‘To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.’ (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, English Version, §111.)
These words from the papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, contain a profound and important truth that is worth reflecting on.
Ironically, an aspect of it is also masked by the English text at this point. The locus of problems, according to the English, is ‘the global system’. By contrast, the Italian and Spanish – which I take to reflect more intimately the Italo-Argentinian pope’s mind – refer, respectively, to sistema mondiale and sistema mundial. Their natural translation would be not ‘global system’ but ‘world system‘ (and elsewhere in the text, the translation does let mondiale/mundial be ‘world’ and globale/global be ‘global’.)
The translation thereby masks an allusion to the well-known World Systems Theory of Immanuel Wallerstein and others. This is the theory that the world as a whole has an economic system dominated by a rich metropolitan centre (as in USA and Europe) that benefits from unequal material exchange with a more extensive and poorer periphery (much of Africa, Asia and Latin America). The theory, along with ideas like ecological debt, is closely associated with an extensive body of radical progressive thinking that has developed synergistically also with liberation theology. This body of thought has been especially vibrant in Latin America. It is extensively and knowledgeably referred to, both explicitly and implicitly, throughout the encyclical, and particularly in the passages leading up to the cited statement.
Given the Pope’s avowed concerns, it seems only right to allow his mind to be as fully known as possible also to an Anglophone audience. After all, there is probably no audience more in need of hearing his message – amplifying as it does voices of the marginalized in the South – about the root causes of the world’s problems of ecological devastation and inhuman degrees of inequality.
There are good scholarly reasons, and even better human reasons, to mark the author’s chosen words. We really do need to adopt an integrated approach to environmental problems that also grasps their connection with economic inequalities. In setting this out, the Pope has come up with compelling answers to questions that liberal political philosophers have struggled with. His political vision of the peoples of the world gradually constituting themselves into a solidaristic polity, percolating up from social movements and civil associations, is a source of inspiration for those seeking the transformation of an unjust world system.