For some segments of the educated population of Western nations, Religion (specially what used to be known as “revealed religion”, with its emphasis on a heteronomous source of rules and precepts on how to live) is something of the past. It may still grab headlines here and there (typically as the excuse bandied about by fanatics that do such unenlightened things as blow themselves up in populous areas or protest again abortion clinics, both equally egregious examples of anti-humane behaviors in the eyes of the progressive elite), but its role is bound to diminish until it is finally and completely extinguished. According to such worldview, a letter intended by the head of an established religion to “every person on earth” (not only to those of “good faith”, or even of any faith at all) is as little worthy of consideration as an ancient papyrus showing the strange beliefs of the Egyptians about the afterlife. Of some passing cultural significance but not really something one devotes any substantial time to seriously consider, as if it had any implication for your everyday life. So it is most surprising that such kind of letter (technically, an “encyclical”) from the Catholic Pope has received the kind of media attention that “laudato si” has received since its publication last week. Much of that attention derives from it touching, even tangentially, on a hot topic of the age (in this case, environmental degradation and specifically anthropogenic climate change), but also by upending some expectations firmly entrenched in the public mind (like the one that says that the pontiff of the Catholic Church must be a regressive bigot without much knowledge about what has been going on in planet Earth since the XIVth century).
We could safely state then that Francis’ latest “pastoral letter” has caused a media uproar, mostly favorable (I still have to read a European opinion piece overtly critical with the portions of the Pope’s message they have deigned to read), with a notable exception: USA conservatives are uniformly outraged, and they do not like the Pope’s message one bit. Here is David Brooks, in an uncharacteristically obtuse piece: Brooks at his most Panglossian, while here we have Ross Douthat, more nuanced and appreciative (well, the guy is an avowedly conservative Catholic, I guess the second feature still trumps the first): Douthat torn between God and Mammon but evidently troubled by what he sees as “wholesale rejection of the last 500 years of technological progress”. Krauthammer reaction is even more obtuse than Brooks’, so tinged with prejudice and unexamined assumptions (so the Catholic Church doesn’t have a brilliant track record in Science, huh? Well, that, without being entirely baseless, is rich coming from a mouthpiece of a movement that still has not made its peace with the theory of evolution…) that one can only wonder what Charlie smokes before spouting his usual dose of venom and rancid stereotypes. Finally, here is Millman with a more cogent critique: Millman gets (most of) it, as he realizes some of the implications of the Pope’s position, but is of course (like all the others) too invested in what I have traditionally called “desiderative reason” not to be affected by the blinkers inherent in such construct, which can be summarized in the following tenets: growth is inherently good, because the ability to satisfy material needs (even if most of those needs have been artificially created) is also inherently good, the current system allows for the satisfaction of material needs in the advanced economies at an unprecedented level, ergo the current system is also inherently good, its effect on the environment or its abysmal failure in the not-so-advanced ones be damned. If you need proof of the unalloyed goodness of growth, look no further than at the moderately clean environments of the first world economies, and compare them with the filth and squalor of the less developed ones. If we conveniently forget that part of the comfort that the former enjoy is derived from the exploitation and the export of dirty industries to the latter, we could agree that more development following the dictates of that type of reason would substantially improve the conditions (and the environment) of the wretched of the earth (although it had to be decided first who would they exploit and whose lands would they despoil with their own detritus).
One thing we have to concede those conservative critics is the understanding of a feature of the encyclical’s argument that I’m afraid has been lost on many of his defenders. It is true, as Millman says, that it “hijacks” a traditional element of the conservationist agenda (the denunciation as moral evil of destroying the environment, and the recognition of the role of human “economic” activity in that destruction) for an end that was already set before that co-opting. The Catholic worldview has seen with suspicion the pursuit of material gain even before it was widely acknowledged that such pursuit, taken to its current extremes, has a highly undesirable impact on the whole ecology of the planet. So yep, for coherent Catholics the original problem is materialism and turning the accumulation of (material) wealth in the only goal of life, with the exclusion of everything else, and anthropogenic climate change is but a consequence of such original problem. Changing the climate (or causing the sixth great extinction, or more poetically put, turning beautiful Earth in a filthy dump) is in this view not bad in itself, but bad because it is the necessary manifestation of a twisted system of priorities, in which producing more gadgets (and the concomitant rat race and “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that has proved so successful to motivate whole societies in devoting ever increasing energies to that production) takes precedence over being good stewards of the Earth, or being “our brothers’ keepers” and treating with dignity the most unfortunate between us regardless of their personal merits, something that for conservatives of any persuasion is especially difficult to accept.
