A lengthy new papal encyclical is being rolled out today. A version of Laudato Si, or “Be Praised”—thought by most observers to be final, though the Vatican said otherwise—was leaked on Monday. It is a highly political discussion of the theology of the environment.
In fact, Pope Francis addresses not just fellow Catholics but “every person who inhabits this planet,” with whom he proposes “to enter into discussion… regarding our common home.” Climate change is high on his list. With the UN pushing a new agreement for December, Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, exulted that the encyclical “is going to have a major impact.”
It’s a difficult document to critique, especially since the release was in Italian, so the English versions circulating are poor online translations. Nevertheless, Laudato Si mixes heartfelt concern for the status of the environment and man’s connection with the world around him with an often limited or confused understanding of the problem of pollution and meaning of markets. The document also wanders widely, connecting most every human endeavor, from drug consumption in affluent societies, architecture, overcoming the “barriers of selfishness,” and cultural homogenization to the environment. Indeed, contended the Pontiff, “The disappearance of a culture can be as serious as or more than the disappearance of an animal or plant species.”
Moreover, the document mixes the indubitable and the dubious. Pope Francis rightly worries about the quality of life, “extreme consumerism,” and meaning in people’s lives. He also highlights God’s concern “for the poor and abandoned,” evident throughout Christian Scripture. As for the environment, he noted, “to insist in saying that the human being is the image of God should not make us forget that every creature has a function and nothing is superfluous.”
Despite his commitment to ecological values, the Holy Father acknowledges that “a return to nature cannot be at the expense of freedom and the responsibility of the human being, that is the part of the world tasked with cultivating its ability to protect and develop their potential.” He also rejects “deification of the earth, which would deprive us of the call to collaborate with it and protect its fragility.”
Nevertheless, humanity’s responsibility for the environment is complex and the Pope discusses ecological values in the context of economic development and care for the poor. How to creatively transform but at the same time gently preserve the natural world is not easy. Unfortunately, in its policy prescriptions Laudato Si sounds like it was written by an advocate, largely ignoring countervailing arguments. The resulting factual and philosophical shortcomings undercut the larger and more profound theological discussion.
For instance, the encyclical begins by referring to “the deteriorating global environment.” In fact, “the environment” is not a single thing. There are a host of environmental issues which vary dramatically across continent, country, region, and locality. The Pope warns about “the depletion of natural resources,” yet most resources, such as oil, have been growing relatively more abundant. This reality doesn’t negate the Pope’s insistence that “destruction of the human environment is something very serious,” but affects the application of his injunction.
Worse, the document complains much of capitalism, one of the “correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment,” as well as property rights, which, in the Pope’s view, allow selfish individuals to act in their individual rather than the public’s interest. In fact, no system guarantees respect for ecological values. Communism was the worst: the state controlled everything and the party demanded industrialization. Analysts referred to “ecocide” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. China looks little better.
In contrast, capitalism provides the resources and technology to improve environmental protection. Indeed, the Holy Father acknowledges that “science and technology are a wonderful product of human creativity that is a gift from God.” Of course, such advances offer no panacea, he warns. Nevertheless, wealthier societies produce more efficiently. They deploy better tools to cope with ecological ills. They are freer and allow people to demand political change.
Indeed, prices in a marketplace operate as signals. Laudato Si complains that disproportionate consumption steals “from poor nations and future generations,” and that “the rate of consumption waste and degradation of the environment has passed the possibilities of the planet, in such a way that the current lifestyle, being unsustainable, may only result in disaster.” No evidence of this claim is provided. In fact, rising resource prices encourage people to use less, producers to find more, manufacturers to operate more efficiently, and entrepreneurs to create substitutes. Claims that humanity was running out of resources and destroying the ecology go back centuries and so far have been proved wrong.
Markets also do a good job of comparing the costs and benefits of different means to achieve a common end. Costs matter, and not just to big corporations, as the encyclical suggests. For the poor environmental protection can be an unaffordable luxury. Laudato Si well describes the importance of work, but jobs are not created, like the earth, ex nihilo. The more regulatory dictates, higher energy prices, greater supply costs, and more, the fewer the jobs and the lower the salaries.
