We are entering an Age of Limits. Our resource base is declining, our environment becomes more degraded every year, and economic problems are endemic. These are Predicaments, not Problems (Problems have solutions, Predicaments do not). We need a new theology to meet these frightening challenges.
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.
Matthew 21: 12
We have seen in earlier chapters how the success of science works has marginalized religion‘s role in explaining how the world works. The development of scientific principles, followed by the astounding growth in industry over the course of the last 300 years has firmly established the authority of science and technology as a means of explaining the world around us. Over the course of the last five centuries we have seen the following events such as the following unfold.
Galileo said that the earth, the moon and the planets are all made of the same material. There is no quintessence. Later, we learned that we ourselves are also made of earthly materials. We are not special. There is no physical City of God.
Copernicus told us that our earth is not at the center of the solar system. We are live on a small planet orbiting an average star. We are not special.
Charles Darwin delivered probably the most devastating blow to our self-esteem. He said that we are not the pinnacle of life, nor do we represent the culmination of evolution. We have evolved, just like all other species. Darwin stated that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable (not the fittest). There is nothing inherently special about having a big brain, or in being able to control fire, or in being able to manage large groups through the use of writing and money. It just so happens that these attributes worked very well for our species during the 10,000 years of the Holocene to such an extent that we have radically altered it. Maybe those attributes will be a handicap in the coming Anthropocene. Species do not evolve toward some type of pinnacle; they merely evolve to meet changing circumstances. We will see how adaptable we are when faced with the world that we have created.
But now, as we enter the Age of Limits, science is losing its prestige.
The over-turning of the tables in the Temple as described in all four gospels provides an analogy. While no one would claim that science and technology are corrupt in the manner of the merchants in the Temple, we nevertheless see that we have corrupted our planet; science and technology have stumbled, and stumbled badly. This gives an opportunity for the religious community to provide leadership in explaining what is going on, and in coming up with responses that work.
In Chapter 2 saw how van Doren explained Augustine’s response to the catastrophic events of the early 5th century by contrasting the City of Man with the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of the City of God. In doing so they created the theology of the medieval church. This project culminated in the works of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
What Thomas Aquinas had tried to do was to resolve the question of the two cities, the one of God and the other of Man, which had lain at the heart of theological speculation for a thousand years. Augustine had viewed them as in eternal conflict. Thomas tried to bring them together in peace. In effect, he tried to write a single constitution for both cities that contained no internal contradictions. He tried harder than anyone ever had, and he was the greatest thinker to do so. But he failed.
The great intellectual challenge of the Middle Ages — understanding the nature of the City of God — lost its momentum and was replaced by the energy, insights and excitement of natural science: physics, chemistry and biology. Theology was no longer the Queen of Sciences.
We, in our time, are at a similar juncture. But this time it is the other way around. Science is losing its authority; the sense of never-ending material progress is being challenged on all sides and we are wrecking the environment and do not know how to extract ourselves from the morass that we have created. So maybe the time has come to develop a theology and a way of life that addresses the situation in which we find ourselves. So, maybe now is the time for Christians to show leadership. It has happened before. Leaders such as St. Augustine and Benedict of Nursia led western society through the Dark Ages that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. Can we repeat?
The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark” as I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.
The sections of that chapter are shown below. Every so often I will write a blog to do with one of these topics. In this blog let’s take a look at the third entry (highlighted in red): A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article.
My first glimpse of long-term limitations in our energy supplies was provided by an article I read in a chemical engineering journal. Unfortunately, I do not recall who wrote the article or when it was published — my best guess would be around the year 2005. The article described the relatively new concept of converting corn (maize) into ethanol which could then be added to gasoline, thereby reducing the need for imported oil.
The author examined the ethanol production process in terms of net energy. He found, evidently to his disbelief, that it might take more energy to manufacture ethanol than the ethanol provides as fuel. In other words, the ethanol-as-fuel program actually increases the importation of oil from foreign suppliers. What struck me about the article was the tone of surprise that was evident in the author’s conclusions. It was as if he had started a straightforward journey to a known destination, but had somehow been sidetracked into unexpected territory. In fact, he had stumbled across the crucially important concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), a topic that I will discuss in later posts.
