It gives me no pleasure to identify the essential problem at the heart of Pope Francis‘s recent Apostolic Exhortation, Laudate Deum: it condemns the economic progress produced by the Industrial Revolution from the mid-19th century to the present. That progress has made life better for the very people the Holy Father wishes to help.
The Holy Father says that with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, greenhouse gas emissions “accelerated significantly” and that “[m]ore than 42% of total new emissions since the year 1850 were produced after 1990.”
It stands to reason that as the entire world was being lifted out of subsistence poverty in which it had existed from the time humans appeared, some environmental impacts could be felt if progress was made. To contextualize this picture, simply consider that during the same time, life spans increased and human mortality dropped. Between 1800 and 1950, the proportion of the world’s population living in dire poverty halved; from 1950 to 1980 it halved again. What occurred is the very definition of what it means to be responsible.
No doubt some environmental impacts could occur and that they would naturally be mixed. These are called tradeoffs. Increased energy use driven by increased productivity (e.g., tractors) did increase greenhouse gas emissions, for example. But further technological advances (more fuel-efficient engines, or alternative power sources) mitigated those effects, and recent studies indicate that these positive trends are increasing. This is a recurring pattern.
The most frustrating thing I see in Laudate Deum is the lost opportunity it represents. There is no end to the plethora of studies, books, papers, and articles produced by the scientific community on the challenges presented by economic growth and its impact on the environment. Indeed, the pope cites many of them in his exhortation. What is sadly missing, however, and the unique contribution the pope might have made, comes from his own competency – what economists call comparative advantage. The pope’s competency is not climate change science; it is moral inspiration, which his letter lacks.
This is ironic in that the solution that the pope seeks ultimately comes down to this very competency: converting the moral environment, whether it be that of the “technocratic paradigm” that he condemns (that is the private market economy working out the solutions to the problem of scarcity without a moral vision of the whole), or the political remedy seen in the sequence of climate conferences for which he holds great hope and enumerates — yet he admits that these efforts have largely failed.
It is bewildering to see the head of a 2,000-year-old institution, one with ample experience in human moral development, which built the most effective and ameliorative institutions the world has ever seen (e.g., organized and international charity, the university, the hospital and more), settling instead for the rhetoric of a mid-level NGO white paper.