Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Why the Doctrine of Sustainability is Anti-Catholic and the Pope Should Reject It

 

Back in May, I noticed an article on CRISIS magazine’s website that I knew I wouldn’t have the proper time to devote to reading. It was titled, What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?, so I added it to my menu bar for later perusal. It was worth the wait.

“Sustainability” is one of those watchwords which has found common usage across the political spectrum. On the left, it typically raises concerns about the environmental impact of humans using limited natural resources like water and fossil fuels. On the right, there’s more worry over the sustainability of a government or economic system burdened by $18 trillion of debt. Having read William M. Briggs’s excellent article hasn’t changed my mind about the latter, but it has given me pause about the concept of sustainability generally. There’s just so much we simply don’t (and can’t) know.

What are the known unknowns? Well, for starters, how much of the finite resource is currently available? Then, what will be the demand for the currently desired effect in the future (somewhat population dependent — another unknown)? Finally, will there be a replacement technology developed or some other factor which changes the rate of usage? Here’s how Briggs puts it:

The calculation is complicated. To decide if a non-renewable resource is unsustainable depends on how much of it there is, the changing rate of its use, and the number of people expected in the future. It also hinges on whether the non-renewable will remain non-renewable, that a substitute for the non-renewable will not be discovered, and that the effect caused by use of the non-renewable will always be desired. We must know all these things, else the point at which we run out of the non-renewable will be unknown. If we do not know all these things, it is wrong to claim use of a resource is “unsustainable.”

Ah, problems with limited information and an inability to predict the future duly noted. But, how does this relate to the Catholic Church, you may ask?

People. The Church’s concern is with people and their relationship to the Divine — something any fair-minded observer of the environmental sustainability movement will admit is incompatible with its goal of “minimal impact” on Pure Nature. In the New Manicheanism of environmentalism, people are the problem of evil. All would be right with Nature if it weren’t for dirty, rotten, filthy, wasteful people. Ptui!

It’s somewhat shocking then to learn that the Pontifical Academy for Science (PAS) has used the term “sustainable population” unironically. By doing so, it accepts the false premise that people and nature are separate with opposing interests, and it calls into question the PAS’s dedication to the idea of just Who Is the Author of Life. Whose side are they on anyway?!

This is where Malthus is usually invoked. But Briggs is helpful in explaining how we get Malthus wrong:

It is not that more people are encroaching upon more food sources, it is that more food leads to more people. Plentiful, cheap, and nutritious food caused, or rather allowed, the increase. Think: if there is not enough food, there cannot be an increase in population! It follows there cannot be “too many” people.

Briggs further explains there cannot be too many people in either the scientific or eschatological sense. He quotes Father Schall:

The root of the “sustainability mission,” I suspect, is the practical denial of eternal life. “Sustainability” is an alternative to lost transcendence. It is what happens when suddenly no future but the present one exists. The only “future” of mankind is an on-going planet orbiting down the ages. It always does the exact same, boring thing. This view is actually a form of despair. Our end is the preservation of the race down the ages, not personal eternal life.

“Sustainability” as it is commonly used by environmentalists is not just incompatible with the mission and ethic of the Church, it’s incompatible with the truth. Which is really a way of saying the same thing.

Pope Francis uses the word “sustainable” in its various forms over two dozen times in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si. This is a mistake. Sustainability is a false doctrine which should be rejected by the Church.

It will take me at least another six months to figure out if conservatives should also reject the idea of economic/fiscal sustainability. A little help?

There are 37 comments.

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  1. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Does it matter whether one is considering a local setting or a global setting?

    Is it unwise to try to establish a sustainable plan for a household budget, a small business, or a small farm? I can see a temptation to think good planning can substitute for God’s providence. But surely planning is not foolish or wrong.

    Is your real objection to the scale of predictions and plans by environmentalists?

    • #1
    • October 16, 2015, at 8:54 AM PDT
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  2. Shawn Buell, Jeopardy Contesta… Contributor

    Clearly, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid aren’t on “sustainable” paths, so there’s something to be said for the use of the word in a clinical sense.

