Monday, June 22, 2015

Taking Responsibility for What We Have Done: Thoughts on Laudato Si Chapter V

Chernobyl nuclear disaster 384072564(Chernobyl—Harm to the Environment must be dealt with)


This is the chapter where a superficial reading of the Pope’s encyclical is going to lead people astray, with all the accompanying accusations of “explaining away” when we actually point out the missed nuances. Because many of the terms the Pope uses have been dumbed down into buzzwords, a person who assumes these buzzwords are what the Pope means is going to be misled into thinking the Pope is endorsing a “whacko” environmentalist position.

The fact is, he is doing nothing of the kind. This chapter is about obligations that follow from our moral principles. Now a person who firmly rejects the concept of climate change is going to think of this as non-binding opinion over a “hoax.” But others who read this encyclical seriously will find that this chapter carries Catholic principles to a logical conclusion—the question is whether we have the courage to follow the reasoning or whether we try to explain our obligations away.

Of course, even with a careful reading, some people won’t like this. The Pope expresses a view that ecological damage is real, serious and needs to be addressed. Others disagree with this and claim that the claims are nothing more than opinions with some science attached. The problem is, people on both sides accuse the other side of being partisan in their science. The problem with this is, even if ecological damage is not as bad as some claim it is, there is some damage out there and concern for those most affected is in keeping with the Church moral theology. The danger of course is that members of the Church may find themselves divided over political disputes when they should be united in doing what is right before God.

What is important to remember when you study chapter V is that the moral teachings he gives are valid whether you believe in climate change or not.

Finding Solutions That Don’t Harm the Poor

I think the best way to begin is by giving a (somewhat vulgar) quote by conservative political humorist, P.J. O’Rourke:

There’s not a g*dd**n thing you can do about it. Maybe climate change is a threat, and maybe climate change has been tarted up by climatologists trolling for research grant cash. It doesn’t matter. There are 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want a Buick. Actually, if you go more than a mile or two outside China’s big cities, the wants are more basic. People want a hot plate and a piece of methane-emitting cow to cook on it. They want a carbon-belching moped, and some CO2-disgorging heat in their houses in the winter. And air-conditioning wouldn’t be considered an imposition, if you’ve ever been to China in the summer.

Now, I want you to dress yourself in sturdy clothing and arm yourself however you like—a stiff shot of gin would be my recommendation—and I want you to go tell 1.3 billion Chinese they can never have a Buick. Then, assuming the Sierra Club helicopter has rescued you in time, I want you to go tell a billion people in India the same thing.

O'Rourke, P.J. Don't Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards (p. 150). 2010. Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

While Pope Francis would reject Mr. O’Rourke’s conclusion, he would probably agree (going by what he has to say in this chapter) with the concerns that lead Mr. O’Rourke to his conclusions—that people who live less well off than Americans do want to improve their quality of life, but given their level of technology, will not be able to achieve this improvement without pollution that those concerned about the ecology want to eliminate. Indeed, this chapter involves a consideration for these concerns.

The Pope discusses (¶164) the growing recognition that the planet is our homeward and humanity is one people. This is not a contradiction of previous points about recognizing different cultures and avoiding homogenization. Rather he is talking about the fact that things impact all of us. The interdependent world makes us more aware about the negative aspects about certain lifestyles, forms of production and consumption. He says that solutions need to consider the global perspective not defending the self interest of a few countries.

It is beginning with ¶170 that the Pope begins discussing the issues that P.J. O’Rourke says will doom the discussion of climate change. The Pope seems to agree that this is a valid problem. He warns about policies that internationalize environmental costs because they risk imposing burdensome commitments on countries that have fewer resources in comparison with the more highly industrialized nations. In such cases, the poor end up paying a price they cannot afford. He points out that countries with fewer resources need assistance to adapt to the effects already produced and responsibilities need to be differentiated—countries which benefitted from industrialization at the cost of increasing the greenhouse gasses do have a greater responsibility.


That makes sense when you think about how the pollution we have did not just suddenly happen in the third world in the end of the 20th century. The west had the industrial revolution in the 19th century with little or no restrictions on what sort of pollution could be emitted. Our current quality of life is based on what we created with massive pollution. So we do have responsibility for what we have done, and we have to realize that poorer countries with a level of technology we find more primitive also want to improve their quality of life, but in doing so will be polluting grossly as well.

