The Planetary-Argentine Pope and the Climate-Change Fanboy
Religion & Liberty Online

The Planetary-Argentine Pope and the Climate-Change Fanboy

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben

The minute it was announced – months in advance of its official release –Laudato Si was instantly “highly anticipated” by nearly every opinion and news source. Finally a Christian document the masses could support because … why, exactly? Oh, yeah, global warming and a call for global government control of energy and, therefore, the world’s economies.

So, it comes as no surprise climate-change activist would weigh-in on Laudato Si, a document released in mid-June and one he identifies, naturally, as “eagerly awaited.” In his New York Review of Books essay (behind a pay wall) on the encyclical, McKibben comes up short on theology and economics but long on repeating dire predictions our planet will succumb to any number of catastrophes wrought by human activity.

The Pope is a rock star, in today’s parlance, and McKibben shouts from the mosh pit in breathless fanboy hyperbole:

The pope’s contribution to the climate debate builds on the words of his predecessors—in the first few pages he quotes from John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—but clearly for those prelates ecological questions were secondary. He also cites the pathbreaking work of Bartholomew, the Orthodox leader sometimes called the “green patriarch”; others, from the Dalai Lama to Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, have spoken eloquently on this issue as well. Still, Francis’s words fall as a rock in this pond, not a pebble; they help greatly to consolidate the current momentum toward some kind of agreement at the global climate conference in Paris in December. He has, in effect, said that all people of good conscience need to do as he has done and give the question the priority it requires. The power of celebrity is the power to set the agenda, and his timing has been impeccable. On those grounds alone, Laudato Si’ stands as one of the most influential documents of recent times.

Got it? The Pope’s a celebrity, don’t you know, and the latest in a long line of celebrities to “set the agenda” for us nobodies, McKibben tells us. This sounds like some Academy Awards pitch that would finally put all the actors who portrayed James Bond on the same stage (or Doctor Who maybe). Not only is Pope Francis a celebrity, by golly, his superhuman strength seems to arrive with impeccable timing to forestall the fossil fueled apocalypse. However McKibben may depict Laudato Si “as one of the most influential documents of recent times,” he never fully makes the case:

From his seat in Rome he addresses the developed world, much of which descended from the Christendom he represents; but from his Argentine roots he speaks to the developing world, and with firsthand knowledge of the poverty that is the fate of most on our planet.

So no one could have considered more usefully the first truly planetary question we’ve ever faced: the rapid heating of the earth from the consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. But national political leaders, beholden to the fossil fuel industry, have been timid at best—Barack Obama, for instance, barely mentioned the question during the 2012 election campaign.

“Firsthand knowledge of the poverty that is the fate of most of our planet”? Did he really write that? Nothing could be more preposterous – as shown in Hans Rosling’s video at the bottom of the post here. It bears repeating that the World Bank reports that the number of individuals living in extreme poverty has been halved since 1990. Setting aside how much better off the world is now because of economic growth, open markets and technological innovations, it’s possible to discern what’s really at work in McKibben’s view.

“[N]o one could have considered more usefully.” Usefully? For whom? Certainly, Laudato Si may be perceived in utilitarian terms as useful for McKibben’s crusade, but what of the world’s poorest as well as the continued health and wealth of the developed world? Pay no heed, sayeth McKibben, and focus instead here:

 And on those narrow grounds, Laudato Si’ does not disappoint. It does indeed accomplish all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: insist that climate change is the fault of man; call for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and remind us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor. (It also does Americans the service of putting climate-denier politicians—a fairly rare species in the rest of the world—in a difficult place. Jeb Bush, for example, was reduced to saying that in the case of climate the pope should butt out, leaving the issue to politicians. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people,” he said, in words that may come back to haunt him.)

It is, therefore, remarkable to actually read the whole document and realize that it is far more important even than that. In fact, it is entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary. In scope and tone it reminded me instantly of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), and of the essays of the great American writer Wendell Berry. As with those writers, it’s no use trying to categorize the text as liberal or conservative; there’s some of each, but it goes far deeper than our political labels allow. It’s both caustic and tender, and it should unsettle every nonpoor reader who opens its pages.

It might unsettle “nonpoor” readers, which I suppose is the intent, but – again, because both McKibben and Pope Francis get the economics wrong – it shouldn’t. As much as I admire the fiction and poetry of Wendell Berry, his portrayal of agrarian utopias are also significantly short of the mark. The theories of E.F. Schumacher, much like Thomas Malthus and Paul R. Ehrlich, have been discredited empirically as a model for global living. Yet McKibben, following his previous work, Schumacher, Berry and quoting Pope Francis, continues:

In our world, however, “human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.” With the great power that technology has afforded us, it’s become easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.

The deterioration of the environment, he says, is just one sign of this “reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.” And though “the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm…is nowadays inconceivable,” the pope is determined to try exactly that, going beyond “urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution” to imagine a world where technology has been liberated to serve the poor, the rest of creation, and indeed the rest of us who pay our own price even amid our temporary prosperity. The present ecological crisis is “one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,” he says, dangerous to the dignity of us all.

Exaggerate much, McKibben? Seriously, Earth is “being squeezed dry beyond every limit”? Not really, and it should be noted humankind’s technological ingenuity is a gift from the Creator that has realized considerable economic, health and environmental improvements for the majority of humanity – and will continue to do so. MoreMcKibben:

Thus girded, the pope intervenes in a variety of contemporary debates. Automation versus work, for instance. As he notes, “the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological process in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines,” which is a sadness since “work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth.” The example he cites demonstrates the subtlety of his argument. Genetic modification of crops is a way, in a sense, to automate or rationalize farming. There’s no “conclusive proof” that GMOs may be harmful to our bodies; there’s extensive proof, however, that “following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners” who can afford the new technologies.

Ah ha! There we have it: GMOs aren’t harmful (ignoring, of course, McKibben’s scare quotes around “conclusive proof”), just distasteful for those who cling to Wendell Berry’s nineteenth-century agrarian nirvana. Who cares if food is produced plentifully and cheaply? What really matters is conforming to idealistic fantasies, which, if realized, would force millions of people back into starvation and poor health. Yet, McKibben persists:

Given that half the world still works as peasant farmers, this accelerates the exodus off the farm and into hovels at the margins of overcrowded cities; there is a need instead to “promote an economy which favours productive diversity,” including “small-scale food production systems…be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing.” (And lest anyone think this is a romantic prescription for starvation, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has in the last few years published one study after another showing that small farms in fact produce more calories per acre. Not per dollar invested—if you want to grow rich, you need a spread. But if you want to feed the world, clever peasant farming will be effective.)

Let’s hear it for peasant farmers! Walking barefoot behind a plow horse! Burning dried cow dung to heat unventilated but charming peasant domiciles! Because, it should go without saying, anyone leaving a farm environment inherently winds up living impoverished in some urban ghetto rather than becoming productive in some other skilled capacity. That type of patronizing, condescending attitude certainly wouldn’t have served your writer – a former farm boy – well in the slightest, nor any of my former classmates who either remained on family farms or moved on to other careers. But congratulations are extended to McKibben and Pope Francis for answering what was presumed a rhetorical musical question, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm” with the essentially ludicrous and extremely harmful coda: “Ban GMOs.” Because…rich people. Hoo boy.


Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.