The View from the Popemobile

I have started Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s newly release papal encyclical on global warming, and it’s something of a slog. As one of my colleagues put it, popes never seem to use one word when 500 will do.

I feel somewhat free to take things slowly when analyzing these documents. There’s something about an institution that’s been around for 2,000-odd years that makes you feel less beholden to the 24-hour news cycle (or the 5-minute news cycle of the Twitter era). But I’m ready to make one preliminary observation, which stands out with particular clarity in the early sections of Laudato Si.

These are the sections in which Francis lays out what he sees as the facts about a global environmental crisis, and it is a series of blatantly one-sided errors and exaggerations, including many which have been well-discussed and refuted, even in the New York Times.

For example, we’re told that the earth is “laid waste'” and that “the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” This, at a time when agricultural production across the world is higher than it has ever been, surely not a sign of “sickness in the soil.” Francis uncritically repeats scary stories about mass extinction, in which “each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever,” even though this is based on misleading projections that have been debunked.

The centerpiece of the encyclical, of course, is the papal endorsement of the global warming hysteria.

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events.

Except that, despite attempts to fudge the data, temperatures are not rising, sea levels are not rising, and there is no increase in “extreme weather events.”

He then tacks on a grab bag of other uncritically repeated slogans, such as the myth that the Amazon rainforest is the “lungs of our planet,” or that a “throwaway culture” is causing us to run out of landfills. In fact, we have centuries’ worth of room left to put our trash, but here is how Francis describes the situation. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

But the real giveaway of the ideology behind all of this is Francis’s reference to “depletion of natural resources,” the idea that “the exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits.” All of this is true, he says, “if present trends continue”—which, as we have seen, is a crucial wrong premise that has led many people astray before him.

Yet as far as Francis is concerned, it might as well be 1971 and the thoroughly discredited doomsayer Paul Ehrlich is still a visionary. Of course, the pope doesn’t embrace quite the same solutions as Ehrlich, a tireless advocate of population control. Instead, Francis argues, “to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” So the problem isn’t that there are too many of us, it’s that we’re too well off.

All of these errors are perfectly predictable, since Francis is just repeating what he has heard from mainstream environmentalists and international green activists. The problem is that those are apparently the only people he is listening to. There is vigorous debate on all of these issues, and it is easy to find serious alternative views and counterarguments, ranging from skeptics who don’t think catastrophic global warming is happening, to those like Bjorn Lomborg, who think it is happening but that other problems are easier to fix and a far higher priority.

The real problem with the pope’s encyclical is how he closes himself off to these arguments, poisoning the well by attributing them to “obstructionist attitudes,” which “range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation, or blind confidence in technical solutions.” Notice that “reasoned disagreement” or “scientific skepticism” aren’t offered as possibilities. Even worse, he indulges in a kind of anti-business conspiracy theory: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance.” So Wall Street and Big Oil are the only forces holding us back.

Pope Francis has sealed himself off in an ideological bubble that is harder and more impenetrable than the Popemobile. He refuses to recognize that there are alternative ideas outside the leftist orthodoxy on capitalism and the environment. The result is a sense that I’ve never quite gotten before from a papal encyclical: the sense of the pope as a narrow ideologue, captive to a relatively recent political fad.

This is a real shame because the Vatican and the papacy are supposed to operate on a longer time scale, less affected by the political fads of the moment, or even of the century. After all, the Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old institution with a timeless spiritual remit. It’s what usually makes the popes so interesting to contend with, even for an atheist who frequently disagrees with them.

My recollection of John Paul II is that he was never very philosophically precise, but he operated within a framework of religious thought that could seem cloyingly closed off in some respects but also intriguingly different from the narrow, utilitarian Pragmatism of most modern thinkers. It is a more ancient way of thinking and arguing that is interesting simply by being outside our normal political discussion. Benedict was quite different. He was my favorite pope to read because he is a serious, precise philosopher capable of weighing big ideas, even if he always put a thumb on the intellectual scales for faith.

This is what makes popes seem like larger, more interesting figures than we normally encounter in our political debate, and it’s part of what gives them moral and intellectual importance, a sense that we ought to listen to them and respond.

In the case of Francis’s Laudato Si, unfortunately, the contrast to previous popes makes the figure trapped inside his self-constructed ideological Popemobile seem that much smaller.

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