My own unsolicited grey matter-ings on Laudato Si…
Before I really get into it, my preconceptions are really torn on these issues – but each of our personal biases are obviously important to how we understand the document. I mean to be upfront about mine, because first principles need to be understood to get at the heart of the issues we discuss. So here are three prisms I am using…
Two are humans. My favorite thinkers appear to be diametrically opposed on these issues, men I absolutely adore: J.R.R. Tolkien and Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Both are pre-Vatican-II type Catholics and classical thinkers, and both are profound even when their survey of a topic is limited in depth. Both flourish in realms tangential to Catholicism – the literary and the political – but each are first and foremost Catholic, in my opinion. Tolkien feared modernty. He doesn’t believe modern technology to be immoral ipso facto, but he believes it eases the path to doing great wrongs as a result of his having fought in WWI and seeing literally all of his friends killed in front of him by machine gun fire. His understanding of the combustion engine, as influenced by his friend Chrstopher Dawson, led him to think the machine sped up our lives far too much – and he emphasized this singular technology as being more dangerous than nearly any other. He also saw nature, especially trees, as the foundation of beauty and our first connection with the numenous, and any violation of nature beyond what is precisely needed as gravely harmful to us. Exploitation of the earth is to avoided at all costs, and of the myriad themes in his primarily Catholic books included a stress on the battle he saw between nature and technology. He was an Ent, in nearly every sense of the word. His was not ever an economic approach, and his vision in this respect was limited to his own personal Hobbiton where he lived (not always a bad thing). And for my part, it is a beautiful vision of the harmony of man, nature, and God. His books have meant more for my Catholicism than any other source, and much of that is an appreciation of nature I didn’t have 10 years ago.
Woods, on the other hand, is an economic historian and proponent of freedom as a means of human flourish. Specifically, his understanding of those who resist technology for its own sake is as Luddites and neanderthals (pretty much literally). In several of his books, he argues that technological advancement, human freedom, and “consumerism” as we see it in the West has been the core means by which the poorest of the poor have been able to gain any ground, or perhaps even survive given places like Bangladesh and Malawi. In this estimation, I think he is 99% correct. It may seem that the excesses of the West are disgusting, and perhaps they are in their own wastefulness. There is no doubt in my mind that this mindframe has bled into us treating many humans as waste as well (thought I don’t think this byproduct is inevitable). But in the bigger picture, it is technological advances by the rich (West) that ultimately lead to the mass production of goods and food which in turn ends up lowering the cost of living for all – a crucial aspect of human advancement. Secondary to this, an immediate effect of Americans buying superfluous widgets and toys is that an extremely poor woman in Mexico or Thailand can afford to feed her four children and none starve. This understanding of global economy requires that we use resources the earth has given us such that people are able to transcend the completely crushing weight of poverty around the world. It is supported against contra-freedom criticisms by the fact that we all are growing richer as history progresses, studies which show the most “free” economies to be the least polluted, and the circumstances in which we have seen the tragedy of the commons overcome by private property ownership.
There is a problem here, though, in what we face. I would love to be able to stress this aspect of my religion – the communion with and caretaking of nature – but it is difficult to find the time when I’m faced with being reactive to the problems as presented. Most people know that we need to take care of the environment. Most don’t know how an economy works. When the two contrast, I am faced with leaving many things unsaid about our role in nature so I might move to defend a free economy from those who would do violence to THAT aspect of nature to have their ends met. I rarely get to bring out my Tolkien side for the fact. An economy is just as much a part of nature when it is not based on positive law devices and the control of man as the trees and rocks and rivers. In both areas, man works to wrongfully subdue that which God has provided for us, and the abuse we heap on the natural workings of market forces are much more subtle than those we push on earth. So when I make the choice to leave the nest unguarded here, don’t think that there isn’t anything to be said about man’s relation to flora and fauna and . There is plenty. But it is hard to maintain the balance.
