The Pope and the Planet

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Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis visiting typhoon survivors in Tacloban, the Philippines, January 2015

On a sprawling, multicultural, fractious planet, no person can be heard by everyone. But Pope Francis comes closer than anyone else. He heads the world’s largest religious denomination and so has 1.2 billion people in his flock, but even (maybe especially) outside the precincts of Catholicism his talent for the telling gesture has earned him the respect and affection of huge numbers of people. From his seat in Rome he addresses the developed world, much of which descended from the Christendom he represents; but from his Argentine roots he speaks to the developing world, and with firsthand knowledge of the poverty that is the fate of most on our planet.

So no one could have considered more usefully the first truly planetary question we’ve ever faced: the rapid heating of the earth from the consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. But national political leaders, beholden to the fossil fuel industry, have been timid at best—Barack Obama, for instance, barely mentioned the question during the 2012 election campaign. Since Francis first announced plans for an encyclical on climate change, many have eagerly awaited his words.

And on those narrow grounds, Laudato Si’ does not disappoint. It does indeed accomplish all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: insist that climate change is the fault of man; call for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and remind us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor. (It also does Americans the service of putting climate-denier politicians—a fairly rare species in the rest of the world—in a difficult place. Jeb Bush, for example, was reduced to saying that in the case of climate the pope should butt out, leaving the issue to politicians. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people,” he said, in words that may come back to haunt him.)

The pope’s contribution to the climate debate builds on the words of his predecessors—in the first few pages he quotes from John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—but clearly for those prelates ecological questions were secondary. He also cites the pathbreaking work of Bartholomew, the Orthodox leader sometimes called the “green patriarch”; others, from the Dalai Lama to Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, have spoken eloquently on this issue as well. Still, Francis’s words fall as a rock in this pond, not a pebble; they help greatly to consolidate the current momentum toward some kind of agreement at the global climate conference in Paris in December. He has, in effect, said that all people of good conscience need to do as he has done and give the question the priority it requires. The power of celebrity is the power to set the agenda, and his timing has been impeccable. On those grounds alone, Laudato Si’ stands as one of the most influential documents of recent times.

It is, therefore, remarkable to actually read the whole document and realize that it is far more important even than that. In fact, it is entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary. In scope and tone it reminded me instantly of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), and of the essays of the great American writer Wendell Berry.1 As with those writers, it’s no use trying to categorize the text as liberal or conservative; there’s some of each, but it goes far deeper than our political labels allow. It’s both caustic and tender, and it should unsettle every nonpoor reader who opens its pages.

The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, “a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” He is no Luddite (“who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”) but he insists that we have succumbed to a “technocratic paradigm,” which leads us to believe that “every increase in power means ‘an increase of “progress” itself’…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.” This paradigm “exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.” Men and women, he writes, have from the start

intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.

In our world, however, “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” With the great power that technology has afforded us, it’s become

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.

The deterioration of the environment, he says, is just one sign of this “reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.” And though “the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm…is nowadays inconceivable,” the pope is determined to try exactly that, going beyond “urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution” to imagine a world where technology has been liberated to serve the poor, the rest of creation, and indeed the rest of us who pay our own price even amid our temporary prosperity. The present ecological crisis is “one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,” he says, dangerous to the dignity of us all.

Thus girded, the pope intervenes in a variety of contemporary debates. Automation versus work, for instance. As he notes, “the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological process in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines,” which is a sadness since “work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth.” The example he cites demonstrates the subtlety of his argument. Genetic modification of crops is a way, in a sense, to automate or rationalize farming. There’s no “conclusive proof” that GMOs may be harmful to our bodies; there’s extensive proof, however, that “following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners” who can afford the new technologies.

Given that half the world still works as peasant farmers, this accelerates the exodus off the farm and into hovels at the margins of overcrowded cities; there is a need instead to “promote an economy which favours productive diversity,” including “small-scale food production systems…be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing.” (And lest anyone think this is a romantic prescription for starvation, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has in the last few years published one study after another showing that small farms in fact produce more calories per acre. Not per dollar invested—if you want to grow rich, you need a spread. But if you want to feed the world, clever peasant farming will be effective.)

It’s not just small versus large. The pope insists on giving priority to diverse culture over the “levelling effect on cultures” encouraged by a “consumerist vision,” which diminishes the “immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity.” In words that are somewhat remarkable coming from the head of an institution that first set out to universalize the world,

the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle…can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.

Even more striking, in this regard, is his steadfast defense of “indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed,” because for them land “is a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.” Compare that attitude with, say, the oil companies now destroying aboriginal land in order to mine Canada’s tar sands.