For traditional environmentalists there are components of this view that are even more difficult to accept, as they are heirs of the romantic movement, and for them (for most of them, however, as there are many factions and sensibilities between their ranks) “nature” is but a convenient substitute for the God of yore as source of ultimate value and unalloyed good (in all the countries with a robust environmental movement, that God is the Christian God, by the way, so their potential convergence with the teachings of a Catholic Pope is a fascinating example of strange bedfellows if there ever was one). Taken to the extreme, this ideology posits that only “uncontaminated” nature is valuable in itself, and that humanity (as considered somewhat strangely outside that nature, which is pretty inconsistent with the thoroughly materialistic/ naturalistic worldview they profess to embrace) is at best an excrescence, at worst a cancer on an otherwise pristine environment, which would be much better if we disappeared without a trace (absent that disappearance, I guess extinction is the second best option for this kind of “philosophy”). I do not intend to discuss much about the intellectual position of that flavor of environmentalism, as I recognize I don’t share it, I simply do not understand it, and am not much interested in wasting any time trying to do so. All I would like to point out, in the unlikely event of somebody of such persuasion somehow reading this blog, is the inner contradiction of their position (the arbitrary exclusion from the only source of value –uncontaminated nature- of human will, the one entity capable of perceiving, and possibly assigning value to anything at all), but without much hope that such contradiction may be even grasped (turning a blind eye to the potential incoherence in the belief systems we espouse is something we humans excel at).
Back to the encyclical, then, the conservative critique has a point, as long as you accept the equally conservative tenets that a) this is the best possible society there can be and b) our definition of what constitutes a rational behavior is valid. As I dispute both, and I have amply documented my arguments in this blog, nobody should be surprised that I dismiss such critique as founded on an incomplete knowledge of the evils and costs of our wonderful exploitative civilization and rationality biased towards the justification of the ever increasing production of material goods (which requires at the same time its concentration in ever fewer hands as incentive for everybody to keep on working their asses off). In the end, it comes down to the role you think the poverty of billions play in our current system. For conservatives, that poverty is an unfortunate but non essential circumstance that could be resolved within the system set of rules. All is needed is a bit more effort on the side of the poor (as they are mostly guilty of their own condition), and institutions a bit more inclusive to provide them with the right incentives, and all will be well. The receipt then for the maladies of this technological age (poverty and environmental degradation) is more technology, and more development along the same lines that have brought us to this point (that a conservative, by definition, cannot accept as being “of crisis”, as a true crisis would force us to change course, conserve a little less of our institutional arrangement and innovate a bit more in the social space, even if it takes us into unchartered waters). Non conservatives are a little (or a good deal) more skeptical and wonder if may be the poverty and degradation are not accessories that could be corrected at all, but essential features of the system without which it could not function. Paupers are needed to provide a constant reminder of the fate of those that do not devote themselves one hundred per cent to the production of goods to be exchanged in the market. Overconsumption of non renewable resources is the unavoidable consequence of a system based on the promise of unlimited growth to keep even the most destitute engaged and playing by the rules.
Now, as you may have expected, conservatives were not the only ones criticizing the text, or at least parts of it. Between progressives (which you would expect to feel at least a tinge of embarrassment to be found in agreement with the head of the Catholic Church) the most frequent line of argumentation was that stating the obvious (man’s productive activity as main culprit of climate change and general environmental degradation) was well and good, as was the call to reduce our ecological footprint and for the rich world to pay the bill and be more active in the fight against poverty, but that the Pope should recognize the role of the “excessive” number of human beings in such evils, and thus advocate forcefully for population control, starting by lifting the church’s ban on most types of contraception. I’d like to call this line of argument “the population control canard”, as it is so ridden with inconsistencies itself that it is difficult to decide where to start. However, start we shall, if we want the canard debunked and our own position better stated, so in no particular order I have to point out the following elements that add up to produce an entirely fallacious argument:
· The fallacy of the Pope’s influence on the believer’s reproductive choices; many observers (the less besotted ones, I imagine) have pointed out that Western Catholics have been ignoring the Church’s injunctions against any form of modern birth control for decades, and have rightly concluded that what the Pope may say is of little consequence regarding how many humans there will be in advanced nations. However, for reasons never really well explained, they tend to argue that things are very different in the “third world”, which they imagine full of Duggar-like families growing uncontrollably under the double weight of modern medicine (which keeps all their children alive) and a superstitious respect for the church commandments. As I have already said, I’ve lived for years in developing countries with sizeable Catholic majorities and still have to find a single family there that significantly departs from the behavior in the West. It is the educational level of the females which mainly determines the average family size, regardless of faith, church attendance, respect for tradition or exposure to mass media, and that is something that no papal encyclical is going to change
