In the latest addition to papal encyclicals, Pope Francis lays out a complex mix of science, politics, and theology that can typically only be found in one of these documents. As the Holy Father writes in Laudato Si’, “The Catholic Church is open to dialogue with philosophical thought; this has enabled her to produce various syntheses between faith and reason.” It is with this openness that Pope Francis tackles one of the most difficult topics today: the environment.
After quoting JPII, Benedict XVI, and Patriarch Bartholomew to make it clear that he’s in good company, the Pontifex sets up the discussion by painting a bleak picture. With increased technology, we have increased power: “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.” But more power isn’t always good—with it we also have an increased potential for harm. That harm has materialized in high levels of smoke from fuels, pollution caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general as well as “hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive.”
Like some global tragedy of the commons, humans have used up, wasted, or otherwise annihilated the shared resources of the Earth.
We need dramatic action in order to save our planet from environmental catastrophe. But, Pope Francis acknowledges, extreme environmentalism has its priorities out of whack. “It is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. ”
Hence, the dilemma that humanity faces and that this encyclical addresses: how do you protect the environment while respecting the dignity of each human person?
It’s Good to be a Hippie Not an Alarmist
First off, it’s important to note that Pope Francis is right about the dire straights of our environment. Humans are producing a disgusting amount of waste, polluting our lands and oceans, and destroying ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. We need to change from this self-destructive course.
In a thorough theological take on environmentalism in Chapter Two, Francis explains that we don’t own the land—that we are just caretakers of it. He expounds on the directions in Genesis to “till and keep” the land: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
He continues, “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.” And as a dirty hippie who grows his own food, recycles more than he throws away, and tries to bike whenever possible instead of driving, I appreciate and respect this call to environmental duty.
But it appears the Holy Father was ill-advised to include the popular anthropogenic climate change propaganda in the document. He writes, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” But as I’ve written before, there is no such thing as a scientific consensus. Especially with climate science, where it appears the oft-cited “97-percent consensus of anthropogenic global warming” isn’t even close. And even when, thanks to the media, it appears there is one, it’s not always correct. There was, after all, a consensus that the world was headed for another ice age thanks to growing cities. When that didn’t materialize, the latest global warming theory became popular. But virtually none of the predictions that the global warming alarmists have made have come true and none of the climate models accurately predicted the 18-year global temperature pause that we’re enduring. Sure, these alarmists are good at explaining away data that doesn’t fit their models, but they aren’t predicting what’s happening and what’s worse is that some are changing the data post hoc to fit their theory in what could rightly be considered the greatest scientific fraud of all time. I don’t know what you call an institution that has no observational evidence and is useless at prediction, but you definitely don’t call it science.
Pope Francis writes, “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” But they’ve been saying this since the ’70s and the predictions haven’t come true. It’s a shame that the pope allowed this encyclical to be tainted by popular pseudoscience. Luckily, for rational Catholics, not everything in encyclicals must be accepted at truth and it’s not his main focus.
The Root Cause of the Problem
Pope Francis writes, “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself,” which have been broken both outwardly and within us in a “throwaway culture”, overwrought with consumerism, that cares little of the dignity of each human person and of the environment. We throw away people like we throw away trash and both are a violation of our covenant with the creator.
Here, the Holy Father makes a brilliant connection between respect for the Earth and respect for humanity. He focuses on the poor, naturally, because they are the most vulnerable population. “Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor.” When reading the encyclical I mockingly joked that it’s not like we live in a Spaceballs-esque world in which the wealthy get to breathe cans of “Perri-air” but then I found out that there IS actually someone from Taiwan who is selling something similar. Strictly speaking of air quality alone, the poor are less likely to live around nature and less likely to have air filters in their homes. Pollution—as with every social harm—does affect the poor disproportionally more.
Interestingly enough though, while Pope Francis rightly identifies that pollution creates poverty, he misses the vital point that poverty also tends to create pollution. Data show that developed countries have cleaner environments than developing countries. This is partly because of environmental policy restrictions, but mainly because clean production costs more than dirty production. Coal is cheaper than nuclear; sewage systems and water treatment plants cost money; exhaust filtration is expensive. So, not only does pollution tend to create poverty, but poverty tends to create pollution—a vicious cycle that is seemingly impossible to escape.
A Breath of Fresh Air
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for more government restrictions on pollution and better accountability for those restrictions. He also writes, however, “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.” Well, that’s a welcomed invitation because as a libertarian hippie Catholic, I have a divergent view.
There is a socio-political framework that 1) respects the dignity of each human person and 2) protects the environment. It is a framework, as Pope Francis puts it, “bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.” That framework is the libertarian principles of Natural Rights and economic freedom. Originating from St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics of the School of Salamanca, this framework has led to the largest exodus out of poverty that the world has ever seen and, as we saw above, increasing wealth correlates with increased environmental protection. The free-market system leads to an increased standard for everyone involved (including the poor) and better environmental conditions.
But we’ll still have the problem of the tragedy of the commons. Free people will tend to raid the commons unless we do something drastic (and Pope Francis may not like this): we get rid of the commons. Owners tend to take better care of their property because they will reap the benefits of any increase in its value, so if everything is owned, there will be a responsible party dedicated to its care. Pope Francis quotes Saint John Paul II that there is a “legitimate right to private property, but [the Church] also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.” What if that general purpose requires the right to private property?
But what about air pollution and global warming? My suggestion isn’t like the straw man argument to just “do nothing”. Libertarian principles protect against those as well. From Libertariangreenhouse: “If a person believes that he has been harmed by global warming, he should (and does) have the right to seek compensation for the damages in court. In a legal sense, carbon dioxide should be no different to thalidomide, or asbestos.” Property rights offer a framework—already in place—to protect against the evils of pollution and it has been used numerous times in the past to that end.
The libertarian framework of Natural Rights and economic freedom is the only political philosophy that accounts for the respect and dignity of the human person. It is the end of the vicious poverty-pollution cycle and the solution to Pope Francis’s environmental dilemma.
As a libertarian hippie Catholic, I am glad there’s an encyclical dedicated to our rightful duty as stewards of this planet. There is a wealth of practical and theological wisdom throughout and it’s only briefly tainted by the pseudoscience of anthropogenic climate change. The Holy Father states the problems we face, explains our duty to correct them, and welcomes a thoughtful discussion while encouraging action. My hope is that the principles of Natural Rights and free markets are allowed in this discussion—it is the only framework that respects the human person and, at the same time, the environment.