Rules Are for Schmucks: The Pope vs. Air Conditioning – Part 1

Despite my quite biased view, I show more respect for Pope Francis than a lot of liberal politicians and other talking heads who’ve fallen all over themselves in praise of his Laudato Si’ environmental encyclical (without bothering to actually read it). It seems to me that since the guy went to a lot of effort to put this thing together and promote it, true respect is shown by considering carefully what he actually said. Which I did.

So I can say, with all respect, that his encyclical is a travesty and ought to be completely ignored.

For starters, the pope’s masterpiece deliberately discounts by far the biggest root cause of the entire environmental problem: our planet’s skyrocketing population. I can remember a Weekly Reader article when I was in grade school, marveling that the earth’s population had just passed the three billion level. Well, we blew by seven billion a few years ago, and we’re steaming straight ahead toward eight.

When the pope complains that “the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish,” he’s right—but that’s because there are so many more people now. More people means more trash, more air pollution, more water pollution, and more greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a complicated equation. But it’s too complicated for him.

Instead, he dismisses the data with a simple “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” He supports this with the astonishing assertion that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” What authority does he cite for this stunning scientific conclusion? Why, none other than the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which couldn’t possibly be wrong.

The reason for this blind spot, of course, is that the church for over a century has forbidden nearly all forms of population growth limitation for its own economic aggrandizement. Francis himself blasts women who choose not to bear children as “selfish,” and one Italian church is now offering cash rewards for women who produce large families. He’s not about to retreat on any of that now. It’s almost comical when he complains that “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” He should know!

After deriding the single biggest cause of our environmental problems, the pope then proceeds to scorn the best methods humanity has for dealing with them: technology and economics. “Technology,” according to the pope, “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.” He heaps scorn on “blind confidence in technical solutions,” and complains that “the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”

It’s true that humans using reason and the scientific method don’t get everything right the first time. We’re not that smart. So we keep trying. But reason and experimentation reveal the “network of relations between things” a whole lot better than any supernatural mumbo-jumbo and certainly better than any insights served up in Laudato Si’. His warning against the evil of “our presuming to take the place of God” is virtually word-for-word repetition of the church’s centuries-long opposition to scientific medicine, including breakthroughs like the vaccine that eradicated smallpox.

“The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place,” insists the pope, “putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” And he, of course, is the mouthpiece through which the Father tells us what to do. I absolutely want human beings to impose their own laws and interests on reality—in as well-informed and wise a way as we can muster.

The pope’s disrespect for technology, though, is dwarfed by his contempt for the science of economics. In fact, most environmental problems are economic problems. We know how to clean up almost any mess or better yet how to avoid making messes in the first place. What we don’t know is how to pay for it—how to produce goods and services in clean ways that are cost-competitive with the dirty ways.

Economists tell us that if you want more of something, you subsidize it, and if you want less of something, you tax it. This works—even the tax on cigarettes has proven to be effective in reducing smoking, a physical addiction. Back in 1993, President Bill Clinton proposed a BTU tax that would have changed cost structures in a way that almost certainly would have resulted in a cleaner environment by now and smaller deficits as well. At a time of relatively low energy prices and still-soaring deficits, new focus on a BTU tax might be a good idea. The pope’s view? In his entire 37,000 word piece, the word “tax” does not appear, even once.

In fact, the pope goes out of his way to explicitly condemn the disguised emission tax known as the “cap and trade” system. This system has been proven to work in the arena of contaminants producing acid rain, and if more widely implemented on an international level appears to be our best hope for reducing carbon emissions. It’s hard enough already to get the international agreement necessary to implement an effective cap and trade system without the pope undermining it.

Though it has nothing to do with his subject, the pope also takes the opportunity to bash the Internet: “[T]he great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” This is a recurring theme in his pronouncements— people should listen only to the authoritative voice (his) and not confuse themselves in the marketplace of ideas. Do liberals really want to associate themselves with this?

If the pope doesn’t want us to rely on technology or economics to address the problem, what does he want us to do? And what does that have to do with air conditioning? You can read the encyclical yourself, or you can wait until next week for Part 2.