When it comes to solving specific problems, markets can be quite helpful. For instance, the document complains about water shortages and then criticizes the “tendency to privatize this scarce resource.” Yet monopoly public utilities are renowned for providing poor service at high cost. The poor’s lack of “access to drinking water” has much more to do with Third World poverty and government incompetence than privatization.
Most curious is Laudato Si’s almost angry attack on emissions credits, which “can give rise to a new form of speculation and would not help to reduce the global emission of polluting gases.” Yet well-designed tradeable permits, like emission taxes, encourage those who can control emissions at the least cost to do so the most. This is not an assault “on the solidarity of all peoples,” as the document proclaims, but a means to most help those who have the least to give.
Moreover, markets and property rights are the most important means to provide people with what the Pontiff calls “a dignified life through work.” Even Marx acknowledged that capitalism raised the mass of humanity out of immiserating poverty. Commercial society destroyed the foundations of aristocratic oppression.
Alas, the document offers a confused, misguided criticism of mechanization and economies of scale. It was the new “machines” replacing jobs, decried by the encyclical, which created vast new economic and social opportunities. The Gutenberg Press put scribes out of business, while computers transformed whole industries.
Laudato Si asserts the “principle of subordination of private property to the destination” and the “social function of any form of private property.” Property rights may not be absolute, but the legal right to land is most important for those who lack wealth and influence. The lack of such rights in the kleptocratic systems in Latin America with which the Holy Father is so familiar hampered the entrepreneurial poor, a phenomenon highlighted by Hernando de Soto.
Property rights also create incentives for environmental stewardship. Garrett Hardin famously wrote about the “tragedy of the commons,” how public ownership naturally leads to environmental degradation. Ownership vests both costs and benefits with a sole decision-maker who can be held responsible. Where the public “owns” land no one effectively does so.
That’s why many countries have created quota systems, creating a form of defined development right, to govern ocean fishing. In the case of the Amazon rain forest, mentioned by the Pontiff, indigenous peoples lacked formal legal rights to the land they used. The problem is lack of property rights.
Most environmental problems occur because of what economists call externalities—costs and benefits that fall on others. For instance, Pope Francis speaks of “the obligation of polluters to take responsibility economically” and “assess the environmental impact of each work or project.” Without an appropriate legal regime, industry could spew emissions far and wide, the antithesis of property rights. The real environmental issue is over where to draw the line, which requires balancing complex interests: prosperity, liberty, ecology. Laudato Si seems to assume the correct outcome in every case is more of the latter.
Indeed, the encyclical lacks any sense of the flawed nature of government. The Pope is disappointed that environmental efforts “are often frustrated not only by the refusal of the powerful, but also by the lack of interest of the other.” However, public choice economists diagnosed this problem decades ago: concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. In this case environmental organizations are as prone as corporations to push their narrow preferences on everyone else.
This reality raises doubts about the Pope’s endorsement of the “precautionary principle,” which in practice would hold virtually every beneficial human innovation hostage to interest groups dedicated to the status quo. Equally dubious is the encyclical’s endorsement of the “essential development of international institutions stronger and effectively organized… with the power to sanction.” There is no reason to believe that ever more distant, unaccountable bureaucracies will operate for the common good rather than at the behest of whatever interests, corporate, labor, activist or other, wielding the greatest influence. In fact, the encyclical complains of the failure of global conferences due to “too many special interests.”
Politics also is far more open to the Holy Father’s complaint about “the earth’s resources” being “plundered due to ways … too tied to the immediate result.” The price of property incorporates perceived future value. Ruin it and you lose that value. Politicians’ decision-making time frame usually is years, often months. If opening up sensitive land for development will win a few votes in the next election, why worry about future generations, which don’t vote? Those in politics may talk the talk, but in practice they are no less selfish and neglectful than those in business, and respond to far more destructive incentives.
The encyclical includes a confusing discussion of trade and globalization. External debt “has become an instrument of control.” True, yet local political leaders borrowed much and wasted the proceeds. The document also claims that trade relations forbid “access to ownership of property and resources to meet [people’s] vital needs.” However, trade mandates and forbids nothing. Rather, it provides opportunities which, like industrialization, might not offer an easy path for the poor, but which usually are better than the alternatives. That is why polls consistently show the greatest support for globalization in the poorest nations.
Laudato Si also argues for redefining progress, contending that “diversification of a production more innovative and with less environmental impact, can be very profitable.” If true, it will happen without legal mandate.