    Is there a practical limit to the number of people that we can put on the planet before we start severely degrading the environment in order to add additional people? I think there is. Does that mean that we’re anywhere near that number? Probably not.

    This is a big topic worthy of a lot of discussion. Population in my opinion is a function of economics. People are rationally capable of assessing whether or not the addition of a child or children will have a net positive effect upon their life in terms of measuring tradeoffs and act accordingly. This is why I’m strongly in favor of birth control and appropriate family planning.

    The Pope is being two-faced here. On the one hand he’s saying “stop having babies! You’re destroying the planet!” and on the other he’s busy saying “Don’t use contaception! That’s against God’s will!”

    I can understand people being peeved at the mixed messages.

    • #2
    • October 16, 2015, at 9:05 AM PDT
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  3. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller:Does it matter whether one is considering a local setting or a global setting?

    Is it unwise to try to establish a sustainable plan for a household budget, a small business, or a small farm? I can see a temptation to think good planning can substitute for God’s providence. But surely planning is not foolish or wrong.

    Is your real objection to the scale of predictions and plans by environmentalists?

    Have you read the article, Aaron? Yes, I support stewarding one’s household resources properly. Those are somewhat known knowns (without accounting for happenstance).

    • #3
    • October 16, 2015, at 9:08 AM PDT
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  4. raycon and lindacon Inactive

    Isn’t it an irony that God commissioned man to tend His garden, let’s call it instead of Eden, Gaia. Now man believes that Gaia must be served as a god, so that man himself can live.

    What are we hoping to sustain?

    • #4
    • October 16, 2015, at 12:26 PM PDT
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  5. I Walton Member

    But surely planning is not foolish or wrong.

    Individuals, businesses can plan, militaries can plan for campaigns. The purpose is to evaluate where you are and that if nothing changes what you may need. It’s an attempt to clarify expectations about a very narrow slice of the near future. In a global economy everything changes, always everywhere so planning may be an exercise in rigorous thinking and hence is useful, but any attempt to then put a central plan into effect is begging for disaster.

    • #5
    • October 16, 2015, at 12:27 PM PDT
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  6. Egg Man Member

    Julian Simon briefed Pope JP II in the 80s — the Pope then adopted some of his themes when discussing population and the benefits of growth (arguing that people were a resource, not a burden). I don’t hear the Vatican using similar language today.

    As for economic/fiscal sustainability, I think it is simply refers to the idea that there must be limits to government debt. Leftist ideas of sustainability don’t really equate with how the word is used in the budget context. I think it’s because progressives like to take ordinarly accepted terms and co-opt them. (After all, who could be against sustainability?)

    • #6
    • October 16, 2015, at 12:28 PM PDT
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  7. Done Contributor

    Western Chauvinist: It’s somewhat shocking then to learn that the Pontifical Academy for Science (PAS) has used the term “sustainable population” unironically. By doing so, it accepts the false premise that people and nature are separate with opposing interests, and it calls into question the PAS’s dedication to the idea of just Who Is the Author of Life. Whose side are they on anyway?!

    Just so.

    • #7
    • October 16, 2015, at 12:46 PM PDT
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  8. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Majestyk: The Pope is being two-faced here. On the one hand he’s saying “stop having babies! You’re destroying the planet!” and on the other he’s busy saying “Don’t use contaception! That’s against God’s will!”

    Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. He hasn’t gone so far as to say “stop having babies,” although the “breeding like rabbits” was a kind of a gut punch to faithful Catholics. I don’t really want to get into the contraception discussion as it deserves a thread of its own.

    However, you really should read Briggs’s article for the section on the cultural hubris. It addresses the paradox of shrinking first world families who also have access to abundant resources. Very interesting.

    • #8
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:17 PM PDT
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  9. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    West C.,

    It is the really big/really subtle lies that are the hardest to deal with. We should give ‘sustainability’ a new definition when the environmentalists use the word.