The author did not go on to discuss non-economic issues. For example, would the corn be better used to feed the world’s hungry people? Or does fuel containing ethanol have less of a global warming impact? And then there is the politics; farmers who grow corn naturally want their market to expand. We begin to see just how tricky discussions to do with Age of Limits issues can be.
Greta Thurnberg, a 15-year old from Sweden, gave the following speech to the comfortable “adults” at the COP24 Conference in Poland in 2018.
My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden.
I speak on behalf of Climate Justice Now.
Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do.
But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference.
And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.
You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.
Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.
Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.
You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.
Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.
We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.
We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.
We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.
So what is this young person telling we “adults”.
Speaking as a young person living in a country with little economic power, she says that she, and people like her, still have power.
She speaks clearly — no fudging around about “sustainable growth”.
She speaks for the many poor people who suffer disproportionately from the ravages of climate change. She is not self-centered.
She sarcastically talks about “green eternal growth”. She seems to have a better grasp of the second law than people three times her age.
She makes the obvious statement that a continuation of the bad actions that got us into this mess is not a good idea. She does not use Einstein’s famous remark, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we crated them” — but she could have done.
She tells the world “leaders” that they are not mature. They leave all the hard decisions to the young people.
She challenges the economic system that benefits the very rich at the expense of the life of the planet.
Her comment about how she will talk about people like us when she is 75 is reminiscent of the famous Kitchener proposal (which, incidentally, worked — it persuaded many young men to join the army at the start of World War I).
She accuses us of hypocrisy — she says that we don’t love our children enough to make real sacrifices in our lifestyles.
She says that “we are running out of time”. In this she is actually incorrect — we have already run out of time. But maybe she was being tactful.
The stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE. He had been a wealthy merchant. But he was literally washed up when a merchant ship that he owned sank in a storm, taking all of his possessions to the bottom of the sea. Most of us would be overwhelmed and angry about such an event, but he chose to create a philosophical school in response to his calamity. Others who have followed in his footsteps are the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Nelson Mandela, who did so much to free the people of South Africa.
One of Zeno’s later followers, Epictetus, said,
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
For many people the very word “philosophy” has come to mean stoicism. When something unfortunate happens to us, we are encouraged to be “philosophical”, i.e., to suffer the consequences without complaint.
Stoicism recognizes that we do not control and cannot rely on external events. But we can control our thoughts and our actions — including the manner in which we respond to external events over which we have no control.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is profoundly stoic.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
The metaphor that the people of Zeno’s time used was that of an archer firing an arrow at an enemy soldier. The archer must do the best he can to be ready for battle. So, he chooses the best quality bows and arrows, he trains hard, and he maintains his equipment well. These are actions under his control. But, once in the field in front of an enemy, there are issues that he cannot control. He fires his arrow, but it may be knocked off course by a gust of wind, or the enemy soldiers may move. He accepts the result, whatever it may be.
(I have tried I try to adopt something of a stoical attitude with regard to the writing of this book. I research the issues, I listen to the advice of other people, I enter it into my prayer life, and I work on the writing, publishing and marketing processes. Then I’m done. I do not need to worry whether people actually buy the book.)
In short, we should focus on goals, not on outcomes. (This approach is, of course, the antithesis of coach Lombardi’s, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”)
Stoicism does not condone fatalism, nor does it provide an excuse for “hopium”. Stoics do the best they can with the resources that are under their control — they are not passive. In the context of the Age of Limits, the stoic person may take the attitude, “None of us know what is going to happen two generations from now. Maybe global warming will kill us all, or maybe it won’t. . So let’s focus on actions that we can take to take care of problems that we know about, and where we have some measure of control.”
Moreover, stoics are not selfish or self-centered. They knew that any effective action would involve community. For example, in a society where slavery was part of the way of life, he advocated that slaves should be treated well.
Pillars of Stoicism
Three of the pillars of stoicism are shown below. For each I provide some thoughts in the context of the Age of Limits.
Confront fears head on
If you are worried about the consequences to do living a more basic lifestyle, then try it and see how you cope. For example, if you have a beautiful air-conditioned home and you live in a hot climate, try turning off the air conditioning at the height of summer for a week or two. You will be uncomfortable, certainly. But you will probably survive.