A last/third thought, before the dive into the text: I have an assumption that the pope’s understanding of the economy is relatively pedestrian, not only because he doesn’t have time to bother since saving souls is a much more noble goal, but also given his cultural context. Argentina’s media portrayal of what an economy is and should be is much like it is in the US, but to the Nth degree. They are truly NeoKeynesians, and perhaps have been a better example of such than any other country on the planet, Japan notwithstanding. This context can’t be separated from Franky’s mind, having been educated in the country and serving most of his ministry there. Being with the poor doesn’t give you any special knowledge about how so many are still so poor, but it is possible that being a politician, of which bishops and cardinals inevitably are, may blind you to the facts surrounding these things. You can see the latter example throughout this document, in which Bergoglio is very much a man of the top-down solution to economic and social ills. With this strand of thinking in his mind, I think Francis probably (ironically) believes our economies are “capitalist”, or to avoid the connotations and differing definitions, free. He likely also believes that this freedom has incentivized the pillaging of the earth by corporations and large communal interests. In this, if he holds it to be true, he is mistaken. Even so, I can give this encylical a read knowing that his discussion DOES apply to reality and DOES apply to the economy – but that he discusses something he doesn’t realize he is aiming toward: our economy is highly unnatural and composed of behemoths and demons for the very fact that we aren’t free. Finance is rigged, corporate interests are incentivized for bad behavior, externalities are unresolved by state-granted legal protections, trade agreements and fiat monetary competition leave poor countries with little ability to move upward on their own, and on and on. When calling foul on our economies, Francis would be calling out the right problems while missing the sources or obvious solutions. War, protectionism, and fiat currency being wiped from the face of the earth would do wonders for our culture where environmentalism is concerned – and though it may not be all, it would be an unrivaled step toward the Good.
So here I sit, and in order of what I saw in the 184-pages of text, in brief, the following things are notable…
• The first thing I notice is that it is clear that there are WAY too many issues being covered in this document. Total length of the document notwithstanding, these issues cannot be discussed so quickly without severe disservice to the concepts. Many of these paragaphs are simply too vague to understand the point being made or even direction to be faced. It isn’t just a stylistic problem, either. Moral discernment is a careful path, and it requires slow and deliberate steps.
• There is an excess of consumption present in the West, notwithstanding all of my thoughts above. Billionaires should not be forced to part with their wealth, but they absolutely have a moral duty to do so in the fact of poverty worldwide. That people can be and stay a billionaire throughout their lives does not automatically mean great evil – much of a person’s net worth is in goods and means of production that do create value for perhaps millions – but there is more room for people with this kind of money to have a very thoughtful approach to charity. Accumulation of wealth does not come at the expense of all, contrary to the reasoning of fixed-pie economic thinkers, but it does require that one use their personal wealth to do more good than just providing consumer goods for an economy. When you have licked the evolutuonary selection by creating enough to comfortably sustain your family, it is time to end your hoarding (shut up Keynes) and provide for others. It isn’t an easy task even for a billionaire, but it is a teaching of our Church. At the same time, I am not sure it isn’t clear this is being done already (http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials/061615-757608-jump-in-charity-fueled-by-big-gifts-from-the-rich.htm#ixzz3dKmtyc9U), despite persistent narratives to the contrary…
• The language of official Church documents is always absolutely beautiful, especially with respect to the role of the human person’s role in nature. I get goosebumps reading about man’s relation to his Creator when it is done so artfully, and Francis is no exception here.
• Francis’ conclusions about ecological change yield too much to counterfactuals and unprovable assertions, in my opinion. It would have been nice to seat the language in “IF x, THEN our responsibility is y” statements. Aquinas spoke of theologians avoiding questions of science when he developed his 5 proofs of God’s existence for the fact that in doing so, if the science is ever incorrect or incomplete, the Church can avoid intellectual scandal and reputation risks that scare off people who don’t have a strong understanding of Church teaching. Francis risked that here. The earth probably is warming, and if it isn’t today our fault, it will someday be. Thermodynamics, as presently understood, knows no other way. But there is care to be given in statements as these, and it is puzzlingly lacking here. I’ve noticed this about Francis – he is off-the-cuff often. It has appeal, but other times it makes me cringe. Being relatable isn’t as crucial as being carefully truthful, contrary to popular opinion.
• The phrase “throwaway culture” is actually really pertinent – because it applies to so much more than our garbage. I think here of women, consumerism-as-GDP-growth, our own bodies, and many other things that should be focal issues in the social consciousness. We complain about all of these things, but they have become bricks in our society. I wish Francy would have developed this idea some, but instead later in the document we get an Ehrlich-ian fear that we deflower the ecosystem to the point of no return. There are very wasteful places on earth, of that there is no doubt. But panic is not warranted as much as careful deliberation on these issues. What is the proper role of man in nature and as caretaker?
