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The concept of sustainability is not new in economic discourse. Many economic models have specified conditions for sustainable growth or even sustainable development. For example, conditions have been set for sustaining certain rates of economic growth by attaining specified rates of savings and investments or given rates of population growth. Other models have focused on attaining certain levels of increases in productivity in the use of factors of production, especially labor. For a long time now, sustainable development has been defined as improving the economic welfare of the present generation without prejudicing future generations. This intergenerational comparison usually refers to protecting the physical environment but can also refer to preserving cultural and religious beliefs as well as deep-seated values and virtues important to society.
It is time for us to shift the attention in discussions about sustainability from the macro environment to the individual human person who should be at the center of sustainable development. There can be no sustainable development without integral human development. I am reminded of the lively debate in which I was involved during the drafting of the Philippine Constitution in 1986. Together with other members of the Constitutional Commission who were steeped in the Social Doctrine of the Church, I wanted to redefine the concept of “general welfare” which had been adopted in the two previous versions of the fundamental law of the land. This concept was expressed in the popular phrase “the greater good for the greater number”, inspired by the philosophy of utilitarianism. I successfully convinced the majority of the Commissioners that this definition can be misused by an erring majority to tyrannize a minority as when a majority in a given population vote in a referendum to allow the killing of babies in the womb of the mother.
For the record, the Philippine Constitution has incorporated the definition of the common good found in the papal encyclicals which is “a social or juridical order that enables each and every member of society to attain his or her fullest development economically, politically, socially, culturally, morally and spiritually.” Although a long-winded definition, it guarantees that no erring majority can violate the human rights of a minority or even just one individual. By specifically referring to the many dimensions of human existence, there is no danger that man is reduced to just being an economic animal or a political animal. The definition adheres closely to the biblical saying “Not by bread alone does man live.” The common good can be attained only by the integral human development of every person. Similarly, the individual human person should be put at the center of sustainable development.
At the corporate level, sustainability can only be attained if every business is conceived, not as a profit-making machine, but as a community of free and responsible persons who have gotten together for a common undertaking within which they work, offer resources, attain their self- development and contribute effectively to the production of goods and services (from an article of Bishop Javier Echevarria, Prelate of Opus Dei). Corporate responsibility leads to corporate sustainability if all the stakeholders (the consumers, the rank-and-file workers, the managers, the funds suppliers, the immediate community, and the nation at large) are considered not as factors of production or cogs in a machine but as human beings who have to be helped to attain their respective integral human development.
In the Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si” of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, the Pope quotes St. John Paul II on the importance of putting the human person also in all talks about environmental sustainability: “Saint John Paul became increasingly concerned about (the sustainability of the physical environment). In his first Encyclical, he warned that human beings frequently seem ‘to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.’ Subsequently, he would call for a global ecological conversion. At the same time, he said that little effort had been made to ‘safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.’ The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement. Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.’ Authentic human development has a moral charter. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the work around us and ‘take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.’ Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.”
It is precisely by making the human person the center of sustainability that we can arrive at an authentic “care for our common home.” It is only the human person who can fully understand and respond to the following plea of Pope Francis in Laudato Si: “In calling to mind the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, we come to realize that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change….Various convictions of our faith ..can help us to enrich the meaning of this conversion. These include the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us, and the security that Christ has taken unto himself this material world and now, risen, is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light…May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied.”
Sustainable development is necessarily intertwined with inclusive growth. There is increasing awareness that a high growth rate of even 8 per cent or more in the coming years, as the Philippines is able to invest a larger portion of its GDP on infrastructures and is able to mobilize more domestic and foreign investments especially in agriculture, would leave a lot to be desired if the poor are being left behind. By the same token, sustainable development that does not benefit each and every individual in society would not be worthy of its name. For comments, my email address is email@example.com.