Do not judge
This precept is difficult for me since I have a strong ‘J’ component in my Briggs-Meyer score. It also is somewhat in conflict with the Platonic approach of ideals. Rather than labeling everything as being either right or wrong, the goal is always to look for the silver lining in all clouds.
Stoics recognize that nothing lasts. Two generations from now, few people will remember either myself or you, dear reader. Marcus Aurelius said, “Alexander the Great, and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”
There are, of course, many other aspects to the Stoic response to life’s ups and downs. But my interest here is how it fits with the Christian response to the wrenching changes that are ahead of us, and to what degree it can contribute to a theology for the coming times.
Throughout this book I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.
Christianity and Stoicism
Christianity and stoicism have much in common. Four pillars of the stoic way of life are:
Courage / Fortitude
There is nothing there that a Christian would challenge.
In the first century CE the stoic way of thought was widespread throughout the Roman empire. Therefore, it would not be surprising to find strands of that way of thinking in Christianity. After all, Paul himself came from Tarsus, a place where the stoic philosophy was widely accepted. Scholars debate the degree to which stoicism formed part of Christianity. I have no intention of wading into that debate. But I do believe, as discussed below, that the stoic world view should be an important part of the theology of the Age of Limits.
One of my reasons for saying this is that, throughout this book, I have argued that we face predicaments, not problems. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not.) So, just as Zeno reacted as best he could to the loss of his fortune, so we, in our time, need to respond to the changes that are taking place as well as we can. There are few solutions, certainly none that will allow us to maintain our current, profligate life style. So, we need to respond and adapt in a stoical manner. Later on in this chapter I discuss the meaning of Good Friday. Christians accept that bad things happen — we need to accept that fact, just as the stoics would have done.
The stoic point of view does, however, pose some challenges for Christians.
First, there is a fatalistic streak to stoicism. We are all going to die, eventually the universe is going to die (or so astrophysicists seem to think), no one will remember who we are two or three generations from now, so what’s the point? This is not an attitude that most Christians would endorse.
A second difficulty that Christians may have with stoicism is that people may be tempted to divide their life into two parts.
< Stoicism is > the philosophy of the “inner man” and the “outer man” . . . This became the code of privatism, of the nine-to-five man who keeps back the best part of himself for his private life of feelings, of the arts, of family, and of beauty. His real life takes place after five and on weekends . . .
Stoicism is well suited to a society that could not control or explain ravages of nature, such as plague, fire, war, or holocaust . . .
A third concern is to do with the relationship of God to the world we live in. A stoic sees God as being part of the universe, whereas a Christian sees God as someone who created the universe and is therefore, in some manner, external to what is going on.
But probably the biggest difficulty that Christians have with stoicism is to do with the meaning of our actions. Christianity says that our actions and way of life matter in the long run, whereas stoics say that, in the end, none of this really matters.
Stoicism: Live well, because in the end, what difference does it make?
Christianity: Live well, because in the end, it makes all the difference.
Stoicism in an Age of Limits
In an Age of Limits a stoic response may encourage people to retreat from society. Their retreat can take one of two forms.
The first response is to retreat from society and to try and live a self-sufficient lifestyle. Persons taking this approach will grow their own food, make their own clothes and provide their own entertainments
The approach has much appeal, and should probably be followed, at least in part, by Christians. It aligns with the Greer quotation that we have already discussed (page 58), “Collapse now, and avoid the rush”. His argument is that our current lifestyles are unsustainable, so we would do well to prepare for the inevitable move toward simplicity.
The catch with this approach, at least when taken to extremes, is that, like it or not, we are all part of community, no matter how restricted its scope. No one person can truly be a Robinson Crusoe and live entirely on his or her own resources.
The second type of retreat can only be carried out by wealthy and powerful people. They create their own private reserve, often on an island. They aim to maintain their current lifestyle which they protect with a private security force.
This approach has deep and fatal drawbacks. A person is only wealthy if he or she has access to electronic banking in order to purchase useful goods. If the computer systems fail, or if the supply chains break down then that person becomes poor overnight. Moreover, a person who retreats in this manner will always be vulnerable to disloyal security personnel, just as the Roman Emperors could never fully trust their own bodyguards.
