Pope Francis on the Environment: Part Five


101. “It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms without acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis.”


102. “Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?” Technology and scientific advancements offer great benefits to humanity.

103. “Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, bridges, buildings and public spaces.”

104. “Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.” Technology gives us power, and that power can and has been misused.

105. “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” Secular society has no means for setting reasonable limits on the use and development of technology: “we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”


106. “This has made it 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.”

Some commentators are complaining about the above-quoted text, saying that they do not assume infinite resources or unlimited growth. See Tim Worstall’s article in Forbes magazine here.

But, as I understand the Pope’s words, he is not saying that economists literally believe in infinite resources or unlimited economic growth. Rather, people and institutions behave as if resources were infinite or economic growth has no limits. For example, the world is currently taking far more water from underground aquifers than can be replenished by precipitation [Article].

Later, the Pope makes this kind of point: “They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds….” (n. 109).

107. “technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.”

For example, the increasing use of social media has effects on relationships, on work, and on culture. Say the (supposedly) wrong thing, and if it “goes viral” on social media, you might be the object of hatred or ridicule by thousands of persons. In another example, the decisions made by a few large technology companies (cable TV companies, Google, Apple, etc.) can suddenly effect millions of persons. And these companies do not make decisions based on ethics or social responsibility. They are seeking commercial success, money, and power.

108. “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.”

109. “We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.”

“Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth.”

I’ve studied the problem of world hunger extensively, and have written a book on the subject (Hunger Math). I agree with Pope Francis that market growth and capitalism will never solve world hunger. It’s also foolish to think that technology will solve a problem like world hunger. World hunger is caused by selfishness, greed, and by the very fact that the world agricultural system is primarily commercial in nature.

110. “The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture.” — especially the problems of the poor and the environment.

I will add that moral problems are even more strongly affected by this trend of technology and the specialization of knowledge. Scientists think that ethics is not their concern; that is a separate area of specialization. Economists take much the same attitude, sometimes equating law with ethics; it’s legal so it seem ethical to them. Ethics is not integrated into every field of knowledge and endeavor, as it ought to be. As a result, if something is technologically possible, there would seem to be no ethical limitations or considerations.

111. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.”

What does Pope Francis mean by the “technocratic paradigm”? It is the use of technology as the primary means to conduct one’s life, to understand issues, and to solve problems. Technology becomes the de facto leader of society, rather than faith and reason, rather than the Church and a democratic society. Whatever is an advance in technology is treated as a necessary path to take, without any consideration of morality or possible harm to the environment or society.

112. “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.” Technology can be used as a tool for living an ethical life, with love for God and neighbor, and with respect for all creation.

113. “There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction.”

114. “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

115. “When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves”

116. “Instead, our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”

117. “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.”

118. “This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings.”

The mental illness called schizophrenia is commonly misunderstood as if it were a dual personality. The Pope uses this idea of a dual personality to characterize society’s opposing errors. At one extreme, technology treats animals and nature as mere objects to be manipulated without any limits, for the benefit of humanity. At the other extreme, another point of view treats human persons as if they had no special value, as if the needs of humanity must be subjugated to the good of preserving nature.

Pope Francis also rejects an idea where “the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism”. So his view implies that humanity was not created merely by a chance of evolutionary forces; God must have intervened to create us. It also implies that we are not controlled by our biology; reason and free will allow us to transcend mere physical determinism.

119. “If the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity, we cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.”

This encyclical is a strong rebuke to the political left, more so than to the political right. The left exalts environment issues above the needs of humanity, ignoring the needs of the poor. We cannot heal nature without healing humanity, and humanity’s relationship with God.

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God.”

120. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” Again, the Pope is correcting a common error on the political left: they favor protection for nature, but they justify abortion.

121. “Christianity, in fidelity to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ, continues to reflect on these issues in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations.”

Practical relativism

122. Here the Pope decries “the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests.” So true, so very true.

123. “The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.”

Is Laudato Si’ an encyclical on the environment? Yes, but it is much more. The encyclical integrates morality and the love of neighbor and concern for those in need with concern for the environment. The selfishness that leads to harming nature also leads us to harm one another.

The above-quoted paragraph rebukes the political right for claiming that unthinking market forces and technology will solve all our problems. And it rebukes the political left for caring more about the environment than about grave harm to human persons. The best papal encyclicals tend to be the least popular ones.

The need to protect employment

124. “Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour” Here the Pontiff continues a point mentioned earlier, that man must not only “keep” (preserve) nature, he must also “till” nature, meaning work the land, reshaping it (to some extent) for human uses.

Again, the Pope is rebuking the left for spurning and opposing all development projects, as if the world would be a better place if humanity did nothing with nature but leave it untouched.

125. “Underlying every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves.” How does our work affect other human persons as well as the environment?

126. “Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work.”

127. “Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.” This is an example of the integral ecology that Pope Francis proposes: combining love of God, love of neighbor and self, and respect for nature.

128. “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”

Certainly, sometimes we must simply give persons what they need, especially when the need is dire, such as during a famine. But overall, we must help the poor to find work that is meaningful and useful.

Why does the political right despise this encyclical? The Pontiff repeatedly corrects the left on various points, including their tendency to give money or goods to people in need, rather than to help them obtain “a dignified life through work”.

129. “In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity.” Here, the Pope favors a view that is right-of-center, rather than left. But he also cautions against some of the common errors on the economic and political right:

“To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.” In other words, the “free market” must not be entirely free from regulation and other prudent limitations. Economic might does not make right.

I will offer a mild correction for one particular point within this paragraph. The Pontiff says: “For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops.”

In my research for my book, Hunger Math, I found: “There are about 400 to 500 million small farms of about 2 hectares (5 acres) or less in the world; the average small farm size is 1.5 hectares.” So the Pope is right; a large portion of the food produced in and for the developing world is from small-scale manual labor agriculture. However, most of the food produced for the world population is from large-scale mechanized agriculture.

More importantly, there are serious limits to what agriculture can produce on a small scale. Most developing world crop yields are much lower, one half to one fourth the total yield, than in the developed world. The use of commercial fertilizers, irrigation, and large-scale planting and harvesting machinery provides much higher yields. Also, small farms necessitate the use of manual labor for many tasks. Automating those tasks with machinery requires an economy of scale. In order to end world hunger, we need to increase crop yields in the developing world. This necessitates a move toward commercial mechanized agriculture.

A nation producing most food from manual labor agriculture will have lower yields, and also too high a proportion of workers in the agricultural sector of the economy. This limits the diversity of jobs available, and makes it hard for workers to find work if they are not very physically fit. A move to larger-scale mechanized commercial agriculture has some disadvantages, but it is also absolutely essential to end world hunger.

As for hunting and gathering, a population needs 50 to 200 hectares per person to subsist on this type of food production. It is no longer a viable primary means to feed the human race. Our large numbers require use to use efficient large scale agriculture for most of our food production.

— More on the topic in future posts —

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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