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28 July 2017 00:32 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The eco-Pope: When the infallible fails

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Greens are loving the Pope’s recent encyclical “on care for our common home”. This seems to make for odd bedfellows, but organised environmentalism and organised religion are much more similar than you might think.

Pope Francis has penned for us a book-length missive, which will become known as Laudato si’ (note the apostrophe), or the green encyclical. It is a voluminous disquisition on the environment and humanity’s relationship with it. It is also a rehash of an old litany, based on error and exaggeration.

I don’t usually concern myself much with the pronunciations of religious figures. Ordinarily, they matter only to those who believe in a particular brand of supernatural mysticism, or to those unfortunate enough to live in a country where church dogma also becomes secular law. However, since the Pope said, “I wish to address every person living on this planet,” I thought it’d be polite to at least scan the 40,000-word letter.

It is largely unremarkable, in that it repeats vague, doom-laden environmental rhetoric that dates back half a century or more. Pope Paul VI is best known for writing Humanae Vitae, which prohibits both abortion and contraception, in 1968. Pope Francis reminds us that he also wrote about the threat of “ecological catastrophe under the effective explosion of industrial civilization”, and “the urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity”.

True, he did. So did environmental alarmists Paul Ehrlich, Iron Eyes Cody, and Rachel Carson. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis is saying nothing that environmentalists didn’t say almost 50 years ago. He’s saying nothing different from John Stuart Mill, who more than 150 years ago wrote, “If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.”

The lament that we trample upon nature, because we’ve become self-serving, greedy, shortsighted and fat, is as old as the Bible itself. It is the old Malthusian refrain that prophesies an existential catastrophe that never comes. It consists almost entirely of simplistic sloganeering and slick sophistry: “Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness.”

The Pope explicitly appeals to a document called the Earth Charter, which was conceived by the Club of Rome, a think tank that in 1972 published The Limits of Growth, a book that predicted imminent global collapse. Those predictions were wildly inaccurate. Twenty years later, it was followed up by the rather amusing title Beyond the Limits. The revised computer models featured in the 30th and 40th anniversary revisions continue to produce apocalyptic predictions that never come true.

Claiming that the world is headed for hell in a hand basket is not only the tritest observation a pope can make, but also it aligns the Catholic Church solidly with the most pessimistic wing of organised environmentalism.

Francis appeals to his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, who proposed “correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment”.

Unfortunately, that pope was also wrong. The richer people get, the more they ensure respect for the environment. The correlation between prosperity and environmental sustainability is positive, not negative. (Here’s a cool interactive chart that proves it.) All you have to do is compare photographs of poor towns with those of rich towns, to see the difference in environmental degradation.

Although prosperity leads to higher environmental quality, the converse is not true. A healthy environment can improve human welfare only up to a point. There is a point at which environmentalism begins to cause more harm than good. The logical extreme is to leave nature untouched, give up our ability to harness it altogether, and revert to the poverty of our ancestors.

Many environmentalists romanticise this state of nature, evoking an emotive sense of nostalgia by comparison to the modern world of progress and prosperity. The church, too, mourns our supposed loss of innocence, and celebrates poverty. If that sounds harsh, consider the life and myth of one of its most famous adherents, Mother Teresa, who said she found pain and suffering both beautiful and beneficial to the world.

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves,” Francis wrote. “It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.”

What we received from nature’s own hand, of course, was a life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. We were virtually defenceless against natural disasters, and went to varied and extraordinary lengths to invoke supernatural powers to protect us from such evils. We prayed to those same gods to bless our crops, and protect us from deadly diseases like gangrene, plague and smallpox.

So when, in this mythical past, was humanity in any sense “in tune” with nature? The Pope appears to contradict himself, saying that the disunity between humanity and the earth occurred when mankind first sinned. But, according to Christian doctrine, Adam and Eve were the first people on Earth, and the first to sin and be cast out of the Garden of Eden. It doesn’t look like we were in tune with nature “for a long time” at all. In fact, we were pretty quick to eat the yummy apples from the Tree of Knowledge.

