Pope Francis is one of the world’s most inspiring figures. There are passages in his new encyclical on the environment that beautifully place human beings within the seamless garment of life. And yet overall the encyclical is surprisingly disappointing.
Legitimate warnings about the perils of global warming morph into 1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization. There are too many overdrawn statements like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony, and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.
The pope has a section on work in the encyclical. The section’s heroes are St. Francis of Assisi and monks — emblems of selfless love who seek to return, the pope says, to a state of “original innocence.”
He is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.
Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest. But Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world. He neglects the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good. Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness.
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.
A few years ago, a team of researchers led by Daniel Esty of Yale looked at the environmental health of 150 countries. 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).
You would never suspect, from this encyclical, that over the last decade, one of the most castigated industries has, ironically, produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains. I’m talking, of course, about fracking.
There was recently a vogue for polemical antifracking documentaries like “Gasland” that purport to show that fracking is causing flammable tap water and other horrors.
But a recent Environmental Protection Agency study found that there was no evidence that fracking was causing widespread harm to the nation’s water supply. On the contrary, there’s some evidence that fracking is a net environmental plus.
That’s because cheap natural gas from fracking displaces coal. A study by the Breakthrough Institute found coal-powered electricity declined to 37 percent from 50 percent of the generation mix between 2007 and 2012. Because natural gas has just half as much global-warming potential as coal, energy-related carbon emissions have declined more in the U.S. than in any other country over that time.
Fracking has also been an enormous boon to the nation’s wealth and the well-being of its people. In a new report called “America’s Unconventional Energy Opportunity,” Michael E. Porter, David S. Gee and Gregory J. Pope conclude that gas and oil resources extracted through fracking have already added more than $430 billion to annual gross domestic product and supported more than 2.7 million jobs that pay, on average, twice the median U.S. salary.
Pope Francis is a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person. But if we had followed his line of analysis, neither the Asian economic miracle nor the technology-based American energy revolution would have happened. There’d be no awareness that though industrialization can lead to catastrophic pollution in the short term (China), over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress, growth and regulated affluence.
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.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.