As exciting as the proposals of the pope’s “green encyclical,” Laudato Si’, have been, many commentators have missed one of the essential points of his vision. Laudato Si’ calls for an “ecological conversion,” a change in our entire mentality in the way we run our society — an alternative to what he often calls “the throwaway culture.” Instead, he advocates a society of investment — not the impersonal financial investment of the stock market, but personal, meaningful ownership, which enables human persons to feel a genuine sense of responsibility and belonging in the world God created.
Thus, in one fascinating section, the pope quotes the bishops of Paraguay as saying that everyone has “a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life.” What is interesting about this passage is that it sounds very similar to the slogan of the Catholic Distributists at the turn of the previous century who held that every person should own “four acres and a cow.” The idea was that, as God’s image-bearers, human beings had the right to control their own subsistence rather than be subject to the whims of the great impersonal forces of the technocratic state.
In the developing world, an obvious example of this principle would be something like seed sovereignty, the question of the farmers’ right to seeds and arable land (rather than being dependent upon corporate ownership of these natural elements). But there is an intriguing Distributist possibility a bit closer to home.
In 2007, the California Public Utilities Commission made it their goal that, by 2020, all homes in California will be zero net energy. This involves, for example, installing solar panels in new residential construction, arranging for electricity to be used and stored in off-peak hours, and so forth.
At a glance, this is already a desirable goal simply because of its ecological consequences, but its advantages go further than that. It also means that homeowners have more control over energy and are not simply dependent on the energy companies. Indeed, the energy companies have already felt the financial strain from these measures, and in fact homeowners could potentially receive credit (and remuneration?) for sending energy to the grid when necessary. (The advocates of Zero Net Energy stress that it does not mean “going off the grid,” which also has a certain Catholic flavour of solidarity to it.)
This is the great unnoticed benefit of such a project: it gives the homeowner more control over her own life, and makes her more of an active and invested participant in the project of making her community and her world a greener and healthier place. Obviously, there are still a lot of problems to iron out, such as the problem of those who don’t own property or assets. Nevertheless, a move like this could be an excellent step toward realizing the Distributist goals that Laudato Si’ calls for: a just distribution of power, in more ways than one.
Mardon is an Order of Canada-winning scientist and community organizer. He has published several books and articles on faith, mental health advocacy, meteoritic research, and his dog. Fawcett is a master’s student at Newman Theological College.