Part Two: Pope Francis Encyclical on Climate Change

This is Part Two of my long blog concerning Pope Francis’s global climate change (and generally environmental and poverty focused) encyclical Laudato Si, issued last Thursday.  I am a little to sorry to say this part will be at least as long as the first, but look at this way:  You could read the full encyclical.  The document runs to 183 pages and as I read it, I found it to be somewhat rambling.  Beyond that, I am afraid the pope has succumbed to bad influences, from his own background and from his advisors.  In general, he has a distorted view of the role markets play and he has an immense optimism about the place of government, even a kind of international governmental structure.  In some respects, the encyclical is a “bait and switch” work, moving into inequality and redistribution instead of sticking with the main issue.  His theology is not in too much error superficially—though it goes far astray at points, especially from a Protestant standpoint—but in its important parts, it is just pious platitudes without apparent connection to action that follows from those ideas.  Let’s first look at the theological support.

Francis opens his religious portion with this: “…science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both. “(45)  I am not sure what he means, since this could imply either that science and religion obtain knowledge in different ways, though they can interact in conversation without one dominating the other or that when the dialogue is finished, religion must have the final say, because of its appeal to special revelation (the Bible).  I am uneasy if it is the former, since science could (and frequently does) trump religion in modern dialogues.

There is also an extensive discussion of Genesis 1-3, the creation, image of God, dominion mandate and the Fall and sin, all important aspects of any Christian approach to the environment.  Francis writes about what the dominion mandate means:

”Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23). This responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world, for “he commanded and they were created; and he established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures. “ (49-50)”

Most of what Francis writes here is agreeable, even well stated.  It is not clear (though this is debated) that God rejects absolute ownership, except insofar as He Himself is ultimate owner and our rights are subsidiary.  If that is what Francis means, then it is acceptable.  Francis aiso also correct to say that there is no place for “tyrannical anthropocentrism” with regard to the environment, living or non-living.  But does he mean that anthropocentrism is also wrong?  After all man was and is the highest creation.  This has implications if Francis intends to unduly limit dominion activity.  I am in agreement that humans can take of the “bounty” of the earth “freely” and that at the same time, they have an obligation to care for creation.  This is true, but I have reservations that Francis’s meaning is a bit different, that he would severely limit technological and industrial advancement even when the effects are at worst only slightly negative with much greater overall benefits to mankind.  Again, the devil is in the details.

Then Francis delves into humans in relation to other humans in relationship to the environment.  He writes:

“Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus.” (60)

First he is correct that we cannot see other humans as “objects.”  This reminds me both of Kant and the “Golden Rule” and is essentially Christian.  But in this context what does Francis mean?  Here I think he mischaracterizes market activity.  Nature might in any given instance be viewed “solely as a source of profit and gain” but this by no means guarantees a misuse of nature or injustice to others.  Even the most selfish of entrepreneurs in a market setting has to be careful to preserve the physical environment which he exploits.  If he overuses it, he loses profit altogether.  Moreover, most advanced nations have laws that reduce the possibility of such results.  The pope will end up blaming those nations, the very ones that do better at preserving the environment so that it remains productive for humans.  As for the pope’s statement about inequality, he again misunderstands markets.  It is precisely when markets have been absent or distorted by government action that “resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all.”  In most cases government itself, the centralized state, has been the problem, taking resources for the good of cronies rather than allow a competitive market to operate, with clearly defined property rights.  Inequality may well result in the presence of markets, but a very different kind than in the absence of markets.  The inequality in the presence of markets usually ends up to the good of the entire society, not just a few in an oligarchy with the rest in abject poverty.

Francis also has something to say about property rights and it is at best ambiguous:

“Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective 69 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2418. 70 Conference of Dominican Bishops, Pastoral Letter Sobre la relación del hombre con la naturaleza (21 January 1987). 69 which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. (68-69)

The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wis 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.(68-70)

Now I don’t disagree that property rights, properly defined, ought to be available to all, it does not follow that they must be redistributed to all.  Francis seems to leave that option open, even desirable.  Notice the language of “natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land….”  Here also he has strayed from what I believed was the purpose of the encyclical—global warming and the environment-and lapsed into economic inequality issues.

The encyclical then goes back to the issue of resource use:

“Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.(79-80)

The idea of “infinite or unlimited growth” is to be sure problematic.  It does tend to promote a kind of hubris.  But that is not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” I hope.  In addition, it is true as a physical fact that all resources are limited in some way, but a physical condition may be very different from an economic condition, something which Francis appears not to understand.  As resources are used, become scarcer, the price goes up, which leads to both conservation and the attempts to find lower cost supplies of other resources that are equally useful for the same activity (say, power generation).  This also may tend to drive prices back down.  Markets actually can for the most part take care of the scarcity issue.

The document then gets into employment and a desired (by Francis) small-scale production process. (95-96, 108-109)  Perhaps this harkens to E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, who extoled the smaller over the larger.  But Francis makes it an either-or proposition.  In some cases, smaller production units can be just as productive and efficient and can benefit consumers just as much as can large enterprises.  But in other cases, we need the large to produce on a scale that makes the price affordable—to the very people Francis is so concerned about, and for whom we also are concerned.  He also says that business ought to exist for the “common good.”  But that begs a question: How can it be best induced to promote the common good, by government intervention or markets?  I contend it is markets that incentivize businesses to promote the common good best.

Two final issues taken up near the end.  First is the issue of who is to pay for the perceived negative results of climate change and pollution generally.  Second is a generally postmodern theme, taken up here by Francis, of “consumerism.”  The first he handles directly:  Eliminate coal, oil and to a lesser extent, gas, and replace them with “clean” energy.  This is to be paid by the large polluting nations. (125-126)  A subsidy is required and it has to be enforceable, so Francis also calls for some sort of international structure of coercion.

Then there is consumerism.  According to Francis, somehow—he is not totally clear—every nation, including the and especially the poorer nations, must foster a new attitude that is less consumerist.  People have to be trained to want and live with less.  How much he doesn’t say or whether non-conformists would be coerced. (see 149-159).

Finally, Francis writes:

“…it should always be kept in mind that ‘environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces’ Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor. “(131)

The crux of this excerpt is that government is the primary, even only, institution suitable for addressing environmental issues.  Once again, he fails to understand how markets work, or how market-like mechanisms might work better that centralized command and control institutions in dealing with pollution.  This is not to deny all government.  But a proper understanding of its weaknesses as well as market strengths would help in this document.

Overall, I found it unhelpful, though full of platitudes.  But it will be influential and will give liberals, progressives and environmentalists ammunition with which to make further claims for state control over the problem as well as redistribution of income.  Thus I am disappointed.

My apologies for the two long pieces.