• The discussion of energy use is woefully lacking in context. Cheap, abundant fuel is the means of survival for millions. We need not be sinfully consumptive of these resources to use them – and it is God that provided them to begin with. Much more on this issue to be fleshed-out, but there is more to the simple “fossil fuels = climate change = bad for us” diagram being drawn here. The mention of air conditioning is also a somewhat petty attack. Let’s dive into the economics…
• The idea that water should be socialized or owned by government because it is a “human right” is also a glaring mistake betraying the fact that our pope doesn’t understand how economies work. How did he so thoroughly miss the economic work of the Scholastics? Resource allocation cannot be done in a top-down fashion, and the reasons for this are almost endless. To make these assertions, the pope would have had to definitively conquer the Hayekian knowledge problem, public choice economics as a whole, regulatory capture, the historical cases of government allocation of resources, and many other theoretical, historical, and ethical issues that are too complicated and debatable to be resolved with such a short stroke of the pen. This is similarly true of the discussion of ecosystem depletion for flora/fauna worldwide – many recent studies have shown an increase in biodiversity, not a decrease. Around paragraph 93, Frank’s understanding of both Church history and economics seem to reach their limit in discussions of private property. In contrast to his ideas here, CCC Sec. 2401 intimates that private property is a logical extension of the 7th Commandment, and Rerum Novarum (para 15-16) does directly contradict the text in Francis’ encyclical in calling private property at least arguably inviolable. This particular issue is huge, and unfortunately I wan’t to breeze over it here so I can do it justice elsewhere. More to come on the issue of private property within the Church, another time – but for now, know that there is a reason Francis brushed over the topic as well . . . The assertion that increased machine production (resulting in replacement of human workers) is REALLY REALLY BAD is one that is generally unfounded, that I have spent a good deal of time dissecting. Machines improve our standard of living, and rather than protectionism that prevents horse-whip makers in the buggy industry from competition, the car should remain an ability of free enterprise to create and improve upon as it sees fit. If this is truly an issue, we can go into it further – but it is unquestionably an erroneous assertion in LS. This includes any ideas about small scale farms being naturally absorbed by larger ones. Where this is a problem of institutional finance gone awry, absolutely it should be decried. But in the absence of interest-rate-boom-induced takeovers, large-scale production is essential to the cost of food decreasing, which obviously directly correlates to feeding the poor . . . In absolute seriousness, has he never heard of the tragedy of the commons and why it exists? Privatization is not an issue of prevailing relevance – but its opposite most certainly is, with special regard to many of the instances discussed in this paper… Would that we all could live on our own farm and harvest from the land in abundance with minimal work! But one of the best parts of our modernization has been the decrease in arable faming land and subsequent reclamation of that land by nature, due to technological advances that produce higher farm yields. When the pope addresses the inherent evil or disconnect in city living, he seems to confuse amoral personal preferences with moral imperatives. I am not a fan of the concrete and glass myself – but it does not follow that man was destined to avoid such places.
• I take paragraphs 47-48 quite seriously – most of us are on our phone far too much, gathering information from sources far and wide and engaging with people who aren’t in the room with us. It can be a trap, for sure, and for me, has definitely distracted from the prayerful life. There is something to distraction that means we understand less of each other today than we have. I see it in the way in which we communicate – ideas longer than Twitter’s 140-character maximum are usually too much work to grasp or even read, and we have a stunted curiosity and depth from it (A great example is the cosmological argument for God, to which only the Twitter-aged can respond with “Yes, but who created God?” and believe that they understood the argument). It is rare to find someone who reads nonfiction books regularly. With easy and free access to information, we tend to gravitate toward easy answers for complex questions, and be satisfied there. The problem with this approach is that many ideas require much more than simple taglines to enflesh. Personally, I am accused of being long-winded and enjoying hearing myself talk; but in reality I think I just feel compelled to root out all cloudiness and imprecision from my thoughts, which is always a lengthy task.
• His last few paragraphs, from around 230 onward, are the best formulations in the entire document – and the most Catholic/catholic too. Our experience of God and each other does need to be more thoughtful. You can tell that the author of these words is different than the author of most of the document, and these things are unquestionably virtues upon which all should reflect. It is time to re-center our lives…
“I’ve noticed this about Francis – he is off-the-cuff often. It has appeal, but other times it makes me cringe. Being relatable isn’t as crucial as being carefully truthful, contrary to popular opinion.”
I agree. I keep hearing from those on the liberal/progressive side that Francis is making the faith attractive again, he is opening up the Church to dialogue, he really cares about people, etc. It may be a good thing, that people are developing more favorable attitudes towards the Church. But I can’t help thinking that the only reason he strikes them that way is that he is saying things they like to hear. There’s nothing wrong with saying things that people like to hear. But saying things that are true and correct is far more important.
A lof of what he says is true and correct, but a lot of it is imprecise and wishy-washy, a lot of it is ill-considered, a lot of it gives people false impressions and a lot of it is scandalous. And of course a lot of it is ignored by the media, when it doesn’t happen to coincide with their ideal conception of a liberal pope.
Completely agreed, Agellius. Care must be taken in these pronouncements, lest we get lost in political ideology or vague generality.
I still read everything you post on your blog, BTW. It comes to my email. I appreciate your posts very much. Keep up the Good work.