There is, of course, merit in the notion that humanity’s precarious relationship with nature is as old as sin. Nature was pretty confrontational from the start, and we have always had to defend ourselves against its onslaughts. We have always had to wrest our survival and comforts from nature, by the sweat of our brows.

But prosperity relieves those troubles; it does not worsen them. The poor, who lack the technology and material prosperity of the rich, live shorter lives, consume fewer calories, and succumb more often to disease. They die in greater numbers during natural disasters, too. The next time you follow a hurricane track that is equally strong over poor Caribbean islands as it is when it makes landfall in the wealthy United States, compare the damage done and lives lost. You’ll find that the structures in which Americans take shelter against the vagaries of nature hold up much better than those in poor island countries, and consequently, the numbers of dead and injured are far lower. Nature continues to try to kill us, as it always has, but those who enjoy a high level of modern technology and prosperity are better able to defend themselves.

Perhaps the problem is, as the Pope claims, that recent decades appear to have been accompanied by “an increase in extreme weather events”.

But this is also not true. Almost all types of extreme weather are on the decrease. Liberal billionaire Warren Buffet has said that despite claims of increased extreme weather, catastrophe insurance has been nothing but profitable. “I love apocalyptic predictions,” he told the media.

Pope Francis does claim to like all the cool things that humanity’s supposed greed has produced. “We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for ‘science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity’. The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning; technology itself ‘expresses the inner tension that impels man gradually to overcome material limitations’. Technology has remedied countless evils that used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?”

However, he has a theory about how we came to possess the fruits of what he calls “technoscience”. His theory is that we believe in the patently absurd: “This [that the relationship between humanity and nature has become confrontational] has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that ‘an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed’.”

The problem is, the infallible fellow is quite wrong about this. Not only is it at best an exaggeration to claim the planet is being “squeezed dry”, but I challenge him produce a single economist – just one – that believes “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods”.

In fact, the entire practice of economics is based on the opposite belief: it asks how to satisfy humanity’s unlimited wants and needs with limited resources. Economics is about how best to distribute scarce resources among those who need it, not about how best to exploit infinite resources.

Such basic errors make a mockery of the Pope’s supposedly infallible pronouncements. True, only some of the contents of encyclicals carry the weight of infallible dogma, although nobody appears to know how much, and which parts. However, encyclicals are supposed to command the serious respect and internal assent of those to whom it is addressed. This one, the Pope said, “is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching”.

Since it is addressed not only to Catholics, but to everyone on Earth, one would have hoped that even non-Catholics might be able to respect it. But a great part of the document belabours obviously religious cant, with which non-Catholics disagree in part or in full. It proposes ritual solutions to the world’s problems, such as praying before and after meals. It asks us to acknowledge and repent of our sins in an “ecological conversion”, claiming, “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion”. All of that sounds pretty religious, which makes his appeal to everyone rather presumptuous.

But most strikingly, he gets fundamental truths about both the environment and Homo Economicus badly wrong. How can anyone respect a religious missive based upon error?

Michael Crichton once said that environmentalism is a religion; the religion of choice for modern, urban atheists. There is a God, and her name is Gaia. Modern technology and commerce – eating from the tree of knowledge – have led humanity from a state of innocent purity to one of moral degeneration. If there once was an Eden, an unspoilt nature, it is now corrupted by our sins and excesses. For our sins, we will be judged in an apocalypse of global warming or extinction. However, we can assuage our deep guilt by harkening to our high priests, like Al Gore, and praying to our dead saints, like Rachel Carson. We can seek salvation in sustainability, in practising good deeds like recycling, and in partaking of the sacrament of organic food.

In that sense, the Catholic Church and the environmental movement are a perfect match. They both frown upon wealth and celebrate poverty. Both predict humanity’s doom. Both accept science as far as they have to, but interpret it through a lens of beliefs sustained by emotion, not reason. Both are religious organisations that expect unquestioning faith and denounce scepticism as heresy.

Neither of them understands the first thing about economics. Both say we plunder natural resources as if they were unlimited. Both claim that we are “ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs”. Neither is correct about any of these things. Neither is as infallible as they let on.

Besides, it is rich for the Pope to lecture us about greed and wealth from his throne in the most opulent buildings in the world. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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