On the Encyclical “Laudato Si” by Pope Francis

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Written originally for Poverty Cure by Carroll Ríos | June 17, 2015 (a day before of the release)

The Vatican will soon release a new encyclical on environmental issues authored by Pope Francis, “Laudato Si”. Much of the expectation in the press centers on global warming: will the Pope side with those who believe climate change is largely man-made, or will he side with the deniers?

Can or should Pope Francis take sides? Pope Francis cannot truthfully claim that all empirical evidence is in and the debate is sealed, one way or the other. On this or any other temporal issue. He cannot say there is only one known or discoverable solution to each environmental problem. As his predecessors have done, he will most likely remind us “the Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.” She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 9) It is up to lay Catholics to ponder conscientiously on these topics, illuminated by the principles that ground magisterial teachings.

Affirming the sanctity of human life is a crucial Christian contribution to environmental debates. The Catholic Church has always championed the “culture of life”, to borrow a phrase popularized by Saint John Paul II. No human being brought into the world is expendable or rejected by God: we are all created in His image and likeness, and he loves us. Thus, the protection and conservation of natural resources cannot be achieved through population control policies.

In contrast, the environmental movement has long touted the overpopulation myth and viewed human reproduction suspiciously. The underlying premise is that people leave a damaging and permanent footprint on nature. All human acts produce externalities, according to this worldview. We emit more carbon dioxide than oxygen when we breathe, we generate sound pollution when we speak, and we ruin everything we touch. We are depicted as the most predatory species on the planet, as insatiable consumers of both flora and fauna.

Concern for the environment has long been part of the overpopulation discourse. Even before Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay on the principle of population in 1798, people feared that terrible calamities would ensue if we produced foods in insufficient quantities to feed a growing population. In the 20th Century, authors like Harrison Brown, Garrett Hardin, John Paul Holdren and Paul and Anne Ehrlich rekindled such fears.

For instance, in Challenge of Man’s Future (1954), Harrison Brown, a geochemist (and not a demographer), wrote: “Is there anything that can be done to prevent the long-range degeneration of human stock? Unfortunately, at the present time there is little, other than to prevent breeding in persons who present glaring deficiencies clearly dangerous to society and which are known to be of a hereditary nature. Thus we could sterilize or in other ways discourage the mating of the feeble-minded. We could go further and systematically attempt to prune from society, by prohibiting them from breeding, persons suffering from serious inheritable forms of physical defects, such as congenital deafness, dumbness, blindness, or absence of limbs.” More recently, Paul Ehrlich likened human babies to garbage in a New York Times interview: “The idea that every woman should have as many babies as she wants is, to me, exactly the same kind of idea as everybody ought to be permitted to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.” This appalling mindset has spawned unnatural initiatives, such as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, whose members chose not to breed and live by the motto “May we live long and die out.”

Pope Francis is acutely aware of the new demographic trends. Instead of facing overpopulation, we confront an unprecedented demographic winter produced by fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Western societies are aging rapidly. In just a few years, there will be more people over 65 than newborn babies.

In the developing world, fertility rates are slightly higher than in developed countries, but also falling dramatically. We will not rid ourselves of poverty by eliminating the poor. And regardless of the socio-economic status of people, the Catholic Church could never sanction abortion and artificial contraception, euthanasia, eugenics, involuntary and voluntary sterilization, designed famines or any other unethical method associated with the culture of death.

I hope the encyclical Laudate Si reminds us that human beings are not a curse for Planet Earth. We can be responsible stewards of the environment. As creative, innovative and rational beings, we can come up with constructive ways to use natural resources sustainably while combating poverty. Acting voluntarily, within a framework of clearly assigned rights, private citizens can come up with varied and efficient answers. Marshaling coercive powers to curtail individual freedoms can often be counterproductive because it crowds out diversity. The late Nobel Prize winner, Elinor Ostrom, favored a polycentric rather than a top-down and authoritarian model for this reason. Passing laws and centralizing decision making powers within closed governmental structures can lead to expensive or mistaken strategies, to the point where the only line of attack allowed and pursued by the State may conceivably make matters worse.

The Catholic Church has always preached the universal destiny of created goods. God trusts humans to administer scarce natural resources for the benefit of all mankind. We legitimately enjoy the fruits of our labor, which transforms existing resources into useful and valuable goods and services. Perhaps this encyclical will prod us to further explore the social, economic and political institutions, such as private property rights and enforceable contracts, most compatible with an efficient and sustainable administration of the created world.

Carroll Ríos de Rodríguez es miembro de la Junta de Directores de Rana. Economista y profesora de análisis económico de las decisiones públicas. Columnista de revista Contra Poder y miembro del Consejo Directivo del CEES.