By Mark Lynas, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
In recent years, liberals and progressives have seen Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air — and with good reason. He has taken stronger action than his predecessors against child abuse by priests. He has toned down the church’s denunciations of homosexuality. And he has argued that the rich must do more for the poor.
It is thus understandable that so many on the left have praised the Pope’s new environmental encyclical Laudato Si. The document recognizes global warming as a serious concern, and calls for significant action.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s commitment to progress goes no further than that. While he takes care to celebrate science, reason and innovation, Laudato Si is at heart a book-length repudiation of just about everything progressives care about.
Rising Freedom vs. Sinful Fall
The story told by the Pope in the encyclical stands in striking contrast to the one told by 18 leading environmental scientists, scholars and activists, including ourselves, in “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” released in April.
Where our manifesto argues that big environmental problems like climate change and species extinction are unintended consequences of prosperity — of people trying to improve their lives and the lives of their children — the Pope argues that they are the result of sin, specifically greed, and irresponsibility.
Indeed the Pope specifically rejects what he characterises as the “myth” of progress. Where ecomodernists believe solving environmental problems requires embracing modernization, the Pope looks askance at cities, birth control, and economic growth. The Pope rejects “a reduction in the birth rate” as “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution…”
It is not the sin of greed but rather aspirations to a better life that led countries from England to the US to China and India to burn huge quantities of coal. All sought to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
The Pope doesn’t see any progress. Instead it’s been one long fall from Eden. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he laments.
While the Pope bemoans the burning of coal, oil and gas he does so without recognizing that increasing energy consumption in developing countries is a precondition for poverty reduction. He seems to have no understanding of trade-offs — or the fact that pretty much all the projected future carbon emissions increases will come from the developing world.
Consider that while the coal boom creates global warming, it also frees people from burning wood — the toxic smoke of which killed four million people last year. And as Europe, the US and China have gotten richer, all have stepped up efforts to replace coal with solar, wind, natural gas and nuclear.
With abundant solar, nuclear and other clean energy technologies, climate change can be restrained to tolerable levels while allowing for major poverty-reducing increases in energy consumption. And with continuing agricultural innovation we will be able to double food production as needed to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050.
This is a progressive ecomodernist vision — unfortunately, none of it appeals to the Pope. The encyclical inveighs against technological innovation, economic efficiency and the market. This is not a world where the poor might benefit from new technologies, whether better seeds or cell phones, or international trade.
Nobody disputes that economic growth does not benefit everyone equally, or that it can lead to environmental deterioration, but growth is also essential to reducing poverty. Poverty is, at its simplest level, the under-consumption of resources, whether of food, water or other necessities for a dignified livelihood.
Meanwhile, economic globalization and international trade have been beneficial to reducing poverty. China, not North Korea, is the workshop of the world. China’s massive accumulations of wealth and emergence from poverty and structural famine have come about precisely because is has exported enormous quantities of goods to the supposedly sinful, over-consuming rich countries of the global North.
None of this is to embrace neoliberalism or laissez-faire. Development and environmental protection require strong governments to provide social safety nets, social goods like healthcare and education, sensible regulations, infrastructure and to support R&D.
With his explicit and repeated condemnations of the “technocratic paradigm” the Pope rejects the prospect of human technical innovation having the potential to do anything more than merely create ever-greater problems.
One popular idea among environmentalists is that, instead of economic growth, the wealthiest two billion should redistribute their wealth to the poor. Setting aside the practical reality that is highly unlikely to ever occur, economics is not a zero-sum game. Indeed, it is rapid economic growth and technological innovation in developing nations that is required to reduce carbon emissions to zero and eradicate extreme poverty.
Freedom from Misery
In Europe, this same Church fought against the Enlightenment, asserted the divine right of kings, battled to maintain feudalism and serfdom, resisted the rise of democracy and in recent decades opposed womens’ control over their fertility and the human right to sexual self-determination.
Laudato Si is very relevant to the emerging ecomodernist movement because it makes explicit the ascetisism, romanticism and reactionary paternalism inherent in many aspects of traditional environmentalist thinking. It also helpfully draws out the religiously-originated narratives that underpin a lot of green themes of sinfulness/redemption and end-times doomsaying on issues like climate change.
Ecomodernist values of progress, democracy and human rights and freedoms have little place in the Pope’s encyclical. In making his anti-modernist views so clear, and in identifying them so clearly with traditional green thinking, Pope Francis may have done us all a favour.