Francis, the (Misled) Humanist Environmentalist

 

shutterstock_195361532I 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 General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 12 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    “denomination”; “have it in for us”

    But why not wait until you’ve finished reading the whole thing to write something?

    • #1
  2. Jason Rudert Inactive
    Jason Rudert
    @JasonRudert

    Who edits the editors?

    • #2
  3. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Like.

    • #3
  4. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Jamal Rudert:Who edits the editors?

    “I dunno. Coast Guard?” – Homer Simpson

    • #4
  5. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Jamal Rudert:Who edits the editors?

    I think they edit each other. Another manifestation of the primate grooming circle.

    • #5
  6. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    genferei: But why not wait until you’ve finished reading the whole thing to write something?

    Because I’m commenting on the sections I have read, and which appear to very much stand on their own. Papal encyclicals tend not to have surprise endings.

    • #6
  7. user_536506 Member
    user_536506
    @ScottWilmot

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

    Very interesting and good critique Tom. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the encyclical. I look forward to any further comments you have after you finish reading it through to the end.

    I’m still struggling to get through it – I’m not a fan of his writing style – it is awfully verbose.

    • #7
  8. user_82762 Inactive
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Tom,

    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:

    A truly strong argument Tom. Here is the master at work.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #8
  9. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    genferei: But why not wait until you’ve finished reading the whole thing to write something?

    Because I’m commenting on the sections I have read, and which appear to very much stand on their own. Papal encyclicals tend not to have surprise endings.

    Fair enough. But you’re in for a nice surprise or two. There are a lot of mistaken factual claims and false premises in the first third of the encyclical. But the middle moves toward moral philosophy, where the Holy Father predictably finds stronger footing.

    I appreciate the balance, Tom.

    His errors are indeed dangerous in their support of Big Government (which always either attacks or corrupts the local Church). Even some stylistic errors could prove harmful, such as the reference to the poems of St Francis. In a time when animism and anthropomorphism are common, some might mistake phrases like “Brother Sun” as literal philosophy. Though we are called to honor all of God’s Creation for its own sake, for its beauty and brilliance, the Church teaches that every microbe and every planet is a gift made specifically for humanity.

    I dislike the tact taken by Archbishop Kurtz and some of my other fellow Catholics. It is good practice in any debate to begin from common ground, exhibiting respect for truth above all. We can defend the better aspects of Laudato Si without ignoring justified criticisms.

    • #9
  10. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Cross-posted:

    Pope Francis is justifiably skeptical of affluence generally… and not just because his home nation is a basketcase.

    Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

    Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?”

    Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

    —Matthew 19

    That last line is often neglected. Jesus doesn’t say that only the poor may enter Heaven. Yet Christ very clearly states that wealth makes holiness difficult. It is a point we Americans are tempted to breeze by without due consideration.

    Affluence, like freedom, requires greater responsibility and self-discipline to enjoy in love. Material poverty can be harsh, but its moral challenges are fewer and more direct. Prosperity complicates life and attacks the soul by easy corruption rather than by terrifying violence.

    For example, the uneducated don’t have to contend with competing philosophies from all places and all times. Multiculturalism isn’t a temptation for them. Starvation can tempt one to theft or violence, but it is not as subtly corrosive as pornography or idle passtimes.

    Overt evils endanger lives. Covert evils endanger souls.

    • #10
  11. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    If I could meet our Bishop of Rome for 5 minutes, the main point I would want to make is this:

    God permits great evils to plague this world in honor of His gift of free will. The freedom to love God in return or to reject His love is the centerpoint of Christianity. Through Christ’s suffering and resurrection, He freed us from the due punishments of our selfishness to enable us to embrace Him… or not.

    The Church teaches that baptism is only the offer of salvation, along with the graces necessary to accept. Until one’s dying day, a Christian is called to daily conversion — to voluntarily turn toward God (Love) in every action, large and small.

    If freedom is so important to God, how can we dismiss it? If Jesus is willing to endure such great pains to pay the price of free will, how can we sacrifice so little for that same gift?

    Now, Jesus curses the tree that does not bear good fruit. He demands some degree of justice, some return of His love. But even the trees He generally allows to disappoint with barren branches. Perfection of Creation is for our loving Savior to manifest on the day of Judgment. Until then, it is enough that we live in love while inviting our neighbors to do so, but honoring their God-given freedom to turn away.

    We must take up our own crosses. The costs of freedom are severe but necessary.

    • #11
  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Aaron Miller: Starvation can tempt one to theft or violence,

    or prostitution.

    It’s interesting that when Jesus told the disciples it was hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, the disciples, many of whom were pretty not-rich, responded with, “Who then can be saved?”

    If I try to put myself in the disciples’ shoes (or lack of shoes) for a moment, I might be astonished by Jesus’ teachings because I had previously heard that earthly wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If even the wealthy find it difficult, what does that mean for we who are poor? Or I might conceive of wealth rather differently from a modern person, associating it less with the economic value of assets, and more with status, political connections, or direct power over people (for instance, slaves and concubines). Even today, “You’re only rich because you exploited others!” is a popular accusation. But perhaps back then, it was much more likely to be literally true.

    Economic wealth expands options – including evil options, true. But also including good options.

    • #12
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.