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Pope Francis And Impending Environmental Doom?

So now we know for certain: Pope Francis will deliver his long-awaited and much-ballyhooed encyclical on man and the environment – or climate change, if you prefer – in just over a week.  Environmentalists and political liberals are practically giddy.  Political conservatives are sullen, dejected, even angry.  Last week, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told the Pope, in essence, to butt out of it.  “We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists,” the former Pennsylvania Senator chided, “and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.”

Truth be told, I sympathize with Santorum and the rest of the American conservatives who worry about the Pope getting involved in the climate change debate.  Contra Santorum, however, it’s not the Pope’s involvement in science that worries me, but rather his involvement in politics, since the climate change debate as we know it is far more political than scientific.  To date, Pope Francis has toed the line between politics and religion quite adroitly.  But climate change – the environment, whatever – represents his greatest challenge yet.  Whether he’ll be able to maintain his balance remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, I think that perhaps those conservatives who are dreading the Pope’s encyclical should take a couple of deep breaths and relax for a moment.  It is possible that the Pope will make a political statement, joining the global environmental movement in urging “drastic action” to stave off imminent doom.  But it is far more likely that he will offer a genuinely-unique and perhaps transformative perspective on environmental issues, and climate change in particular.  Indeed, a Catholic perspective on the environment can’t help but be different – radically different – from the current, mainstream environmental perspective.  For this reason, I think the Pope’s climate change pronouncement will be a grave disappointment to the Greens, a relief to conservatives, and an important starting point for an honest and less-politicized conversation on man, his environment, and the coexistence of the two.

It is important to remember in this context that the contemporary environmental movement is, in many ways, in direct conflict with Christianity and with Christian principles.  The old conservationist movement – as embodied in the work of John Muir and the politics of Teddy Roosevelt – was dedicated to preserving nature, “conserving” the environment, and caring for the earth, all in the hope of utilizing the natural world for man’s pleasure.   The environment was man’s domain.  It was his responsibility – not for nature’s sake, mind you, but for his own.  That old conservationist movement is also, as it turns out, long dead.

What we know today as the “environmental movement” is profoundly different and thoroughly removed from the old conservationist undertaking.  Contemporary environmentalism views the environment not as part of man’s domain, to be used and enjoyed wisely and carefully, but as a separate entity altogether, detached from, and in direct conflict with, human beings.  The contemporary environmental movement, which has its roots in Rachel Carson’s scientifically-questionable Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s ridiculous book The Population Bomb, is premised on the notion that man is the enemy of the environment.  Man is the cause of all that ills the natural world, and thus man must be changed – “fixed” – to permit him to exist more peacefully and responsibly with his surroundings.

The late Edward “Teddy” Goldsmith, the founder of The Ecologist and one of the environmental movement’s most influential early voices, used his magazine’s inaugural editorial to describe human activity as “parasitical,” and human beings as a “disease” of the planet.  He also divided the world’s human-related development into three epochs: pre-agricultural, pre-industrial and post-industrial, the last of which he described as riddled with the “swarming masses” of humanity.  Specifically, he put it as follows:

The second event that disturbed our biosphere was more serious.  Man learned to harness the energy of fossil-fuels locked up within the earth’s crust.  He built machines driven by this energy, and industry was born.

The results were cataclysmic.  The population of the world at the end of the 18th century was probably about 800 million and it had taken at least a million years to achieve.  100 years later it had risen by another 800 million.   Forty years then sufficed for a further such increase, while today it will take eight years to add that many people to our congested planet.

Dr. Aubrey Manning in No Standing Room points to the intolerable consequences of this population explosion.  That it is incompatible with the survival of civilized man is beyond doubt; that it might, if unchecked, lead to his extinction is not far-fetched.

In this manifesto, you have all of the hallmarks of both the environmental movement and the fight against climate change:  the malevolent influence of fossil fuels, the wickedness of “industry,” the plague of man, and the dangers of overpopulation.

What you also have, of course, is a direct attack on the values of Christianity, on the very Good News of Christ and his Church.  Whereas the environmental movement places man in the heart of evil and insists that he, and he alone, is responsible for despoiling creation, the Church places man at the pinnacle of that creation, proclaiming that man was created in God’s image and thus has God’s life uniquely and undeniably within him.  Or, as Pope John Paul II put it in the introduction to his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

The Church knows that this Gospel of life, which she has received from her Lord, has a profound and persuasive echo in the heart of every person-believer and non-believer alike-because it marvelously fulfils all the heart’s expectations while infinitely surpassing them.  Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.  Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded.

In a special way, believers in Christ must defend and promote this right, aware as they are of the wonderful truth recalled by the Second Vatican Council: “By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being.”  This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16), but also the incomparable value of every human person.

All of this presents both a conundrum and an incredible opportunity for Pope Francis, who, in February, clearly placed himself within the Catholic tradition regarding man’s role and outside of environmentalism’s antipathy to man and his role in creation.  “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the Holy Father declared.  “The choice to not have children is selfish.  Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”  In terms of environmental studies and the function of man, this very statement places the pontiff in the camp of, say, Julian Simon, as opposed to the aforementioned Paul Ehrlich.  Like Simon, the Pope – and Catholic teaching more broadly – sees man as a force for good, as the means by which life and creation are “enriched.”

How the Pope will reconcile this conception of humankind with the contemporary environmental movement and its belief in the sin of “anthropogenic climate change,” remains to be seen.  It strikes me as highly unlikely – absurdly unlikely, in fact – that the Pope will sign on to the environmental consensus and thereby confirm Rick Santorum’s worst fears.  This consensus is, after all, inimical to the Pope’s most sacred beliefs.

This suggests, to me at least, that the Pope will have to blaze a new path in contemporary environmentalism.  He will, almost certainly, have to settle on the advocacy of “stewardship” and collaboration, rather than the prevailing antagonism to man, to economic and technological progress, and to the charge to “be fruitful and multiply.”

In short, Pope Francis has the opportunity to advocate an environmentalism dedicated to preserving nature, “conserving” the environment, and caring for the earth, all in the hope of utilizing the natural world for God’s utmost creation.  To do so will undoubtedly frustrate those in the environmental movement who have forgotten the original goal of conservationism.  But to do otherwise, would place the Pope’s appeal beyond the bounds of his mission.  And conservatives should rest assured: whatever else he may do, he won’t do that.