A Short Critique of Laudato Si’

Guest post by Eric MacDonald

Laudato Si’, the Roman Catholic pope’s latest encyclical, is not, to put it plainly, worth the paper it is written on. In the first place, whatever scientific information it provides is available in more detail elsewhere, particularly from the International Panel on Climate Control. The problem with the information, as provided in Laudato Si’, is first, that it is not well organised and second, that it is interspersed with irrelevant comments from the pope, many of which make a nonsense of the problems he justly sees in the way that the world is dealing with what is quickly becoming of crisis of serious proportions. Of course, there are those who disagree, and think that the claim that we are experiencing an unprecedented growth of anthropogenic (caused by humans) global warming is false, and that it is more likely due to cyclic changes in the Sun’s activity. There is some slight evidence that the latter might be true, but the consensus amongst climate scientists is that global warming is due to human activity. So, let’s just suppose that the scientists who wrote the scientific portion of Laudato Si’ got their facts and figures right and look more closely at what is so seriously wrong with the report.

Let’s start off with a point that the pope does not make, and did not allow his expert contributors to make. With the increase of population, global warming gas emissions have also increased. They have not increased in direct proportion to population growth, for developed nations are the largest users of carbon based fuels, as well as the largest consumers of methane producing livestock. It is estimated that one portion of methane produces 100 times more global warming effect than one equal portion of CO2, so the relatively small amount of methane (compared with CO2 emissions, even though, unlike CO2, methane does dissipate into the atmosphere and is eventually lost in space) has very serious global warming potential, and as the permafrost melts in the North, significantly large amounts of methane are released into the atmosphere, with the possibility of disastrous consequences for the life world, which is already under threat from increasing encroachment of human settlement and land use on the habitat of huge numbers of animal and plant species, and the rate of extinction has increased significantly. So, without a doubt, increase in population translates into increased global warming and its follow on effects. To give a simple, but bold example of such effects, the population of India, which is classified as a developing economy, has doubled its population in roughly fifty years. In terms of 2008 figures India is the fourth most serious producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world (if you count the European Union as a single unit). According to the American Environmental Protection Agency, “In 2008, the top carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters were China, the United States, the European Union, India, the Russian Federation, Japan, and Canada.”

Increased population cannot, therefore, be ignored. It is a problem, and it is a reasonable assumption that at present growth rates, human populations will soon exceed the carrying capacity of the earth. No one is sure what the carrying capacity of the earth is, but without sticking my neck out very far, I think it is safe to say that, for sustained development (that is development that provides for stable or growing economies and sound ecological management, and equitable income for all), we have already far exceeded it. Predictably, of course, the pope denies this. His doctrine regarding contraception and abortion demands it, so he does. But he even goes further. Quoting from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (sure to be a reliable source on such issues!), he goes so far as to say that “it must … be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” (50; my emphasis) It seems that he has eaten of the insane root which takes the reason prisoner! Of course, his oft repeated hatred of technology may be playing its role here. Does he think that if we lived simpler lives, less reliant on technology, that ever larger populations could be adequately provided for? Well, if he does, he has forgotten that, with growth of population goes growth of industry and the global economy, along with increased transportation needs, and larger greenhouse gas emissions, even if we could convince a few to adopt a more basic existence, and engage in local crafts and cottage industries. These are not realistic proposals. Besides, he should remember that pollution and filth did not appear with the industrial revolution. Amazonian tribes used to decamp and relocate when their present sites became no longer liveable. Toilet and other waste used to flow down the streets of London, and the Thames was an open sewer before London’s gigantic sewer system was constructed in the 19th century. Hatters used to go mad from inhaling fumes from the mercury used to make hats. In the days of the Empire, upper-class Romans were poisoned by the lead vessels from which they drank wine. These problems are not simply contemporary ones, as the outcastes in India confirm. They were the ones who dealt with the untouchable rubbish and “night soil” as it used to be called. The pope thinks we can have increased populations, and yet return to a simpler life style. This is not realistic, and it is not going to happen.

Later on, just to make sure that we have taken the point, he has the nerve to say: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” (120) This is as close as I can get to a nonsense sentence. Jabberwocky is plain English by comparison. Then he goes on to say by way of explanation: “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect the human embryo, even when its presence is unwanted and creates difficulties? (120) More of the insane root! This is not a discussion about vulnerable beings. It is at least partly a question of how we can protect the habitat of other animals with which we share the earth. The loss of natural habitat is simply a sign of the destruction of the ecosystems on which we rely. It is perfectly self-interested. The pope has no business intruding the issue of abortion here, for it may, and most likely will be, necessary to allow women to use contraception as well as provide them access to abortion when necessary, in order for them to constrain their family size as they wish, and because some such constraint will be necessary, despite the view of the Pontifical Institute for Justice and Peace, in order to preserve natural habitats and ecosystems upon which our own survival depends. Besides this, there is the matter of women’s lives: how pregnancy can terminate dreams and hopes that had been fostered with great labour for years, or put women’s lives at risk, sometimes great risk (and the risk of an ordinary pregnancy is not negligible), or lead to poverty because of the need to provide for larger families. Women have rights that should not be denied. There are all sorts of reasons women have abortions, and none of them should be ruled out by law, or in any other way, by those who do not have to live with the consequences. The issue of abortion is an irrelevance here. Besides, it will be easy to teach people that, in order for us to preserve a liveable earth, we have to limit human reproduction, and that will inevitably include abortion.