· The fallacy of blaming overpopulation as the root cause of ecological degradation; not that overpopulation is blameless, but let’s consider for a moment a well known statistic: the average inhabitant of the USA consumes as much energy in a year as 15 average Kenyans (or 34 average Bangladeshis). Let that sink in for a moment. It means that if every inhabitant of the USA (all the 320 millions of them) reduced their energy consumption just a 25% they would save vastly more resources than what a doubling of the population of Bangladesh (adding another 160 million people) would consume. I’m not saying that a doubling of the Bangladeshi (or Kenyan, for that matter) population would be a good thing, far from it, I’m just saying that if you want to reduce the impact we are having on the planet may be, just may be, there are things that would give us a better bang for our buck than reducing population, things that Western environmentalist studiously avoid to mention (because let’s be serious, the moral scandal would not be solved by reducing USA consumption in a 25%, it would require something in the vicinity of 75%, above 50% in Europe, and I don’t see anybody that comes from a utilitarian mindset able to go for such a stretch)
· The fallacy of overpopulation requiring drastic measures (and the authority of Governments, with a very big G) to be curbed; all you really need to put an end to population growth is to moderately educate the girls and presto! They stop wanting to become baby factories for life (I’m being willingly rude here to better satirize the worldview I’m criticizing) regardless of what the Pope may say about what contraceptives they may be allowed to use. Again, and this line of argument somewhat overlaps with the first one, some progressives with little historic knowledge seem to think that the human race did not know how to limit population growth until the 1960’s, and seem to assume everybody just fucked happily for countless millennia with no regard for the potential consequences, and only famine and illness kept the population checked until in the XVIII century the advances in sanitation and agriculture overcame those natural brakes and triggered the explosion we are still witnessing. Sorry to break the news to you, kids, but men and women have known the basic relationship between where and when you ejaculate and the coming of a baby for those same millennia in which the total population of the planet has stayed basically stationary (and you can find pretty explicit references to how they kept that number from growing too much in countless testimonies, from Marx to Freud to quote just some recent examples). Yes, it was not 100% sure and safe, but then there were additional mechanisms to correct “mistakes” (some of them pretty brutal, I’m most definitely not saying we should go back to them) and overall societies knew how to keep their populations from growing too much. The only thing that changed in the XVIII Century was the incentive system, as in the new scenario of international competition between Nation-states and burgeoning salaried labor markets (created through massive dispossession of small peasants and artisans) it suddenly paid for societies to balloon in size at no matter what cost. However, the coming to an end of that incentive system (both the international competition has been subdued, thanks in part to the MAD doctrine between erstwhile superpowers and automation has made the perspective of jobs for all somewhat dubious) has understandably caused the drying of the population well… again, irrespective of what the Catholic Pope (or the representatives of the Nation State, as the recent cases of China and Iran attest trying to revert the whole modern geist and convince their populations to procreate again) may say
So I hope to have make clear enough the intellectual bankruptcy of that line of criticism. There is another one which in my eyes has more merit, which rather than in the (more fictitious than real) insufficient attention paid to population control focus its attention in the subordinate role the Catholic Church assigns to women. I’m more sympathetic to that idea, and I do not see it as a canard (as I see the previous one), although it is a bit of a stretch to use it to undermine the overall critique of the consumerist society. I’ll just say that I agree with the overall push for more equality within that particular faith (I don’t see why women can’t be priests, bishops or even Pope), just I don’t see how that particular preference of mine is relevant to the discussion at hand.
I would like to end with a reflection on how the encyclical tackles the question of what should be done, being a question that has vexed me for a long time. If the essential rules that bind society together and that people use when deciding how to live are flawed, how to materialize a substantial enough change in them is no small potatoes. Now the Church has a powerful lever that few other institutions have: through their schools they control a significant portion of the education of the future leaders, and they can use that lever to inculcate in their pupils greater doses of renunciation to the supposed bliss of acquiring more material goods than your neighbor. That position (teach their pupils not to accept the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality I denounced at the beginning of this post) was explicitly endorsed by the previous general of the Jesuits (the order to which Francis belongs) in an address to his alumni, as brilliantly reflected in this post by my friend Pedro Linares : Arrupe's address . What he is explicitly asking them to do is brutal in its relentless opposition to the dominant mindset: consume clearly less than their neighbors, decrease their participation in a system of benefit creation that enables the exploitation of their fellow men, actively participate in changing the value system. But those words were addressed in 1973, and I find it difficult to see any sign that they were taken by heart by the audience. I do not doubt that, had they not been spoken, those alumni may have turned out more selfish and more success-idolizing, but they seem to me selfish and idolizing enough as they are, even after hearing them (they are the immediate artificers of our current world, and we, who took the banner from their hands, as most of them are close to retirement or have already retired, do not seem to be that much different). So controlling (substantial parts of) education is not enough, and we are still grappling with the same question: how can any of us contribute the most to the change of direction that I still firmly believe the world requires, to steer it towards a more humane, more just society, more conductive to the flourishing of its members (both present and future, as we seem to have entirely forgotten the latter) and more respectful of the environment.
I don’t think we can expect to find the answer in an encyclical, even one as courageous and clear minded as this one. Maybe, like the Flying Dutchman, it is our destiny to always navigate between the shoals of modernity and the countless wreckages it has left in its wake, without ever being able to reach our destination of certainty and contentment… Be it so and let the travel continue, then.