But the pope is just as radical, given current reality, when he insists on beauty over ugliness. When he demands the protection from development of “those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home’ within a city which includes us and brings us together,” he is not just celebrating Frederick Law Olmsted—he’s wading into, for instance, the still-simmering Turkish revolt that began with plans to tear down Istanbul’s Gezi Park and replace it with a mall and luxury apartments.

He also insists on giving “priority to public transportation” over private cars. This was the precise phrase used by Jaime Lerner, the visionary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, when a generation ago he launched the world’s best transit system. His vision of Bus Rapid Transit is now spreading around the world, and it works best precisely where it most inconveniences autos, by insisting on dedicated bus lanes and the like. It makes getting around as easy for the poor as for the rich; every BRT lane is a concrete demonstration of what the Latin American liberation theologians, scorned and hounded by previous popes, once called “the preferential option for the poor.”

The pope is at his most rigorous when he insists that we must prefer the common good to individual advancement, for of course the world we currently inhabit really began with Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the opposite. (It was Thatcher who said, memorably, that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” and that’s that.) In particular, the pope insists that “intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Think of the limitations that really believing that would place on our current activities. And think too what it would mean if we kept not only “the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting.” We literally would have to stop doing much of what we’re currently doing; with poor people living on the margins firmly in mind, and weighing the interests of dozens of future generations, would someone like to write a brief favoring, say, this summer’s expansion by Shell (with permission from President Obama) of oil drilling into the newly melted waters of the Arctic? Again the only applicable word is “radical.”

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Pierre Radisic
Photograph by Pierre Radisic

But as I say, we’ve seen this kind of neither-liberal-nor-conservative radicalism before—from critics like Schumacher or Berry or, in the formulation of New York Times columnist David Brooks, other “purveyors of “1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization.” Indeed any serious effort to alter or even critique the largest trends in our civilization is now scorned, often by the theoretical left as well as the right. Brooks is united with, for instance, n+1 editor Mark Greif, who in his recent The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015) heaps contempt on those who would do precisely what the pope undertakes:

Anytime your inquiries lead you to say, “At this moment we must ask and decide who we fundamentally are…” just stop. You have begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment…. Answer, rather, the practical matters…and find the immediate actions necessary to achieve an aim.

For some, this would mean don’t talk about individualism versus the common good; talk about some new scheme for carbon credits. In Brooks and Greif we hear the “real world” talking.

By contrast, at least since the Buddha, a line of spiritual leaders has offered a reasonably coherent and remarkably similar critique of who we are and how we live. The greatest of those critics was perhaps Jesus, but the line continues through Francis’s great namesake, and through Thoreau, and Gandhi, and many others. Mostly, of course, we’ve paid them devoted lip service and gone on living largely as before.

We’ve come close to change—opinion surveys at the end of the 1970s, for instance, showed that 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” 31 percent “anti-growth,” and 39 percent “highly uncertain,” and President Carter held a White House reception for Schumacher. But Reagan’s election resolved that tension in the usual way, and the progress we’ve made, before and since, has been technological, not moral; people have been pulled from poverty by expansion, not by solidarity. The question is whether the present moment is actually any different, or whether the pope’s words will fall as seeds on rocky ground.

If there’s a difference this time, it’s that we seem to have actually reached the edge of the precipice. Schumacher and the visionaries of the 1970s imagined that the limits to growth were a little further off, and offered us strong warnings, which we didn’t heed.

Take water, which the pope addresses at length. We probably should not need his words to know that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival.” We all know it should not be wasted, and yet we continue to waste it because doing so is beneficial to the rich and powerful: for instance, insurance companies have planted enormous almond groves across California in recent years even as water supplies have started to shrink, and agribusiness planters have drawn down the aquifers of the Midwest.

In the same week that the pope’s encyclical emerged, a huge new study showed that those aquifers are now overdrawn in regions that provide food for two billion people—the data come from satellites measuring the earth’s gravitational field, which means that the water losses are so large they’re affecting the planet on that scale. In the American West alone, the drought has become so serious that last year those satellites showed the evaporation of 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, weighing nearly 240 billion tons, a loss of enough weight that the Sierra Nevada mountains became measurably higher. New data also show that California’s drillers must now go so deep to find groundwater that the supplies they tap have been in the ground for 20,000 years.