In addition to these obvious and very serious faults, which would continue to deny to women any control over their own bodies and reproductivity, there are a number of other things that are worth a very brief mention, even though a considerable portion of the encyclical is taken up with them. The pope has a number of pet peeves which he repeats several times in different ways throughout the encyclical. They can be summed up in terms of listing some of the major features of Western culture: science, technology, capitalism, and globalisation. The colourful traditions of developing cultures weigh heavily on his conscience, but I think he might be surprised at the extent to which these traditions have already been transformed into tourist attractions. That does not mean to say, and I do not suggest that he is wrong to see the levelling of cultures worldwide into a kind of West manqué, thereby losing valuable cultural assets that can never be replaced, as regrettable. Languages are becoming extinct with alarming rapidity and regularity. It is estimated that 1 language dies every 14 days, and that, by the end of this century, half of 7000 or so existing languages will have become extinct, and that means that we are losing irreplaceable cultural capital at a great rate. It is a fair concern, though perhaps more isolated, smaller populations would make such traditions easier to maintain. It took James Cook three years to circumnavigate the globe. It can now be done by a jet fighter in a few hours. To what point in time would the pope like to return?

However, it does not follow that we can abandon science and technology, or the global economy, in order to protect our cultural heritage. Nor does it mean, as the pope repeats several times, that all that is left over from consumer societies is rubbish and filth. Remember my remarks above about waste and pollution in earlier periods. There is a deep Luddite strain that runs through Laudato Si’: a belief that science, valuable as it has been in a few respects, is largely responsible for our present environmental problems, and that technology, science’s foster brother, is for the most part destructive, wasteful and regrettable. At least this is my takeaway feeling after reading through Laudato Si’s 180 pages (an ordeal which I do not plan to repeat). It is a sprawling work, repetitive and poorly organised, as though it had been written (as it probably was) by several hands working separately and then pieced together without too much thought for an ordered sequence of ideas (as is so obvious in the way that the required inclusion of the condemnation of abortion is squeezed into a space where quite obviously it did not belong). I cannot give the encyclical even faint praise, though it might force some Catholics not so minded to take more care of the heritage we hand on to our children and our children’s children. A colleague, or former colleague of mine, suggests that it has ecumenical potential, but if ecumenism is to be bought at the expense of women and gay people, it is not worth the price. Indeed, in its injustice to women and to gay people, the encyclical is an offence, and should be seen as such.

7 thoughts on “A Short Critique of Laudato Si’

  1. Liked your post!

    The pope rails against climate change as long as there is no conflict with his theology.

    My friend is a climate scientist and he told me many scientist think 3-4C is already locked in but politically unacceptable.

    What rational person would argue that increased
    population does not increase the potential devastation of climate change. More people more
    greenhouse gases.

  2. Pingback: Laudato Si’ and Anti-Modernism at the Vatican | Choice in Dying

  3. Nice post Eric! I agree with your criticism of the pope’s encyclical.

    Also, lead was everywhere in Ancient Rome – it even lined the aqueducts. I guess it’s like how plastic is everywhere now but the damage was more quick and drastic. 🙂

  4. A short critique indeed: the author offers compelling arguments, viz., that it is “not … worth the paper it is written on,” and that it is “a nonsense.” That settles that.

    I have observed over the years that the phrase “a nonsense” carries baggage though some folks still seem to fall for it.

    An interesting question for the pages of a journal such as this might be why it is that so many ‘athiests’ (and I use quotes to indicate a range from secular through agnostic to complete non-believers) have given qualified support to this nonsense Laudato Si’?

    Rather than, say, simply preaching to the choir … of course athiests cannot preach to the choir exactly, but you know what I mean.

    • David, first off, let me point out that “not worth that paper it’s printed on’, besides being hyperbolic, is a bit of a joke, since most people will read the document on computer monitors. It’s available as a pdf download, and will probably not be printed (given its length). Second, let me also point out that this dismissive remark does not amount to an argument, and was not intended as one. The same goes for the point that the pope’s comments make a nonsense of much else that is to be found in the document, which I then proceed to show in some detail. So if you are looking for an argument, that is where you should look.