    Global Zero-Sum Krypto-Fascism.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #9
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:28 PM PDT
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  10. Paul DeRocco Member
    Paul DeRocco Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    When a leftist uses the term “sustainability”, it generally refers to technological impacts on the environment. It boils down to the idea that we shouldn’t allow ourselves the use of any technology that we couldn’t use forever. We shouldn’t burn fossil fuels because someday we’ll run out. We shouldn’t throw stuff away because someday we’ll be buried in our own waste. We shouldn’t drive cars because someday we’ll have paved over everything.

    Someone, perhaps George Gilder, pointed out that the entire technological history of the human race has been one unsustainable development after another. It’s our nature. We burned whale oil, but before we “ran out” of whales, we discovered petroleum. We rode horses, but before we were buried in horse manure we had invented automobiles. We learned subsistence farming, but before we used up all the arable land, we discovered more productive forms of agriculture. And so on.

    Doing something until it is no longer possible, and then finding something better to do, is our intrinsic nature. Demanding that we never allow ourselves to do anything that won’t eventually bump into some limit is to deny our nature, our very humanity, and put an end to technological progress. I don’t think your average leftist would actually like that very much, but they all live in a dream world where facing the true nature of things, good and bad, is never really necessary.

    • #10
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:28 PM PDT
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  11. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul DeRocco:When a leftist uses the term “sustainability”, it generally refers to technological impacts on the environment. It boils down to the idea that we shouldn’t allow ourselves the use of any technology that we couldn’t use forever. We shouldn’t burn fossil fuels because someday we’ll run out. We shouldn’t throw stuff away because someday we’ll be buried in our own waste. We shouldn’t drive cars because someday we’ll have paved over everything.

    Someone, perhaps George Gilder, pointed out that the entire technological history of the human race has been one unsustainable development after another. It’s our nature. We burned whale oil, but before we “ran out” of whales, we discovered petroleum. We rode horses, but before we were buried in horse manure we had invented automobiles. We learned subsistence farming, but before we used up all the arable land, we discovered more productive forms of agriculture. And so on.

    Doing something until it is no longer possible, and then finding something better to do, is our intrinsic nature. Demanding that we never allow ourselves to do anything that won’t eventually bump into some limit is to deny our nature, our very humanity, and put an end to technological progress. I don’t think your average leftist would actually like that very much, but they all live in a dream world where facing the true nature of things, good and bad, is never really necessary.

    This comment bears repeating.

    • #11
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:35 PM PDT
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  12. Shawn Buell, Jeopardy Contesta… Contributor

    The “breeding like rabbits” comment was what I was shooting at generally, but I do think the Pope would appear to be all over the map unless you view his underlying allegiance as being to leftism.

    Then it all becomes clear.

    • #12
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:40 PM PDT
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  13. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Majestyk:The “breeding like rabbits” comment was what I was shooting at generally, but I do think the Pope would appear to be all over the map unless you view his underlying allegiance as being to leftism.

    Then it all becomes clear.

    Again, I think it goes too far to label Pope Francis a leftist. I prefer Father Schall’s word to describe Laudato Si — he is incoherent in his thinking on certain issues. And, I suspect, he trusts certain people around him too much.

    • #13
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:48 PM PDT
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  14. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Majestyk: Is there a practical limit to the number of people that we can put on the planet before we start severely degrading the environment in order to add additional people? I think there is.

    If we limit ourselves to one planet, yes. This is why humanity needs to start building colonies on the moon, Mars, and eventually sending missions to colonize nearby solar systems.

    • #14
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:49 PM PDT
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  15. Done Contributor

    Majestyk: Is there a practical limit to the number of people that we can put on the planet before we start severely degrading the environment in order to add additional people? I think there is.

    Maybe, though innovation may prove this limit to be so high that it is irrelevant for our practical purposes.

    • #15
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:54 PM PDT
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  16. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Joseph Stanko:

    Majestyk: Is there a practical limit to the number of people that we can put on the planet before we start severely degrading the environment in order to add additional people? I think there is.

