The Pope and Greens can agree that banks have been bad for the common good. Photo: Getty
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The Pope of the poor and the Seven Deadly Sins of banking practice

Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm, it is clear that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

Pope Francis’ description of Europe as "somewhat elderly and haggard" was a gift to both UKIP and headline writers. But the Pontiff had much more to say. For example, he called for a Europe built, “not around the economy, but around the sacred nature of the human person.”

Unusually for a Pope, I didn’t once hear him mention the word sin. Equally surprisingly perhaps, this particular term of transgression was left to the Greens. That’s because on the day Pope Francis made his historic speech to the European Parliament the Greens launched an important website on the "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking". 

The Pope could no doubt write a full sermon on each of these deadly sins: addiction, megalomania, distortion, exploitation, greed, trickery and recklessness. Indeed, some of his wise pronouncements could even have been written with the banks in mind. Pope Francis has called for, “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone”, and has urged for a, “return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics”.

So what might this financial reform look like? Last week, on the same day as the Pontiff spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg I also had a chance to address the whole Parliament. I used the opportunity to highlight the need for decisive structural reform of the banking industry.

I pointed out that the two most important causes of the financial crisis have still not been addressed. Firstly, the need for a clear-cut separation of retail from casino banking activities; secondly, the need to reduce the size of individual banks so that no single financial corporation can threaten the global financial system. Banks are still nowhere near the responsible corporations serving the real economy that we need them to be; they are still too big and too interconnected to fail.

Which brings us back to sin. Using the extensive information in the Green Group's "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking" website, we discover that UK banks are some of the greatest sinners. Or to put it another way, they rank particularly low in what we have termed a "Banking Social Harm Index".

UK banks present high levels of speculative activities; they receive high amounts of implicit subsidies and operate in a high number of offshore entities (tax havens). All of which demonstrates precisely the need for such structural reforms in the banking sector.

For each "Deadly Sin", our website offers atonement, or to put it another way, a solution. These include capping bankers’ salaries, penalising banks with operations in tax havens and limiting the percentage of bank assets financed by borrowing (imposing a leverage ratio). 

The Pope often reminds his audiences that he is a Pope for the poor; that he has a duty, “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them and to promote them”. Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm it is clear to almost everyone that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

The Pope believes that the ideologies of markets and financial speculation are denying States the ability to provide for the common good. The banking reforms that Greens are pressing for in Europe seek to ensure that finance, and therefore states, are able to work for exactly that: the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

But with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.