In conclusion, we see that the stoic response to life’s ups and downs may not be a complete and integrated philosophy, but it can make an important contribution to the theology of the future. And it provides practical guidance and help.
The Christian Stoic
We can draw the following conclusions to do with stoicism — and its fit with Christianity and the Age of Limits.
There are fundamental differences between the Christian and the stoic world views. Nevertheless, stoicism influenced Christian thought.
As we enter the Age of Limits, stoicism can provide practical guidance.
It can also provide one of the pillars of a new theology.
The first was to do with the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protest movement. The Guardian says,
The Extinction Rebellion climate protest group has expanded to 35 countries and is building towards a week of international civil disobedience in April.
Wikipedia describes the movement as follows,
Extinction Rebellion (sometimes shortened as XR) is an international social movement that aims to drive radical change, through nonviolent resistance in order to minimise species extinction and avert climate breakdown
In an open letter members of the movement, which was formed this year, say,
The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.
What is interesting about this movement is their use of the word ‘Extinction’. They are not mincing words, or saying, “maybe this, or, on the other hand, maybe that”.
In an open letter they make the following demands,
The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
A national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.
Taking these points one by one,
In in his book De Mendacio Augustine stressed that it is the responsibility of Christians to tell the truth at all times — not even while lies are acceptable.
Reducing carbon emissions to zero by the year 2025 will not happen. Any attempt to do so will lead to extinction by a different route.
Would the Citizens’ Assembly over-ride existing government?
The other item that attracted my attention was this article. It describes how some young, Evangelical Christians are now taking climate change very seriously.
While many evangelicals are preoccupied with the long-term state of human souls and the protection of the unborn, Diego and the other students I met at Wheaton are also considering other eternal implications and a broader definition of pro-life. They are concerned about the lifespan of climate pollutants that will last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and about the lives of the poor and weak who are being disproportionately harmed by the effects of those greenhouse gases.
I have never really understood why any Christian would oppose the science to do with climate change (and other Age of Limits issues). After all, if people are suffering due to these events then we need to understand what is happening before coming up with “solutions” that are not actually solutions.
The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark” as I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.
The sections of that chapter are shown below. Every so often I will write a blog to do with one of these topics. We have already written about Jevons Paradox. In this blog let’s take a look at the second entry (highlighted in red): The Machine Stops.
A Brief Biography
The Machine Stops
A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
A History of Knowledge
Twilight in the Desert
Down The Hubbert Curve
The Archdruid Report
Hard Times for These Times
Oil Price Collapse
Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
Post Carbon Institute
The Last Question
The Ladder of Awareness
The Machine Stops
I start in the mid-1960s at my English high school, preparing for an English Literature examination. One of the prescribed works was a truly prescient and remarkable science fiction novella, The Machine Stops, written in the year 1909 by E.M. Forster. At that time the telephone was a novelty, many homes were not supplied with electricity, the motor car was unusual and television was undreamed of. Yet Forster not only anticipated many of the features of our current Internet-based world, he also foresaw how it might collapse.
Fifty years later, when I read the book, computers had been invented (just). But the internet, emails, ebooks, webinars, Skype, Facebook “friends”, widespread central air conditioning and social media were not even on the horizon. Yet Forster anticipated them all. Not only did he get the technology right, he even described the people of his future world as being physically unfit, lonely and obese. And finally, he anticipated how this society could collapse — how the Machine could stop.
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
The novella has a strong story line. My comments reveal the conclusion of the story.
Like all good stories, The Machine Stops can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It can be seen as futuristic science fiction. Or it could express the need to keep in touch with physical reality. But, in the context of what I am writing here, the greatest interest is to do with the relationship between human beings and “The Machine”.
Each person in the story each has his or her own room — the rooms fit together in a beehive-like structure. The people in the story live singly, no one shares a room with anyone else. The rooms have doors, and, in principle, the people can walk through their door and visit with other people. But they don’t. Instead they are addicted to their electric communication devices. (Why does this sound familiar?)
The lives of the people in the story are controlled in every way by what we could call a centralized computer system (the Machine). It supplies everything that they need: food, accommodation, communication with others via “computer terminals”, and — when the time comes — euthanasia. The Machine can even, if it chooses, expel people to live outside their controlled environment. This is a sentence of death.
