Stewarding an Ecological Economy

Below is a transcript of reflections on ecological economics shared Nov 4, 2022 with a group gathered by the Mary Ward JPIC Office.

It seems we are at a moral turning point in the unfolding of our human and planetary story. 

And I believe we are all called to be protagonists in the turning! 

Persistent war and conflict, a dominant economic logic that upholds exploitation and extraction from people and planet at unsustainable levels for personal gain, growing inequality, all amidst the devastating impacts of our ecological crisis are a wake up call, or in the words of Pope Francis, a cry – the cry of the earth, the cry of the poor. 

These cries break us open and invite us to stop and ask different questions of ourselves and one another. They invite us to find the courage and discover creative ways to transition from a status quo that is deeply unsustainable to a new and hopefully wiser future.

Through Laudato Si’ and the vision of an ecological economy, our Holy Father has called us into a vision of profound transformation toward a better – more just, equitable, flourishing and sustainable – world. 

I believe the vision of an ecological economy calls us to contemplate two core ideas:

First – we need a practice of economics that is at the service of all life, not one where life is at the service of it.  We should consider the economy as something that is itself embedded within the biosphere–our common home–rather than something that has power over it. Much of modern (and especially, neoclassical) economics has taught us that the economy is a self-enclosed sphere, subject only to its own laws. But an ecological economy is an economy that is seen as but one part of human social life, itself intended to serve larger purposes. What if we were to embrace the idea that the highest purpose of our economic life is to fulfill all of creation?

Second, we need an economics that acknowledges and embodies the reality that everything is connected. This would center the cultural narrative of interbeing, and invite us into a new way of being and relating to one another and the entire web of life. 

As we consider the journey of transitioning our economy to better align with these two ideas, we are invited to acknowledge the valuable contributions of our old and existing economic paradigms, while situating them within the context of the wider, eco-social transformation Pope Francis calls us into. For example, there have been many fruits of economic growth around the world – we’ve improved life expectancy, made advances in maternal health, literacy and education, and beyond.  Many have acknowledged that these fruits of growth have come about when we’ve invested in our collective institutions – like health and education. 

But today, it is those same institutions – our education systems, systems of production and consumption, our health system, housing and the economy that must be transformed because as some – like Katherine Trebek and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance – have begun to point out, the fruits of that growth are beginning to rot. 

Today’s economic system rewards growth at high costs. Some of the greatest costs are ecological costs, which Pope Francis calls us to see. Pursuing unfettered growth is a key driver of a range of environmental problems – from climate change to the growing number of marine dead zones and collapsing fish stocks. Our economic system also has costs for our human ecology in the ways it reinforces inequality. The fruits of growth have been unevenly distributed and the system enables wealth to accumulate largely for those who have access to it. These stark inequalities are getting worse in almost all parts of the world. If we keep reaching more and more for growth – as our status quo economic logic would have us do – how might we do irreparable damage to ourselves and our common home? 

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, we are called to be protagonists of transformation. This call is both systemic (because ecological economics calls us into a big, systemic transformation), and it begins with our everyday behaviors, choices, and practices.

While we may not be able to define a future ecological economy in every detail — as the future is always uncertain — we can intuit some of the transformations that lie ahead, and we can pay attention to the ways we can experiment with new approaches that may offer pockets of this ecological future in the present.

We are called to unleash our creative vision and experiments in areas like production, consumption, finance and investing, while drawing from our values and sacred practices. Let’s start with reflecting on one aspect of our day to day ways of tending to and practicing economy – how we manage our finances and investments. 

In recent decades, women’s religious congregations have pioneered approaches and strategies that build investment portfolios that both reflect the tenets of our faith and the unique essence of our charisms, while positively contributing to a more just, integral ecology. Laudato Si’ makes the point that our economic decisions are moral and ethical acts. This means that both the “what” and the “how” of our approach to finance and  investing matters.  

Let’s begin  with the “what”: 

Do you know what your community’s resources are invested in? Some congregations start by organizing  an audit or analysis of their investment portfolio to understand the ways that investments may be harming or healing the environment, communities and the most vulnerable. 

Do you know who manages your resources—your day to day banking, pensions, and endowments?  Many congregations are in a sustained dialogue with these advisors, asset managers, consultants and other intermediaries about their vision for an ecological economy, their values and charism, and how that animates their financial needs and desires.

