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Pope Francis and David Brooks

Our blog’s equation, “Too many people consuming too much equals environmental degradation,” has two causal parts: people and their consumption. Pope Francis’ 200-page encyclical, Laudato Si dated May 24, 2015, lays out facts which detail extensive damages human actives have inflicted on the earth’s natural systems, particularly in the last 200 years. The litany is familiar: global warming from industry’s generation of greenhouse gases, deforestation, acidification of the oceans, and so forth. As a man of religion, the Pope sees those damages in moral and spiritual terms: humans have overreached and have not been good stewards of God’s gifts to us, and that is sin. He’s very strong on the second part of our blog’s equation, excessive consumption.

On the first part, too many people, the Church has a long history opposing measures, such as birth control and abortion, which if widely implemented might reduce our numbers or at least slow rates of growth. Pope Francis acknowledges that Earth is a finite system where unending, unlimited growth is not realistic, but his encyclical stops well short of suggesting that human numbers are the problem. Instead he focuses on consumption inequalities between poor people in most of the world and much higher per capita use of natural resources in rich, more economically-developed, societies. He puts much of the blame for the fact that, in his judgment “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” on capitalism and a market system which treats financial profits as the sole or primary purpose of corporate economic activity. He regrets that the world’s economies largely ignore what are termed “diseconomies” while managers single-minded focus on profitable production, production that inevitably creates diseconomies such as air, water and land pollution. Those damages to public goods are not adequately accounted for in our free market; they should be treated as part of a manufacturer’s own costs of the goods and services he produces rather that passed being along silently into everyone’s natural environment. Given Pope Francis’ belief system, I believe he had to ignore human numbers, which have increased about eight-fold since 1800, a stunning growth rate which is an obvious cause of continuing, unsustainable stresses on some natural systems. He did the best he could.

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a prominent cheerleader for the American way of production, consumption and of free markets with minimum restrictions. His June 23, 2015 Op-Ed column, “Fracking and the Franciscans: What Pope Francis misses,” rejects, just as Brooks’ position as a conservative columnist demands, both the population and consumption concerns expressed in this blog. Relentlessly positive, he writes of “fracking,” mining of natural gas through injection of chemical-laced water under high pressure into deep underground rock formations, as having been “an enormous boon to the nation’s wealth and the well-being of its people.” He notes that that natural gas, chiefly methane or CH4, when burned as fuel, produces only half as much global-warming gases as coal burned to power electricity generation. Conveniently he ignores the fact that a unit of CH4, when released unburned into our air, has about 20 times the global warming effect as an equal amount of carbon dioxide or CO2, the primary greenhouse gas. Estimates vary, but some two to four percent of natural gas is lost to the atmosphere in mining, collection and consumption without being burned. And of course the natural gas which is burned produces carbon dioxide waste, whose increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution in about 1750 has been a primary cause of Earth’s temperature increasing by about 1.5 degrees F. Net-net, the global-warming costs of powering our washing machines with natural gas are probably about the same as powering them by burning dirty coal. Again, given his cheerleader position for the American way, I believe Brooks had to praise fracking as an answer to any climate change issues.

Pope Francis, and his powerful Church team, have made a magnificent contribution to the ongoing dialogue about climate change – its reality, its causes, and its possible remediation by worldwide and coordinated moral, political, economic and social actions. Climate-change deniers, particularly those of us who are wealthy and benefit most economically from existing production and consumption patterns, may reject and ignore the Pope’s book as an unnecessary and radical critique of the world’s economy. Still, the pope’s moral authority and his articulation of climate-change facts, which have been apparent to anyone who bothered to look honestly for many years, should move the needle a little towards the difficult, and perhaps painful, actions that are the right thing to do for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. And in any event Mother Nature will always be there to make the changes she deems necessary.


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