    If we limit ourselves to one planet, yes. This is why humanity needs to start building colonies on the moon, Mars, and eventually sending missions to colonize nearby solar systems.

    I think the concern of overpopulation fails to acknowledge the self-correcting aspect of scarce resources. Or, in other words, Mother Nature can be a b-b-b… witch.

    • #16
    • October 16, 2015, at 2:55 PM PDT
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  17. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Paul DeRocco: We burned whale oil, but before we “ran out” of whales, we discovered petroleum.

    But whale oil is a renewable resource, as long as you don’t hunt the population up to the point of extinction.

    I think sustainability is a reasonable concept to apply to renewable resources like fishing, hunting, logging, and so forth. Conservation is a conservative concept, after all both come from the same root word “conserve.” We should also repeatedly stress the “tragedy of the commons” and the fact that such resources are nearly always best conserved by private owners with an incentive to avoid destroying their own property.

    • #17
    • October 16, 2015, at 3:01 PM PDT
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  18. TempTime Member

    Paul DeRocco:When a leftist uses the term “sustainability”, it generally refers to technological impacts on the environment. It boils down to the idea that we shouldn’t allow ourselves the use of any technology that we couldn’t use forever. We shouldn’t burn fossil fuels because someday we’ll run out. We shouldn’t throw stuff away because someday we’ll be buried in our own waste. We shouldn’t drive cars because someday we’ll have paved over everything.

    Someone, perhaps George Gilder, pointed out that the entire technological history of the human race has been one unsustainable development after another. It’s our nature. We burned whale oil, but before we “ran out” of whales, we discovered petroleum. We rode horses, but before we were buried in horse manure we had invented automobiles. We learned subsistence farming, but before we used up all the arable land, we discovered more productive forms of agriculture. And so on.

    Doing something until it is no longer possible, and then finding something better to do, is our intrinsic nature. Demanding that we never allow ourselves to do anything that won’t eventually bump into some limit is to deny our nature, our very humanity, and put an end to technological progress. I don’t think your average leftist would actually like that very much, but they all live in a dream world where facing the true nature of things, good and bad, is never really necessary.

    I NeededToBeAbleToLike ThisAgain. Thanks.

    • #18
    • October 16, 2015, at 3:02 PM PDT
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  19. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Western Chauvinist: I think the concern of overpopulation fails to acknowledge the self-correcting aspect of scarce resources. Or, in other words, Mother Nature can be a b-b-b… witch.

    On the contrary, I think that’s the basis of most environmentalist arguments: that if we don’t take steps to limit X today (carbon emissions, resource consumption, population, etc.) we will trigger a catastrophe for future generations.

    As a moral argument I think that’s perfectly sound. Of course we may dispute the facts, we may think the predictions of future catastrophe are exaggerated (or completely made up), but let’s say purely as a thought experiment that the science was 100% clear that current rates of carbon emissions would cause the polar ice caps to melt by 2100 leading to a Waterworld future. We’d have at least some qualms about bequeathing a world like that to our grandchildren, right?

    • #19
    • October 16, 2015, at 3:18 PM PDT
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  20. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    WC, I love this post so, so much.

    William M. Briggs: It is not that more people are encroaching upon more food sources, it is that more food leads to more people. Plentiful, cheap, and nutritious food caused, or rather allowed, the increase.

    Exactly. Ron Bailey makes this point repeatedly in The End of Doom that Malthusianism doesn’t work for humans because our resources are not finite in the same sense that they are for animals. We invent resources.

    One of the most amazing things in the world is that we’ve figured out how to turn the raw, unfriendly resources of the Earth into the means to feed seven billion people and at a very high standard of living, absent war or tyranny.

    • #20
    • October 16, 2015, at 3:40 PM PDT
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  21. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hmm, what I’m getting at, Joseph, is that technological advancements make it possible to sustain more people on this planet all the time — that is, until they don’t. There are more people populating the world today because we’ve found the means of using resources in a way that sustains more people. If something happens that strains our adaptation to current conditions, then, well, the planet will sustain fewer people. Could be plague (for which we haven’t developed or produced enough medication) or famine (something like a global potato famine) or even the less likely melting of the polar ice caps Water World scenario.