Beginning with ¶172, the Pope addresses the needs of the poor countries. He says that their priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and and promote the social development of their people. But at the same time they need to deal with the excessive consumption of certain privileged sectors of the population and to combat corruption. Because we now know about the effect of fossil fuels, they need to develop less polluting forms of energy production. But, lest we assume the burden falls solely on these poor nations, the Pope says that they need to be assisted in doing so by countries which experimented their growth at the cost of gross pollution. The poor countries will need subsidies to establish cleaner energy. Compared to the risks of global warming, the Pope sees these costs are a good investment. 

He also calls for establishment of enforceable international agreements, though they should respect sovereignty and not of the type imposed by diktat. He sees these as necessary in dealing with regional crises (¶173). He also believes that the protection of the environment cannot ignore the development of poverty stricken regions. Individual states cannot ignore their own responsibilities.

He also points out the limits that must be imposed by a healthy society (¶177):

The limits which a healthy, mature and sovereign society must impose are those related to foresight and security, regulatory norms, timely enforcement, the elimination of corruption, effective responses to undesired side-effects of production processes, and appropriate intervention where potential or uncertain risks are involved. There is a growing jurisprudence dealing with the reduction of pollution by business activities. But political and institutional frameworks do not exist simply to avoid bad practice, but also to promote best practice, to stimulate creativity in seeking new solutions and to encourage individual or group initiatives.

Subsidiarity is kept in mind in the encyclical, but this is something that has to be done at whatever level can achieve it. A politics which is driven by immediate results and consumerism (which, remember, St. John Paul II called the culture of death), focuses on short term growth and the fear of politicians to give bad news to the electorate. He points out that (¶178):

True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building.

That is certainly true regardless of the topic discussed, and the Church certainly has had collisions with governments which choose a perceived good over a real good.

He rejects a “one size fits all” approach because each nation and culture has different situations to be addressed (¶180). Moreover, a consistency is needed which continues over a change of government (¶181). Thus, the public has a role to play in keeping elected officials on track and not getting bogged down in partisan fighting. The impact on the environment needs to be considered from the beginning when setting policy, not tacked on as an afterthought. He says we have to ask questions about planned activities:

What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how? In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region. (¶185)

This is clearly part of Catholic moral teaching in general. Actions which deny people their due are unjust, and private property rights are not absolute to the point that a person can be allowed to die over them.

He makes clear he is not opposed to technical innovation in general, but he denies that profit can be the sole consideration (again, this is solidly Catholic social teaching). However, lest people accuse the Pope of having the Church embrace a specific scientific theory or political platform, he recognizes prudential judgment is necessary and calls for open debate on how to accomplish these things (¶188).Politics and economics are supposed to be aimed at the service of life (¶189). This is nothing that has not been said by the predecessors of Pope Francis. He goes on to say that “the market” will not magically fix anything by itself (¶190). When profits alone are the motive, the intricacies of other concerns get overlooked. (How much concern did the 19th century laissez faire market concern itself with the environment?). He cites Benedict XVI, saying “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency” (¶193).

He also points out that:
198. Politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation. It is to be hoped that they can acknowledge their own mistakes and find forms of interaction directed to the common good. While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Here too, we see how true it is that “unity is greater than conflict”.
He concludes the chapter by discussing the role of religion in dialogue with science. If the world loses its compass, science will be unable to find a moral solution (¶200). Therefore believers are called to live according to their faith and not contrary to it and engage in dialogue with members of other religions in trying to establish the common good.

As I said at the beginning, people who approach this encyclical as a document on climate change have missed the point of what this is about. This is an encyclical about the moral obligations in relationship to the environment. So, even if climate change does turn out to be false, each nation has the responsibility to use their natural resources responsibly. I would sum it up as, “What we have done, we must repair.” But that cannot be understood as an individual project. Because pollution impacts the world beyond the borders of a nation, there needs to be the ability to respond beyond the borders of a nation.
Of course, prudential judgment requires us to consider the specific circumstances of a region and not do a “one size fits all policy."
In short, the Pope’s encyclical is not a matter of opinion here. Yes, you can disagree with global warming without being a bad Catholic. But you can’t say that care for the environment is not part of the Christian obligation.
Next time, I finish up the series on chapter VI.

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