The people in the story have only one printed book. It is an Instruction Manual that tells them how to interact with the Machine.
The Central Committee published it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound.
Sitting up in the bed, she [ Vashti — the story’s lead character ] took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if someone might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured “O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice she inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence.
Vashti is challenged by her son, Kuno (in a video, of course). He says,
“You are beginning to worship the Machine”.
At this she grew angry. “I worship nothing!” she cried. “I am most advanced . . . there is no such thing as religion left. All the fear and superstition that existed once have been destroyed by the machine.”
The story concludes with the Machine slowly but surely failing to work. One days it stops working altogether, and the people living in their “cubefarms” are forced into the outside world, where they die.
Forster wrote his story 11 decades ago. Yet it eerily predicts what seems to be happening in our society. We are controlled by our version of the Machine — the web of computer connections that pervade everything that we do — not just personal communications, but also the transportation of food and other essentials, the nature our medical treatments, and control of the drones that conduct our wars for us. Vashti and her “Friends” worshipped the Machine — we worship the concept of “Progress”.
(As an aside, it is for reasons such as this that I am uneasy about the introduction of computer technology into church services. It may eventually lead to our pastors and priests being replaced by robots — an idea that is not at all far-fetched.)
The following quotation is taken from the book at a time when the Machine is at the peak of its power — just before it slowly comes to a stop. The quotation describes two important issues: the flight from reality and the re-establishment of religion. The speaker is delivering what sounds eerily like a YouTube-style webinar to his “Friends”.
“Beware of first-hand ideas! . . . First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by life and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element – direct observation.
“there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”
Tremendous applause greeted this lecture, which did but voice a feeling already latent in the minds of men – a feeling that terrestrial facts must be ignored . . .
The second great development was the re-establishment of religion. This, too, had been voiced in the celebrated lecture. No one could mistake the reverent tone in which the peroration had concluded, and it awakened a responsive echo in the heart of each. Those who had long worshipped silently, now began to talk. They described the strange feeling of peace that came over them when they handled the Book of the Machine . . .
“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.” And before long this allocution was printed on the first page of the Book, and in subsequent editions the ritual swelled into a complicated system of praise and prayer.
The word “religion” was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man. But in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine.
Persecution – that also was present . . . all who did not accept the minimum known as “undenominational Mechanism” lived in danger of Homelessness, which means death.
To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name of progress. No one confessed that the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knew his own duties upon it, the less he understood the duties of his neighbor, and in all the world there was not one who understood the monster as a whole.
And to think that Forster wrote this novella 110 years ago. Wow.
One of the most important Christian documents to do with the Age of Limits is, in my opinion, Laudato Si’ (Praise be to You), written by Pope Francis I in the year 2015.
The following are the key points in the encyclical.
The science of climate change is clear.
Humans are the cause of climate change.
We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
It’s time for a change.
His message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.
Style of Language
The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.
Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”
This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports, which rarely — actually never — use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document. Francis is looking at the challenges we face in moral terms.
Francis tells us that it is not just that people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 he states,
These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.
In paragraph 229 we find the following,
We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.
Paragraph 102 reads,
Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. 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 challenge that Francis has set for himself, and for all of us, is to marry the advances and benefits of modern technology with the “awe-filled contemplation of creation which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi”.
In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,
You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.
You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.
The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. The atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted.
Brooks himself states,
The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).
Neither Brooks nor Pope Francis tackle the physical limits that are the theme of this series of posts. Neither seems to be willing to accept that our standard of living is likely to decline. Brooks says,
The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.
Although I believe that Laudato Si’ is a vitally important statement of Christian faith, there are two areas of concern. They are population pressure and the concept of “sustainable development”.
For many, the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.
The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”
The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.
The Second Law
Although I have great admiration for Francis’s message, there is one aspect of the document that bothers me greatly, and that is the sub-title of the document, On the environment and sustainable development.
What is meant by the term “sustainable development”? If Francis is referring to spiritual and moral development then I am hugely supportive. But if he believes that we can continue with our material “development” in an Age of Limits then the holy father needs to brush up on the second law of thermodynamics.