Awareness is often the first step on this journey. Once we become aware, we may feel compelled (especially by our ecological crisis) to do no harm. This often leads to “resist” approaches with our investment portfolios such as exclusionary screening and divestment strategies.  For many Catholic institutions, this has involved fossil fuel divestment, which is a way to put Laudato Si’ into practice while also– alongside active dialogue and engagement in the public markets– providing a way to redefine society’s moral code.

Many communities, when clear on their convictions,value commitments, and the issues they care about, want to go beyond “resist” approaches to consider how we “build” a new economy by investing in values-embodied investment options. For many, this begins with writing or revising policies and governance documents to build an internal foundation that allows us to adopt new intentions and behaviors that span public and private markets and different types of asset classes.  

Over the last year, 150 Catholic steward assets have gathered through Francesco Collaborative’s Livable Future investing workshops to discern together how to let our faith lead us, rather than our finance lead us. We have used the framework of see, judge, act to consider how we can steward our resources for an ecological economy. As we deepen in this journey, we consider how we can be accountable to community stakeholders, prioritizing authentic listening and encounter, and more relational approaches to our financial management practices.  Even where the other is “invisible,” whether through distance or institutional processes, there is a responsibility to avoid harm to the other. As Catholics, moreover, there is an even higher calling: to heal broken relationships and wherever possible, to build new economic relationships based on mutuality and communion. 

We might take a closer look at who the ultimate beneficiaries of our investments are. A Franciscan Sister in the United States was the Treasurer for her Congregation and wanted to do more to invest their resources in ways that directly supported indigenous and other marginalized communities. After taking the Livable Future Investing workshop, and with the help of one advisor, she worked to carve out some resources from the public markets portfolio to do direct investments in funds and projects that benefit marginalized communities. She is finding ways to make not only their grants an expression of their mission, but all of their money an expression of mission. It is allowing her to create new levers for change.

As we journey toward investing our capital in different ways, we might also ask ourselves – who are we ultimately accountable to with these decisions? Who decides? Do the poor have a voice? Does the earth have a voice?  What if we brought their perspectives into our finance committees and decision-making processes?

I recognize that everyone’s first step will look a little different. We each have a distinct context, and an important role to play. But all of us are invited to contemplate the provocative questions that challenge our status quo economic system. Questions like – if we aren’t here to maximize our consumption, then what is enough?  What do we actually need to responsibly sustain our  community and our activities? Do we steward anything in excess of that?

To change our system and evolve it toward an ecological economy, we must not only pay attention to possible short-term responses to the symptoms of our ecological and social crises, but must also address the underlying structural and systemic causes that drive these symptoms.

This is precisely the invitation Pope Francis offered when addressing the Economy of Communion project in 2017 – 

We must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized.”

My invitation to you is to reflect on how you can be a protagonist of transformation in our economic system through the ways you relate to and steward your financial resources, among the other resources you hold.

As our Holy Father has invited us to consider – we are called to go beyond being a Good Samaritan. We are called to remake the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, so that more can traverse it safely. We must be engaged in changing the system. And the way we steward our assets – financial and otherwise – gives us particular power as agents of that systemic transformation. 

I will leave you with two thoughts. The first is that we are on a pilgrimage toward an ecological economy. And we should remember that on that pilgrimage there are likely to be many false summits. Since the process of cultural evolution and transformation is continuous, there is no arriving. The good news is, there are many, many fellow travelers on the journey and in our mutual accompaniment, we can find great joy.

The second is this. If we are to be protagonists of an ecological economy, we must befriend uncertainty.  This is hard because our current economic logic loves to predict outcomes. It is born of a technocratic paradigm, as Pope Francis calls it, which befriends the idea of linear progress.  But the truth is that future is emergent, and we must always acknowledge our ‘not knowing’ and embrace the mindset of a study — ready to learn from experience; humble enough to regard no solution as final; and open to acknowledging the valuable perspectives of those we encounter along the way. 

In that spirit, I invite you to consider how you – individually and collectively as the unique community you are a part of – are called to be a prophet of a future not our own, one that stewards an ecological economy and more readily participates in the unfolding of heaven on earth.

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