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The Pope's Encyclical on The Environment. Moving, Naive, And Unlikely to Change Much
Pope Francis's moving plea to save life on Earth from a dystopian future calls on people to sacrifice some material comfort, live more modestly, and recognize that we share a common home and have a responsibility to the future. Given the nature of the human instinct to survive and prioritize ourselves over others and the immediate over the future ... good luck with that, your Holiness.
The range of what has been written about Pope Francis’ Encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” speaks to how many issues the 184-page document touches on.
Conservative voices like the Heartland Institute and National Review detest the pope’s attack on free market capitalism when he complains that;
“Economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.”
Economists decry the pope’s rejection of market mechanisms as tools;
"The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.”
Ecomodernists, who argue that technology, if "applied with wisdom," can provide a good, even great future for life on earth, criticize the pope’s views on progress and technology;
"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."
(A Pope Against Progress by Mark Lynas, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger)
Classical environmentalists who predict a dystopian future love the pope’s attack on how human activity is destroying the natural world.
“Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”
(The Cry of the Earth by Bill McKibben)
Some Republican presidential candidates, many of whom in the name of Catholic teaching favor absolute restrictions on abortion, are telling the pope to butt out of the climate change issue because they say that issue is political.
(Mr. Santorum may not have been aware that the pope was trained as a chemist.)
And the climate deniers, growing ever more shrill as the evidence of climate change persuades more and more people, do themselves no favor by calling Francis “The Red Pope” and likening him to Mao Zedong for the pope’s plea for more modest consumption;
"Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it."
But these are only the predictable responses from those who see the Encyclical from their own perspectives and through the lenses of their own single issues. The pope reflects on many other topics in the document’s 184 pages, and his letter not only to Catholics, but also to the world deserves wider attention and richer reflection.
I’ll offer some additional reflections in a later essay (The Pope on Technology and Progress), but the main message I take from a close read is that the Encyclical, while moving, is piously naïve and unlikely to have much impact after the flutter of news coverage and commentaries dies down.
- - - - -
Consider the organizing theme around which the pope builds his entire case, that we share a "common home", an idea that he invokes in the very title of the document and comes back to again and again;
I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.
Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the Earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.
It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.
Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.
This is a dangerously flawed foundation on which to rest his case, for it ignores the inescapable truth that humans don’t think or act that way. We don’t "think globally." We don’t care about others as much as we care about ourselves. We don’t care about the future as much as we care about the here-and-now. Humans may have the gift of reason, but mostly we are still animals and our behaviors are principally compelled by deeply ingrained biological instincts, the most powerful of which is the instinct for personal survival.
This is not immoral, or selfish, or irrational. It is simply intrinsic biological reality, as decades of research from diverse fields has made clear. Indeed throughout the Encyclical the pope himself cites evidence that the idea of a common home and a shared “inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” appealing as those ideas may be spiritually, fly in the face of how we actually live our lives.
Francis cites Saint John Paul II, who
... warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.
Pope Francis acknowledges that;
... our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interest ...
... many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification.
And there is this insightful passage, which in the pope’s own words, directly challenges his faith that we can somehow rise above our instincts and act in the interest of the Common Home;
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness.” When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own, and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs.
The pope repeatedly observes these self-centered characteristics of human nature, not to accept, but to chastise them. But he cites so much evidence that we are "self-centred and self-enclosed" that it seems naïve for him to believe that simply by calling on us to dramatically change how we live our lives, by proposing that the solution is to reject “the culture of consumerism,” and make “... profound changes in lifestyles, models of production, and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies," that his moral call can trump all the instincts that make us the selfish short-sighted creatures that we are.
It is also more than a bit sanctimonious for the pope to repeatedly invoke his undoubtedly sincere concern for the poor, but at the same time to call on the world’s impoverished to "think globally." If there are any people less able to put the greater common good and future generations ahead of themselves, it is the hundreds of millions of people desperate for food or water or shelter or safety from attack, people who literally struggle to stay alive from hour to hour and day to day.
It is also intellectually inconsistent, as many have observed, to blame human behavior for the dystopic future the pope foresees, and fail to acknowledge the role that Catholic opposition to birth control has had in the explosion of humans on the Earth contributing to that damage.
In the end, Pope Francis’ plea on behalf of life on Earth boils down to the same belief preached for centuries by the Catholic Church and most faiths (which is why other faiths are responding so positively); that we should live more modestly and care more about other beings, human and non-human. But sadly, while faith that morality can trump our animal instincts is understandable for a religious leader, it’s naïve. The core message of the Encyclical denies the truth of the instincts that really motivate most human behavior. Which is why it will probably end up as another moving document pleading with us to change our ways, that doesn’t cause much to change at all.
(In the next essay, a review of the pope on progress and technology.)
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.