Yet the Pope argues that it is not sufficient to care for nature while enjoying financial profits, or practicing “environmental conservation with progress.” Without evidence the encyclical contends that this will only mean “a small delay in the disaster.” However, past doomsayers consistently have been proved wrong. The Pontiff certainly is right to question “technological and economic development that does not leave a better world and quality of life.” However, compare the lives of the average person, and especially poor person, today with a century ago and a century before that. The world and quality of life are dramatically better. The Holy Father should encourage people to ask, “How much is enough?” But it is important that those living in comfort in the industrialized West do not try to answer for those living in the impoverished Third World.
Although the Vatican often is treated as an independent state, its comparative advantage is not legislation. Yet at one point the encyclical discusses “household waste and commercial, demolition debris, clinical waste, electronic or industrial waste.” Also noted is the “special challenge” presented by “marine debris and the protection of marine areas.” Later the document asserts the importance of education on “how to avoid the use of plastic material or paper,” “cooking only what you can eat reasonably,” and turning off “unnecessary lights.” Indeed, there is a lengthy but not entirely fruitful discussion of urban planning, highlighted by the professed need to improve urban transportation.
The discussion of climate change is similarly specific but partisan. For instance, the encyclical takes an almost panicked view of the problem, even though it closes out the chapter noting the Church’s obligation to “listen and promote debate honest among scientists, respecting the diversity of opinion.” Laudato Si also blames extreme weather events on climate change while admitting in the same sentence “that we cannot attribute a cause scientifically determined for each particular phenomenon.”
The fact that there likely will be more warming does not mean it will be catastrophic. In fact, models failed to accurately predict past behavior, peer-reviewed research increasingly suggests warming toward the lower range, and it is impossible to accurately predict events a few years, let alone a century hence (virtually no one saw the Shale gas/oil revolution coming, for instance). This argues against making draconian, expensive changes that may make little sense soon after they are implemented. Rather, it would be better to adapt to particular problems as they arise rather than to attempt to hold down temperatures by radically rolling back energy use. The resources saved are needed to meet many other human needs.
In contrast, the Pontiff truly is acting in his unrivaled role as spiritual leader when he advocates a personal, social, and spiritual transformation in how people relate to the environment. He promotes an “ecological spirituality that arises from convictions of our faith” and advocates human freedom being “put at the service of another kind of progress, healthier, more human, more social and more integral.” The Pope’s proposed “ecological conversion” should spark much discussion, since his application of basic Christian principles is plausible, if not necessarily convincing. Is it really true that the same principle of “brotherly love” requires “us to love and accept the wind, the sun or the clouds”? Nevertheless, throughout history too many Christians probably have practiced dominion and slighted stewardship. Even this untutored Protestant can appreciate the claim that “the Eucharist is even light source and motivation for our environmental concerns and directs us to be guardians of all creation.”
Moreover, Pope Francis warns that “we cannot think that the political agendas or the force of law is enough to avoid behaviors that affect the environment,” since the culture itself is corrupt. He contends: “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, sobriety and care will arise spontaneously.” Quite true. It is committed individuals who form the “innumerable variety of associations advocating on behalf of the environment,” cited by Laudato Si, and whose reformed buying behavior can “change the behavior of firms, forcing them to consider the environmental impact and production patterns.” Aligning desire and incentive is the best way to achieve what the Pontiff’s objective.
The Pope expresses the triumph of hope over experience in his call on politicians to act responsibly and the public to participate knowledgeably. Just as one should avoid “a magical concept of the market,” so should we beware the same for politics. Problems will not be magically resolved by investing politicians and bureaucrats with vast new powers.
Larger themes point through the encyclical, which warns that “the market alone does not ensure human development and full social inclusion.” The Gospel, unlike the market, reaches the empty hearts which the Pope sees. We must “not give up asking us questions about the purposes and on the sense of everything.”
The Vatican is not well-positioned to assess environmental problems and develop policy solutions. Rather, the Pontiff’s duty is much more fundamental: “the great wealth of Christian spirituality, generated by twenty centuries of personal and communal experiences, is a magnificent contribution to make the effort to renew humanity.” We desperately need such a renewal. Hopefully Laudato Si, despite its practical shortcomings, will advance the larger and more important theological mission.