07/30/2015 04:43 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

The Pope's Call to Action

I confess -- no pun intended -- to not being the best practicing Catholic. So maybe it was Catholic guilt that propelled me to read the Pope's entire encyclical on environmental and social responsibility while on vacation recently. I did read it -- and when you take the time to read the entire document, you realize that the totality of what he discusses goes far beyond the sound bites that both supporters and detractors have used to advance their respective agendas.

The encyclical is more than pontification, more than a religious treatise. It is a document that speaks clearly to contemporary social and environmental challenges in a secular world and the role of individuals, civil society and institutions to address them. The core message of this encyclical is best captured by a single quote within it:

Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

This is the very essence of the Pope's encyclical. We cannot separate solutions to the environment without also addressing the social impact these solutions will have on society, particularly on the poor and underprivileged. It is this interconnectedness the Pope addresses in the encyclical titled, "On Care for our Common Home." Is it moral, he asks, to sell or purchase a product that is made by people whose working conditions are horrible, who receive pennies and for whom there is no opportunity for a better life?

Pope Francis speaks about the depletion of natural resources -- ranging from "water poverty" to significant loss of forests and biodiversity -- and the disproportionate impact these changes are having on the poor, who have few resources to adapt. Pope Francis stresses the need to not overlook the abandonment and neglect experienced by some rural populations. These are the populations that lack access to essential services, reducing some workers to conditions of servitude without rights or even the hope of a more dignified life.

He cites many reasons for this overconsumption of natural resources, but a key reason is what he refers to as a common "use and throw away" lifestyle. Particularly in the developed world, this mentality is impacting the poor in developing countries whose communities and way of life are being destroyed in order to keep up with consumer demand. Some critics state that the Pope is against progress. He's not. What he is against is progress at all costs.

He also recognizes the double-edged sword that technology provides:

Technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.

Perhaps most importantly, Pope Francis provides a simple framework to measure the degree to which solutions addressing overconsumption of natural resources take into account both the environmental and the social impacts they'll have on society:

A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.

Scale Technology to Achieve a Higher Quality of Life

The Pope and his encyclical have been interjected into the climate change debate. Supporters claim the document provides the "moral authority" to achieve a legally binding climate change agreement in Paris, where the U.N. and member countries will meet to debate this topic in December. More importantly, the Pope has specifically interjected the perspective of the poor into the global debate on climate change.

Leading up to Paris, there's a growing number of global companies supporting such a treaty on climate change. There's been no shortage of both individual companies and coalitions of companies committing to long-term goals to significantly reduce their environmental impacts if a treaty can be achieved. "Scale" is the operative word being used by these companies and environmental NGOs when discussing the commitment needed by governments and the private sector in order to limit the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius -- the temperature threshold scientists say the world must not cross in order to avert the most severe impacts of climate change.

Organizations like The B Team have committed to achieving "net-zero" greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. We Mean Business, a coalition of organizations working with the business and investment community, is calling for large-scale environmental commitments and investments on a range of climate change-related issues. Additionally, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is spearheading a number of "low carbon technology partnership initiatives," all designed to achieve large-scale environmental goals in various industry sectors by 2050. A great many of these initiatives will be undertaken in developing countries.

These commitments and initiatives are significant and help to create momentum for a climate agreement in Paris. The even better news is that all of these organizations either include -- or reference the need to include -- goals to address the societal impact of climate change, which is consistent with the Pope's belief that you cannot separate solutions to address environmental degradation from the social impact they will have on communities.

A Set of Principles to Achieve a Higher Quality of Life

Central to achieving a number of these large-scale environmental commitments is technology, most of which has not yet been developed to achieve organizations' long term goals -- some as long-term as 35 years. As Pope Francis states in his encyclical, technology is not neutral. It influences a society in which people live. Not only can technology help enable large-scale efforts to reduce environmental impact, it can also enable large-scale improvements in the way we all live, work and play. In short, it can achieve a higher quality of life for everyone.

To that end, I offer three societal principles to companies that have made commitments to reduce their environmental impact. By embracing these principles, companies can use technology to enable a higher quality of life, particularly for the poor and underprivileged in developing countries.

Commit to leveraging technology to:

  • Increase educational opportunities
  • Expand economic opportunities
  • Provide greater access to healthcare services

If companies can adopt these societal principles into their environmental commitments -- and pay equal attention to achieving them -- technology will be applied in a way that will shape "social possibilities" to provide a higher quality of life. This also makes good business sense. It sends a signal early on that these initiatives are designed to benefit both the companies behind the effort and the communities in which they operate. Moreover, the credibility and goodwill companies establish in these communities will buy them time to innovate and develop the technology needed to achieve their long-term environmental commitments.

If a company pays equal attention to both the environmental and social implications of any solution to address climate change, it will help ensure that the people who build tomorrow's homes and whose communities provide the natural resources can also afford to live in those homes.

This provides a framework for business leaders looking to achieve the dual goals of environmental commitment and social impact embodied in the Pope's call to action in his encyclical, "On Care for our Common Home."