I’m not a fan of the Catholic Church as an institution. I have a number of bones to pick with it right down to its core mythology. That said, I have a great deal of respect, and even admiration, for the incumbent Pope. To me, Papa Francesco is the real deal. So I shall dispense with the snarky tone I usually adopt for these screeds.

I recognize fully how difficult it is to quickly change the direction of such an old and change-resistant institution. Which is all the more reason I admire the Pope’s attempt to divert the emphasis from people’s sex lives to their plights, so often miserable. I have the feeling the attempt is not going to bear much fruit for a long time, if ever–it’s akin to trying to turn a battle ship on a dime–but you’ve just got to love him for trying.


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So I’ve been closely reading the recent encyclical, Laudato Si, and I find much to esteem and with which I can fully agree. I don’t know in what language it was drafted, but the English version is a great read. It is clear and at times lyrical, and always passionate. But it is also logical and well documented.

It is unfortunate that people like Rick Santorum, who could benefit mightily by coming to grips with what the Pope presents, reject it out of hand (without, I strongly suspect, reading it) as straying from a cleric’s proper role. Yet what can be a greater moral issue than the survival of humanity? To try and claim scientific findings have no impact on political, economic, and yes spiritual, concerns is stupid—ask the survivors of Hiroshima. Or more recently, Fukushima.

It is further unfortunate that discussion of the encyclical will apparently survive only a few news cycles. At this writing, it has already disappeared from the mainstream media. Instead, every interviewer should be regularly pushing it in the face of every presidential and congressional candidate.

So, on to the encyclical itself. The Pope touches on every major environmental and economic issue facing humanity today.

On pollution:

People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke  from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by  transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water,  fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked  to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves  incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others (Laudato Si, pp. 7,8)

cropped-hands-hold-up-the-world.jpgOn waste accumulation:

The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth . . . But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and  consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. (Ibid.)

On the human impact of environmental degradation:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the
growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded . . . Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to  be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change (Id at 8).

On exhaustion of resources:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. (Id pp 9, 10)

On the pervasiveness of psychological denial:

As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen. (Id at 17)

On economic inequality:

Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all.(Id. at 24)                    *

Certainly, we should be concerned lest other living beings be treated irresponsibly. But we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights. (Id at 27)

Indeed, I could quote almost the entire encyclical for its wisdom, insight, and prophetic, in the Old Testament sense, tone. It is, in a very good way, Papa Francesco’s Jeremiad.But, I am sorry to say, the encyclical incorporates one flaw, and it is, unfortunately a major one.

In terms of pressure on the environment, the Pope refuses to concede the crucial role of population. He even goes so far as to assert that continued population growth is compatible with a sustainable human economy.

The Pope is a trained chemist. He is acquainted with the mathematics of linear and exponential growth. So he must be aware that continual exponential growth in a finite world is an impossibility.

This point is illustrated by the example of a small reindeer herd introduced to St Matthew Island (a small island off the Alaskan coast) in 1944, initially as a potential food source for the crew manning a small Coast Guard installation. Shortly thereafter the installation was abandoned, and the reindeer were left on their own.

With plenty of forage, principally lichens, and no predators, the herd grew rapidly, reaching a peak population in 1963 of about 6,000 animals. But the animals had nearly exhausted the lichens, which were replaced by grasses and sedges, and that winter unusually heavy snows made the grass unattainable. Only 43 animals (one male) survived the winter. There are none on the island today.

There are many other examples of a population exploding and then crashing as resources are exhausted. For most species, the resources in question are renewable, and if population is kept in line with the rate of renewal, the species can persist indefinitely. This is known as “carrying capacity.” When a species exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, it is said to be in “overshoot” mode.

But left to their own devices, individual organisms will reproduce as quickly and numerously as they can, making resource exhaustion and population crash inevitable. In the wild, the major checks on population are predators, parasites, and disease. This interplay can allow a population to reach and maintain an uneasy equilibrium between its numbers and available resources.

The carrying capacity of the earth as a whole for humans is a matter of considerable controversy. But to give an idea of what is going on, During the 20th century alone, global population grew from 1.65 billion to 6 billion. http://www.worldometers.info/…. It now stands at over 7 billion.

Supporting even the present population, requires a massive dependence on fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, manufacture and operation of agricultural machinery, processing, and transportation. Fossil fuels are a dwindling, finite resource, and their use exacerbates atmospheric CO2 concentration and hence global warming. Digression: I do not propose to discuss these two issues—see peakoil.com and realclimate.org.

It thus appears humanity is already in overshoot mode, a fact which will become increasingly apparent in the foreseeable future. Tragically, a birth rate reduction by itself, no matter how desirable, is likely to redress the imbalance. Nature will undertake the task, and nature’s methods will be neither fair nor humane. I wish I could think of another option.

Accordingly, the failure of Laudato Si to deal realistically with the population problem is its Achilles heal. I understand that the Pope can’t change over a century of church teachings at a single blow. But I would hope to see some movement toward recognizing reality before it is too late.

Nevertheless, I recommend Laudato Si as a thoughtful, compassionate, and important document. It deserves to be taken seriously, and, more importantly, acted on.