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I started reading Laudato Si’ over the weekend; I’ve a long way to go, but I’m now reasonably familiar with some of the basic arguments Pope Francis makes in the early chapters.
One thing that leaped off the page is the world of difference between the pope’s views and those of the environmentalist left, especially of the Paul Ehrlich variety. This is hardly surprising. Where the latter sees humanity as a sentient blight on the world that needs to reduce its number to
negligible sustainable levels, the pope begins with a concern for the welfare of human beings (particularly, the poor) and expresses concern that they’re bearing the brunt of our industrialist/consumerist culture while being denied their share of its benefits. If lefty environmentalism is anti-human, Francis’ environmentalism is decidedly humanist in the best (and very Catholic) sense of the word.
Again, it’s hardly surprising the leader of the oldest and largest Christian denomination is concerned with human well-being, particularly that of the poor. What’s frustrating, however, is Francis’s apparent blindness to the similarly-human-centric motivations of the many climate change skeptics, fossil-fuel apologists, and free marketeers that he lambasts. Over and over, the pope identifies these groups as the defenders of a short-term focused, get-mine-while-I-can “throwaway culture” that’s largely to blame for the world’s material suffering. He writes repeatedly about the need to “protect” Nature, without ever hinting how, in so many ways, She seems to have it in for us — and that we’re only able to fight back thanks to this technology.
Moreover, Francis is either unaware of — or uninterested in — how we came to be able to support so many people on this planet, and adopts a very wrong-headed idea about what the world was like in its natural form. Between the dawn of humanity and the Church’s founding, we discovered the means to support somewhere on the order of 200 million souls. That’s a remarkable achievement, considering how little of the world is naturally capable of supporting humanity (to say nothing of the natural threats to life from disease, scarcity, natural disaster, and predation that afflicted our ancestors for over a thousand centuries). As Matt Ridley put it just last week:
It is we eco-optimists [and free-market defenders and fossil-fuel enthusiasts], ironically, who are acutely aware of how miserable this world still is and how much better we could make it – indeed how precariously dependent we are on still inventing ever more new technologies…
Over the next 1,800 years, we discovered the means to quadruple that figure, to an even billion souls. In the ensuing two centuries, however, we’ve managed to increase to more than seven billion souls, while increasing the standard of living for nearly all of them. This was made possible overwhelmingly by the proliferation of industrialization, cheap energy, and free markets that Francis identifies as among the culprits of the poor’s plight. Those forces are often ugly and painful at first, but less so than what came before then. Most people, it turns out, would rather live with smog than starve or freeze to death; as they become richer, they tend to start paying to get rid of the pollution.
Undoubtedly, our culture has its excesses, just as markets have their limits. It’s also easy for someone born at the top of the mountain to tell others that the climb is worth the trouble. But the forces that led those of us in the West to our extraordinary affluence are available to all, if only we will allow them the opportunity and time. As Hayek wrote some 70 years ago in The Fatal Conceit:
[T]he current world population already exists. Destroying its material foundation in order to attain the ‘ethical‘ or instinctually gratifying improvements advocated by socialists would be tantamount to condoning the death of billions and the impoverishment of the rest.
The environmentalist left won’t allow that on principle, as it ultimately loathes humanity’s existence. People like Francis are in danger of leading us to much the same place, albeit for entirely different reasons. Francis is right to care about the poor, but wrong — dead wrong, I fear — about the best means to help them.Published in