written to prevent an inhospitable future. In that sense, the idea of development has been turned upside down.

Moreover, in the era of development, the clear ranking of nations classified as rich or poor had become determinant. Poor countries had to reach rich countries. What has happened to this imperative of recovery, of catching up, such a fundamental imperative for the idea of development? That the geopolitics of development have imploded is very clearly seen in Agenda 2030, which practically makes no distinction between developing and developed countries. In the same way that the Cold War era had withered by 1989, the myth of catching up disappeared in 2015. Rarely, by the way, was a myth buried in such an informal manner, in such a silent way as happened with this one. What is the sense in speaking anymore of development, when there is no country that can be assigned as developed? 

Pope Francis takes the demystification of “development” a step further. He suggests that to tackle poverty, it is first needed to fight against wealth. Rich people usually consume more natural resources, thus making them unavailable for poor people. A high consumption of meat, for example, implies less arable land for human food; motorization leaves less space for pedestrians; and the massive use of computers and smartphones requires electricity, mining, and factories with bad working conditions. In sum, middle and upper classes in industrialised and emerging countries cultivate an imperial mode of life. In that context, Pope Francis even pronounces himself in favour of “degrowth” in the wealthiest areas of the Earth. In other words, in any case, the Pope appears as a protagonist of a reductive modernity, and in no way of an expansive modernity. 

There is no doubt, finally, that the Pope does not look into economic criteria to judge societies. Once upon a time it was the magical number of the GDP that supported the idea of development, while at the same time allowed the establishment of a supposedly objective hierarchical order among nations. However, since the 1970s, there has been a dichotomisation of the discourse of development, contrasting development as growth against development as social policy. Testimony to this are the annual reports on human development. In this sense, the term “development” became a universal glue, a jack of all trades capable of accommodating everything from the building of airports to the perforation of water wells. 

Francis does not spend a single word talking about GDP, and instead focuses on the common good, but he does so specifying, at the same time, its adversary: capital. The common good often clashes with the interest of capital accumulation. Typical cases of this are mining, agribusiness, and financial capital. This is the reason why the Pope puts power and the interests of the economic and financial system that damage and disregard the common good in his line of fire. 

Moreover, he delves even deeper to untangle the fallacies of the technocratic paradigm. The outstanding increase in power has not been accompanied by the responsibility and the corresponding in-depth approach. Instead, the instrumentalist approach has gained terrain, transforming too many things, people and living beings, into simple means to achieve certain ends. That is why modernity interpret everything as a resource. A strong inclination towards anti-utilitarianism imbues all the encyclical Laudato si’. The Pope protests against this devaluation of the world and demands that things and living beings are respected for their innate rights. 

In any case, one could say that Agenda 2030 coincides with the encyclical Laudato si’ on one point: the developmentalist euphoria of the twentieth century has evaporated; now it is about trying to face the decay of an expansive modernity. The world is on the edge of the abyss: the biosphere is being destroyed, while the gap between rich and poor, in a variety of forms, has widened even more. From here on it seems possible to build three typical narratives that offer a response to frustrated hopes: the narrative of strength, globalism, and solidarity. 

The “strength” thinking is expressed in neo-nationalism and pretends to revive the glorious past of the “people” as an imagined community. Authoritarian leaders restore their people with their pride, always looking for an external scapegoat, whether it is muslims or the UN. Meanwhile, among middle classes there is a “prosperity chauvinism” that prevails, according to which material goods need to be defended from the poor. In contrast with the previous narrative, globalism invokes the formula of unregulated and free world trade, which should continue to provide prosperity to corporations and consumers around the world. Even among the globalised elite you can perceive a fear of the future, but the difficulties can be overcome with the help of green and inclusive growth in tandem with smart technologies. The solidarity narrative proposes something different: deceit demands the formation of resistance against the holders of power, who act as guarantors of capitalist accumulation and of a society where the law of the jungle prevails. Here, human rights and ecological principles are highly valued, and market forces are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieve those objectives. You also find a cosmopolitan localism in accordance to the slogan “think globally, act locally”. In accordance with this, it is essential to un-develop the imperial mode of life of industrial civilisation and re-invent meagre forms of wealth. 

To say it with the slyness of Pope Francis – currently the most important herald of solidarity – citing his words from Laudato si’ (§112): “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?”.