Anthony Waterman is Professor Emeritus in Economics at St. John’s College. Here, he addressed Laudato Si, the papal encyclical on the environment and human ecology. It can be found at laudatosi.com.
“The Ecological Society of America commends Pope Francis for his insightful encyclical on the environment… The Pope is clearly informed by the science underpinning today’s environmental challenges. The encyclical deals directly with climate change, its potential effects on humanity and disproportionate consequences for the poor, and the need for intergenerational equity” (29 June 2015).
Laudato Si (24 May 2015) met with an international chorus of approval, of which the ecologists’ response above is typical. Dissent in the USA came chiefly from the coal and petroleum industries and from their allies: fundamentalist climate-change deniers in the evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Canadian response, whether welcoming or hostile, has been more moderate. I shall try to summarise the content of this very long encyclical, then offer a few comments from an Anglican standpoint.
There are six chapters: I. What is Happening to our Common Home? II. The Gospel of Creation, III. Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, IV. Integral Ecology, V. Lines of Approach and Action, VI. Ecological Education and Spirituality.
The first chapter is indeed “informed by the science underpinning today’s challenges,” and may be the only part most people read. Pollution, waste and “the throwaway culture”, climate change, water shortage, and the loss of biodiversity seem incontestable. So does “global inequality.” “Decline in the quality of life and the breakdown of society” is more contentious, but still plausible.
But “Why,” the Pope asks, “should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” It is because “science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality” can enter into a fruitful dialogue. And it is obvious that anything the Church has to contribute must rest on its unique spiritual authority. To the scientist, the universe is to be explained, but to the believer (who could be one and the same person) it is a mystery to be pondered in faith.
“Human Roots” includes “Technology: Creativity and Power”, something called “The Globalisation of the Technocratic Paradigm,” and “The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism.” But despite hideous jargon, there are many true observations and sound recommendations in this chapter, especially “The need to protect employment.” “Integral Ecology” appears to mean “a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis,” and is “inseparable from the notion of the common good.”
The fifth chapter calls for a “global consensus” on environmental problems, recognising how hard it is for democratic governments to incur short-term political costs for the sake of long-run economic benefits, and suggests that “the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world.” The final chapter offers Christians “a few suggestions for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith.” (492)
There is much in this encyclical that all people of good will can assent to and learn from. Producers should incur the full costs of their production, including those of environmental pollution, all too often externalised onto others. There is need to establish a legal framework for environmental protection, and corrupt bureaucrats and regulators must be subject to the Rule of Law. Economic development may be better achieved by small, local entrepreneurs and cooperatives than by massive government programs or international private corporations. “The family is the heart of the culture of life.” Though perhaps unaware of it, the Pope’s recognition of the benefits of a no-growth economy was powerfully argued in 1848 by John Stuart Mill, the most influential free-thinker of his age. Related to this, and perhaps most important, the Pope reminds us that the traditional religious disciplines of temperance and abstinence can liberate us from our current “obsession with consumption.”
Yet mingled with many true and persuasive insights in this encyclical, we find some serious misconceptions which weaken the force of its overall argument. The most misleading of these is a romantic and pre-scientific vision of “Nature.” The “harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space” is in fact the outcome of a never-ending struggle for existence. “Defined space” implies limited food resources. Natural fecundity drives each species to its maximum sustainable population. Each species is in competition with others – though in some cases cooperative survival strategies evolve. And in the same species, the strong prey on the weak.
This is where Anglican understanding parts company with Papal Social Doctrine. The most influential Anglican thinker since the Reformation, the Rev’d Robert Malthus (1766-1834), showed that human populations, like those of every other species, expand to a limit at which average incomes are so low that disease, starvation, and war bring growth to an end. Darwin acknowledged his debt to Malthus, and modern ecology incorporates his insights.
Because of the Industrial Revolution, many resources needed by humans became increasingly abundant from about 1800, real incomes rose, and world population suddenly began to grow. In 1800, it was one billion. Now, it is seven billion. Almost all of the environmental evils described in Chapter I of this encyclical can be traced to population increase. This the Papacy flatly denies. All discussion of population control is taboo.
But we don’t go to the Pope for science; what we seek from him is spiritual wisdom. And in Chapter IV, almost in passing, Francis brings us to the heart of the matter. “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” Unless we have convincing answers, we have no ethical response to the tough-minded question: “Why care about the environment at all?” Science, technology, politics, and economics give us no help here. The Pope’s questions are metaphysical and ethical. If answers are to be found anywhere, they lie in the domain of Christian theology.