    While it sounds like a tautology, it’s accurate to say the planet sustains as many people as are alive and more or less depending on our adaptation to conditions.

    Environmentalists persist in making claims to know things they can’t possibly know about present and future living conditions of the planet. We shouldn’t make the same mistake.

    • #21
    • October 16, 2015, at 3:41 PM PDT
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  22. Fern Inactive

    Western Chauvinist:

    Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. He hasn’t gone so far as to say “stop having babies,” although the “breeding like rabbits” was a kind of a gut punch to faithful Catholics.

    I don’t want to derail your post with tangents but I have to point out that “breeding like rabbits” was not what Pope Francis said; he said Catholics didn’t have to be “like rabbits” and then media reports added the unsavory verb “breed.” It’s one of those misquotes I want to clear up every time I see it! I can understand why it stung but his intent was to emphasize the role that reason ought to play in reproduction, and I think as Catholics we ought to reiterate what he meant and not let the narrative be set by unfriendly media outlets.

    • #22
    • October 16, 2015, at 5:00 PM PDT
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  23. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fern:

    Western Chauvinist:

    Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. He hasn’t gone so far as to say “stop having babies,” although the “breeding like rabbits” was a kind of a gut punch to faithful Catholics.

    I don’t want to derail your post with tangents but I have to point out that “breeding like rabbits” was not what Pope Francis said; he said Catholics didn’t have to be “like rabbits” and then media reports added the unsavory verb “breed.” It’s one of those misquotes I want to clear up every time I see it! I can understand why it stung but his intent was to emphasize the role that reason ought to play in reproduction, and I think as Catholics we ought to reiterate what he meant and not let the narrative be set by unfriendly media outlets.

    Thanks, Fern. You’re right to correct me.

    However, it was a most unfortunate word to use in the context of Catholics and reproduction, in my opinion. Still very hurtful and a set-up for a bad faith discussion of something sacred.

    • #23
    • October 16, 2015, at 5:12 PM PDT
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  24. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fern: I think as Catholics we ought to reiterate what he meant and not let the narrative be set by unfriendly media outlets.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    The remark, in context:

    I think the number of three children per family that you mentioned – it makes me suffer- I think it is the number experts say is important to keep the population going. Three per couple. When this decreases, the other extreme happens, like what is happening in Italy. I have heard, I do not know if it is true, that in 2024 there will be no money to pay pensioners because of the fall in population. Therefore, the key word, to give you an answer, and the one the Church uses all the time, and I do too, is responsible parenthood. How do we do this? With dialogue. Each person with his pastor seeks how to do carry out a responsible parenthood.

    That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth child and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is a an irresponsibility That woman might say ‘no, I trust in God.’ But, look, God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.

    • #24
    • October 16, 2015, at 5:17 PM PDT
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  25. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.

    Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.

    • #25
    • October 16, 2015, at 5:17 PM PDT
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  26. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Fern: I don’t want to derail your post with tangents but I have to point out that “breeding like rabbits” was not what Pope Francis said; he said Catholics didn’t have to be “like rabbits” and then media reports added the unsavory verb “breed.”

    I did a search to find the remarks I quoted above and turned up a whole bunch of headlines like this:

    • BBC: Pope Francis: No Catholic need to breed like ‘rabbits’
    • NPR: Pope Francis Says Catholics Don’t Need To Breed ‘Like Rabbits’
    • Time: Pope Francis Slams Breeding ‘Like Rabbits’
    • USA Today: Pope: Catholics need not breed ‘like rabbits’

    It’s like a memo went out and they all agreed to use the word “breed,” though if you look very carefully you’ll see that the quotation marks are only around the words “like rabbits.” It’s the fine art of being technically accurate and misleading at the same time.

    • #26
    • October 16, 2015, at 5:28 PM PDT
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  27. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member