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.

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