The op-ed is valuable since it offers a preview of the right-wing critiques of “Laudato Si’” (LS) that we’re likely to hear over the next few months. Let’s consider them one-by-one.
To begin with, the author is correct. Pope Francis’ encyclical does go far beyond climate change. It is brilliantly overwhelming in its breadth of scope which sees climate chaos as but one symptom indicating that the present world system is fundamentally unsustainable.
Other symptoms include deforestation and loss of wetlands (8), “water poverty” and infant mortality (28), species extinction (33), over-fishing (40), destruction of coral reefs (41), uncontrolled urbanization (44), food waste (50), the north’s “ecological debt” to the global south (51), debt crises in general (52), war (57), information manipulation (54), desertification (89), cruelty to animals (92), economic domination by unproductive financial interests (109), resource depletion (111), dangerous market-driven production of GMOs (134), secret negotiations of trade deals (135) and human anxiety, loss of purpose and of human community (110).
Additionally there are related problems of human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species . . . buying and selling of organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation. . . and the elimination of children because they are not what their parents wanted (123).
In the pope’s vision, all of these problems are interconnected. In fact, that’s the basic thesis underlying the Francis tour de force: EVERYTHING IS INTERCONNECTED (42, 117, 120, 137, etc.). At root what causes the problems are the unregulated nature of free markets, blind reliance on technological development, and excessive anthropocentrism (LS Chapter 3). Causes are rooted in “the lie” which denies that there are any limits to economic growth (106).
What are needed to combat such manifestations are radical changes in the ways humans live, produce and consume (23). Francis says we need a “bold cultural revolution” – a recovery of values and great goals that have been swept away by human “delusions of grandeur” (114).
Not surprisingly, the pope finds such values and goals embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its teachings about divine ownership of creation, human stewardship of the same, and its unswerving reverence for all forms of life, from the least to the greatest (Chapter Two). All life forms, the pope teaches, from algae to human embryos and the planet itself have intrinsic worth. None of them should be treated as insensate instruments put on earth for human profit and pleasure.
On Douthat’s analysis, such reflections might be all well and good. However, they represent only one viewpoint. And this brings us to the right-wing arguments against the pope’s analysis that we can anticipate over the next months. They have to do with papal negativism, the success of the market in eliminating poverty, the Catholic approach to overpopulation, and the capacity of future technological development to solve the planet’s problems.
For starters, Douthat calls the pope’s approach “catastrophism.” The other viewpoint – evidently Douthat’s own – he terms “dynamism.”
Dynamists are far more optimistic than the pope. They believe that the market and technological advances will possibly head off what the pope sees as inevitable catastrophe especially for the world’s poor absent that earlier-mentioned bold Cultural Revolution.
Coming from his dynamic perspective, Douthat argues that (1) poverty is diminishing world-wide, (2) overpopulation (spurred by the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity) plays an important role in the problems the pope enumerates, and (3) who knows, the pope could be wrong: technology and the market just might automatically solve the world’s problems.
On the pope’s holistic analysis, each of such conservative arguments fails miserably.
The first (that world poverty is diminishing) is questionable on two counts.
First off, Douthat’s thesis is based on a World Bank study showing that “extreme poverty” as opposed to normal poverty is diminishing. (Normal poverty is defined as an income of $2.00 per day.)
While it’s true that incomes among the world’s poorest have risen from .87 cents per day in 1981 to $1.25 in 2005, the number of people living in normal poverty has remained unchanged over that same period. Moreover, the number of humans living in the “unspeakable conditions” of normal poverty would actually have risen sharply over the same period were it not for the economic development of China, whose improvement cannot be explained by unfettered markets as championed by neo-liberal apologists.
Secondly, Douthat’s approach to poverty misses the pope’s point about including the devastation of the natural environment in definitions of poverty. Given the earlier cited list of problems addressed in the pope’s encyclical, it is impossible to argue that world poverty is diminishing. As he puts it so delicately, humans are turning the planet into a pile of filth (21). Impoverishing nature means growth in world poverty.
Douthat’s second defense of the “dynamic” vs. the “catastrophic” approach – the one about population – is similarly short-sighted. The pope addresses it head-on. In effect he admits that there are too many people in the world – but not the ones Douthat has in mind.
Douthat is thinking about the masses in the global south. By contrast, Pope Francis’ focus is on the global north – the United States and Europe. His implication is that there are indeed too many people. But they are Americans and Europeans whose ecological footprint is far more devastating than the footprint of the poor living in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The world cannot sustain people living the lifestyle of Americans and Europeans.
The pope writes: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption” (50).
Additionally, Douthat does not address the good economic reasons the world’s impoverished have for contributing to the population pressures the columnist finds so disturbing. Simply put, those reasons center around the absence of social services and benefits Americans and Europeans take for granted, but which conservatives continually rail against.
The impoverished need large families because their economies remain largely agrarian, and each additional child represents another field hand. They need children to provide additional income where jobs provide no government-mandated living wage. They need many children to insure that at least one will survive to care for them in their waning years. They need family members to replace them as income-earners where the government provides no workers’ compensation for injuries sustained on the job, or where there is no government-provided health care.
In short, Americans and Europeans have small families because of urbanization and the government “programs” representing their countries’ “social wage.” Absent income supplements like adequate minimum wages, social security, and health care, large families make complete sense. Or as Barry Commoner put it in 1976, poverty breeds overpopulation and not the other way around.
As for Douthat’s final Pollyanna expression of faith in undirected markets and technology, they are just that “Pollyanna.” Surprisingly (especially for a Republican), they represent a refusal to accept Pope Francis’ call for what GOP members claim to prize so highly – personal responsibility.
Like the interconnectedness of all reality, the call to responsibility is a recurring theme in “Laudato Si’” (e.g. 64, 67, 78, 105, 118).
Moreover, Douthat’s simplistic approach to technology fails to deal with Pope Francis’ key point that technologies are not neutral. Their development and use is largely controlled by the world’s rich and powerful. Francis writes: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral for they create a framework . . . dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (107).
In effect, then, placing hopes in technological development equates with naïve surrender to the very people principally responsible for our planet’s “unprecedented situation” (17).
In the end, Ross Douthat’s loaded categories “Catastrophists” vs. “Dynamists” are misleading. More accurate classifications would be “Ecologists” vs. “Atomists.” Pope Francis is an ecologist. He sees the interrelatedness of all reality and the interrelatedness of all reality with Ultimate Reality. His approach is holistic.
Meanwhile, Douthat is an atomist. In his op-ed nothing seems to be connected. He can’t see the relative meaninglessness of the categories “extreme poverty” contrasted with the unspeakable conditions of normal poverty. He’s oblivious to the fact that Americans and Europeans represent the planet’s true excess population. His faith in blind markets and future technological developments are slices of pie in the sky.
Pope Francis would say it is out of line with our culture’s best insights and values. It is entirely irresponsible.