Will a nuclear future debate put people or corporations first?

There are numerous approaches to the question of our direct involvement in the nuclear industry.  This article confines itself to whether or not there is a Catholic position on a nuclear future …

by Ken Thomas

In recent years the world has been made aware of the problem of global warming. 

Prior to global warming, the Catholic Church was mainly concerned with the economic and moral impact of industrialisation, especially on those with lower incomes.  Its response has been the publication of a series of Papal statements, the first of which  was Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, by Pope Leo XIII.  Subsequent social encyclicals have developed a set of moral guidelines concentrating on how to improve economic conditions for all, based on a ‘preferential option for the poor’.  In spite of nine social encyclicals between 1891 and 1991 all countries bent on industrialisation ignored these papal guidelines. 

As a result of that industrialisation there was, initially, a mal-distribution of the benefits between the rich and poor in the industrialising countries.  After World War II, as economic growth continued, the mal-distribution of the benefits between the rich and poor in the industrialised countries  persisted, accompanied by a similar division between the rich and poor countries as well as between rich and poor in the newly industrialising countries. 

The social encyclicals in the post-war period urged countries to design policies to achieve a just distribution of the benefits economic growth in the process of industrialisation. 

As more and more countries achieved their independence after the Second World War a number of them embarked on a process of industrialisation of a type that had occasioned Leo XIII’s first social encyclical.  That growth was characterised by a flood of rural families into the cities in search of work with all the attendant problems of urban over-crowding and a lack of services such a education, health facilities and so on.  In the process, the poor, in both the countryside and the growing urban areas, suffered.

The encyclicals of Pope John Paul II seemed to mark a major shift in emphasis in the Church’s attitude towards industrialisation.  In Redemptor Hominis, 1979, he focused on the state of the world as he saw it by launching immediately into a scathing attack on industrialised countries with regard to the creation of a consumer civilisation and the development of a consumer attitude uncontrolled by ethics.  He contrasted this trend with the situation in the remaining countries of the world where many of the people were suffering from hunger, many dying of starvation and malnutrition.

The heart of the problem, as he saw it, had been the development of technology and the development of contemporary civilisation in such a way that technology was dominant.  To overcome this imbalance he advocated a proportional development of morals and ethics.  Such an approach brought him into direct conflict not only with the mesmerising influence of a never-ending process of industrialisation but also with the dominant economic institution our times, the large corporations.

These are institutions specifically designed to further the interests of the shareholders through the pursuit of profit. This 'principle' can often be to the detriment of society as a whole.  For over a century the corporation has been responsible for developing technologies that produce what the British economic historian R.H.Tawney called ‘futilities’, in spite of the fact that most people cannot meet their basic needs in the Third World and many are struggling in the First World.

Apart from the energy consumed in the production of such consumer goods another important demand for energy has come from the ever-increasing demand for investment in armaments

Here again John Paul II expressed his concern, arguing that if those investments had been directed to the areas of misery and hunger on the globe the lives of many now living in poverty could be alleviated.  Even the poorer countries demanded their share of armaments, borrowing from the richer countries to purchase them. 

The other popes in the post-war period expressed a similar concern over this misuse of resources for armaments but both governments and corporations have ignored their objections.

Pope Paul VI noted in On the Development of Peoples  (1967) that industrialisation is a necessity but unfortunately it had evolved ‘within a system in which profit was the key motive for economic progress, competition was the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation’

At the centre of this system is as we have seen the large corporation and Leo XIII and Pius XI had warned against their powerful influence on the economy to the detriment of all.  Such corporations are mainly concerned not only with persuading us to buy the goods they produce but also to invest in new products which they insist we want.  

Over time they became the papal nemesis, the institutions responsible for the creation of the consumer civilisation that John Paul II railed against in Redemptor Hominis.     

The characterisation of a world economy dependent on consumerism and armaments did not change as we entered the Third Millennium. 

Then suddenly we found ourselves facing a multifaceted crisis relating to global warming, an end to oil security and a terrorism associated with future oil resource security, especially in the Middle East.   Talk of an environmental crisis was being discussed in the late 1980s; John Paul II himself commenting on the crisis but it remained in the background for over a decade. 

Now, as it becomes a topic of increasing concern most governments seem wedded to finding alternative means to enable them to carry on as usual with little discussion on the extent to which consumerism contributed to the problem.  As a result of this neglect nuclear energy is again on the agenda.

In October 2004, Hugh Montefiore, former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, decided to support nuclear energy because he saw it as a means to continue growth as before.  Nuclear energy would be an alternative source of cheap, short-term energy to fuel an industrialisation that would not contribute to global warming. 

Of course, it would have very high costs for future generations, a serious moral as well as an environmental and economic issue.  He also referred to the necessity for China, in particular, to seek an alternative source of supply so that the country could continue to produce more cars and, I suppose, allow for the rapid growth of its manufacturing sector overall.  The same would be the case with other Third World countries such as India. 

If this is the case, as far as the Third World is concerned, we are now returning to the beginning of the story of the Church hierarchy’s involvement in the industrialisation process when Pope Leo XIII saw the detrimental impact of such growth on the working class and felt obliged to issue Rerum Novarum, the first social encyclical, in their defence!  

So here we are at a major turning point in world development. Reliance on nuclear energy in the future may or may not be a viable option, in economic terms.  It does offer the promise of more of the same: consumerism will continue along with armaments production.  On the other hand, to change direction and design policies along the lines suggested in the social encyclicals seems to be not only environmentally sound but also consistent with what John Paul II referred to as authentic human development in On Social Concerns  (1981).  But such policies may not be acceptable politically.

In spite of all the shortcomings in both the developed and developing countries, it is possible that political parties preaching an end to economic growth, as we have known it, would be committing political suicide.

There are two major stumbling blocks to such a proposal.  First: Would the general public in both worlds accept such a solution?   Second:  What would be the reaction of the large corporations whose very existence seems to depend on the profits to be gained by producing more and more ‘futilities’.

Ken Thomas is a retired Senior Lecturer in Economics at La Trobe University, Melbourne.



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