      As for why so many liberals have given qualified support to the encyclical, well, Francis has a lot of people fooled. (Read Nick Cohen’s piece in the Guardian, where he bids people not be fooled by Francis’s apparent liberalism. This is actually a fairly constant theme in comments on this pope, who makes liberal sounds to please the audience, but who, to tell the truth, is an anti-modernist at heart.) But not the ‘qualified’. I give qualified support to the document, since it may (although that may be stretching a point) lead some Catholics to see that environmental degradation is caused by humans, and needs to be solved by humans. I think the pope’s dogmatic stand on abortion and birth control (not to mention homosexuality) will lead, if heeded, even more enivronmental damage. So, whether on the whole the encyclical can be regarded as good thing is certainly unclear.

      The page to which we are directed by clicking on your name takes us to a speech by Naomi Klein, which ends by saying (something she repeats with variations elsewhere in the speech), “Then, stop making the difficult the enemy of the possible.” Need I point out that I did not do that, but suggested that the pope is clearly an enemy of the possible, with his remarks about reproduction and about growing populations being consistent with environmental care. I certainly have no intention of making the difficult an enemy of the possible, but the pope has so stacked the decks of the difficult as to make the possible a very dim possibility indeed.

      Why is Naomi Klein so taken in by the pope’s apparent liberalism? Don’t ask me. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Vatican has lots of money to spend to gather together a group of liberals who will give the pope’s conservatism the appearance of credibility. Don’t think he won’t use this in the future to underline Roman Catholic objections to abortion and birth control, even to the extent of justifying the imprisonment of women for miscarriages and the Vatican’s intervention in international conferences trying to achieve some control over population growth. Klein says the issue is so important that we must simply elide over our differences. Well, but then, of course, some of our differences will make climate control more difficult, and the Roman Catholic Church’s stand on birth control and abortion is one of them. Klein, being polite to her host, does not mention this. Indeed she simply ignores it. But the climate won’t.

  5. Eric,

    let’s see if we can’t just take a few steps back and view Laudato Si’ as an artefact in a landscape, that is, in a wider context:

    a 2009 paper by Malte Meinshausen puts the drop-dead date for flat-lining the Keeling Curve at around 2024; by 2012 Joeri Rogelj reduces that to 2015-2020; and very recently James Hansen effectively makes it NOW! which corresponds with my own (relatively educated) estimate. 2015 then, also the year in which the UNFCCC (speaking of organizations infamous for reports which are not worth the paper they are printed on) will meet, again, again, again, no one has much hope that they will accomplish anything beyond bloated expense accounts in five-star hotels but it’s the only show in town, so.

    last year in September half a million marched in New York City, I seem to remember more came out some years before for Martin Luther King (in a struggle which is yet to be properly resolved), in any event the progress of ‘the movement’ is (to me) more accurately reflected in Toronto numbers: at City Hall in solidarity with NYC last year, 2,000; in ‘a great big march’ by 350.org last month from Queen’s Park, 4-5,000, both the organizers and police will about double those numbers for reasons of their own, but I was there, both times – the estimates are not second-hand – and even if you double them they’re paltry, so.

    to repeat: time is up; and, the movement is not really moving.

    what to do? (this is the real question Eric) and ruling out suicide and sedition leaves only finding some key (a laxative as it were) to unblock the movement.

    I don’t happen to like Naomi Klein very much, something about her rubs me the wrong way, but a few years ago during the G20 debacle in Toronto I attended an event at Massey Hall and was subsequently led by the lady, along with about 1,000 others, on an impromptu walk to Allan Gardens to “see how they are getting on up there.” I try not to make principles of my incapacities you see, so even though I sit with Richard Dawkins as an approximately 7/8ths atheist I decided to hold my breath and read Laudato Si’.

    Two nuggets fell out:

    “If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.” (in 119) not “one small sign” I would have said, but hey, he’s not really infallible anyway is he?

    “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion.” (in 217) and because he had my full attention at that point I thought, “Ah! He may be talking about his own internal desert … and mine.”

    Waidaminit! MY internal desert!? MINE!? Is it conceivable that my grandchildren may somehow be liable to think I didn’t do all I could? This turned out to be a rewarding meditation.

    You say, “Klein says the issue is so important that we must simply elide over our differences.” (I take it you meant ‘slide’ rather than ‘elide’.)

    Is sliding over, ignoring, differences the only way? Try this: Your car is stuck in a snowbank and people passing by stop to give you a push; Do you care about their stand on … abortion?

    All this to say: I think the time has come to put aside differences and focus on the single, huge (even existential!) and common goal. And the hour or so I have spent putting this together for you is a stab at that. (I say ‘stab’ because ‘point out’ figgured so often in your reply that it all began to feel a bit like accupuncture. 🙂

    Be well.

    PS – I thank you for pointing me at Nick Cohen’s article in The Guardian, I follow The Guardian but had missed that one, I do note that the gent in the picture is apparently reading a printed copy.

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