Or take biodiversity, where the pope rightly notes that “caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.” But that alarm sounds somewhat louder when, in the same week as the encyclical, a new study in a prestigious journal found that extinctions were now happening at 114 times the normal background rate, and that the planet’s “sixth mass extinction is already underway.” In view of such empirical data, we can understand the pope’s rare flicker of real anger when he refers to those “who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life.”

His profound sadness about the inequality among people, and the toll it exacts on the poor, is also undergirded by remarkable new data that separate it from earlier critiques. The data show right now that inequality is reaching almost absurd heights: for instance, the six heirs to the Walmart fortune have more assets than the bottom 42 percent of all Americans combined; the two Koch brothers (together the richest men on the planet) have plans to spend more than the Republicans or the Democrats on the next federal election. If you want to understand why the Occupy movement or the early surge toward Bernie Sanders caught the usual political analysts by surprise, consider those facts. (The pope suggests that “many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres and power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor with little direct contact with their problems.”)

Above all, the empirical data about climate change make it clear that the moment is ripe for this encyclical. A long line of gurus, of whom Francis is the latest, is now converging with a large number of contemporary scientists; instead of scriptures, the physicists and chemists consult the latest printouts from their computer models, but the two ways of knowing seem to be making the same point. So far we’ve melted most of the sea ice in the summer Arctic, made the oceans 30 percent more acidic, and started the apparently irreversible slide of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the surrounding ocean. We are, to put it another way, systematically destroying the largest physical features on the planet, and we are doing it at a rapid pace.

Given that, who’s the realist? The pope, with his insistence that we need a rapid cultural transformation, or David Brooks, speaking for the complacent, with his insistence that “over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress”? The point is, there no longer is any long haul. Those who speak, in the pope’s words, the language of “nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” no longer have a tenable case. What he calls the “magical conception of the market” has not, ultimately, done what Reagan promised; instead it has raised, for the first time, the very real specter of wholesale planetary destruction, of change that will be measured in geological time.

It’s quite possible—probable, even—that the pope will lose this fight. He’s united science and spirit, but that league still must do battle with money. The week the encyclical was released, Congress approved, in bipartisan fashion, fast-track trade legislation, a huge victory for the forces of homogenization, technocracy, finance, and what the encyclical calls “rapidification.”

It’s not that markets shouldn’t play a part in environmental solutions: everyone who’s studied the problem believes that the fossil fuel industry should pay a price for the damage carbon does in the atmosphere, and that that price, if set high enough, would speed up the transition to renewable energy. But the climate movement has largely united behind plans that would take that money from the Exxons of the world and return it to all citizens, which would have the effect of giving poor and middle-class people, who generally use less fossil fuel, a substantial net gain. The new fast-track agreements, by contrast, apparently explicitly forbid new climate agreements as a part of trade negotiations.

Anyway, if the outcome of the real-world battle is uncertain, the pope carries the intellectual contest. Brooks, for instance, makes the centerpiece of his attack on the encyclical the notion that the promising technocratic approach is, fortunately, expanding fracking, because burning natural gas produces less carbon than burning coal. This is scientifically obtuse (as I explained in these pages, an emerging body of evidence shows that fracking instead liberates vast quantities of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas2), but in any event the extent of the damage we’ve already done to the climate means we no longer have room for slightly less damaging fossil fuels. We have to make the leap to renewable power.

And the good news is that that’s entirely possible. Thanks to the engineers whose creativity the pope celebrates, we’ve watched the price of solar panels fall 75 percent in the last six years alone. They’re now cheap enough that a vast effort, rooted in pragmatic physics, could ensure before the decade was out that there would hardly be a hut or hovel that lacked access to energy, something that the fossil fuel status quo has failed to achieve in two hundred years. Such a change would be carried out by small-scale entrepreneurs of just the sort the pope has in mind when he describes the dignity of work. And it would mean a very different world. Instead of centralized power in the hands of a few oil and gas barons like the Koch brothers, the earth would draw its energy from a widely diffused and much more democratic grid. Building that system in time would require aid to the poorest nations to jumpstart the transition. It would require, for instance, a world much like the one the pope envisions, where concern for the poor counts as much as, in Brooks’s sad words, the “low motivations of people as they actually are.”

Brooks, Reagan, and Thatcher summon the worst in us and assume that will eventually solve our problems—to repeat Brooks’s sad phrase, we should rely on the “low motivations of people as they actually are.” Pope Francis, in a moment of great crisis, speaks instead to who we could be individually and more importantly as a species. As the data suggest, this may be the only option we have left.

  1. 1

    See my “Prophet in Kentucky,” The New York Review, June 14, 1990. 

  2. 2

    See “Why Not Frack?,” The New York Review, March 8, 2012.