Rules Are for Schmucks: The Pope vs. Air Conditioning – Part 2

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Last week, I pointed out how the Laudato Si’ environmental encyclical dismisses population growth as an underlying cause of environmental degradation while scorning technology and economics as appropriate solutions for it. So what does Pope Francis say we should do?

Here’s where the encyclical becomes not just illogical, but downright self-serving. He says we should all just consume less. He lauds “the great tradition of monasticism…a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.” He wants us all to become like monks and nuns—or at least to live like monks and nuns are supposed to live, not like the way many of them actually have lived over the history of the church.

For all but a handful of people, this just isn’t going to happen—any more than it’s going to happen with the (theoretical) sexual strictures on monks and nuns. The church hierarchy knows this and knows the guilt value of setting impossible standards. For centuries, the church kept people coming back by creating absurdly strict sexual rules. Almost no one could follow them, which kept lots and lots of people coming back for “forgiveness.” In recent decades, with the growth of technology and the spread of information (both of which the church loathes), this strategy has stopped working so well—hence the dramatic decline in Catholic strength in places affluent enough to send the church lots of money. What the pope is trying to do is create a new impossible standard—self-denial of consumer goods—to supplement the impossible standard of self-denial of sexual pleasure that worked so well for the church for so long.

One of the examples of “harmful habits of consumption” the pope singles out is “the increasing use and power of air conditioning.” He explains, “The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand.” This is absurd. “Markets” don’t stimulate demand for air conditioning, any more than they “stimulate demand” for sex. What stimulates demand for air conditioning is heat. We’d have exactly the same amount of air conditioning if all advertising for it were banned.

Unlike sexual activity, air conditioning is something we can measure and see. So here’s a simple challenge. The day the pope orders the removal of all air conditioning from Vatican City, demands that air conditioning be removed from all Catholic rectories, convents, churches, and schools around the world, and publicizes a blacklist of those institutions that fail to comply, I’ll stop calling him a hypocrite. Don’t hold your breath.

The humanist view of air conditioning is quite different. I want to be happy—that is the meaning and purpose of this life, the only one I’m going to get. This is hard for me to do in Washington in the summer without air conditioning, so I’m not ashamed to be all for it. At the same time, I understand that a key element of long-term happiness is living by the golden rule of treating others the way I wish to be treated. If I don’t do that, threats will surely loom on my happiness horizon. Even aside from cold logic, the positive vibe humans get from treating others fairly seems to be hardwired into our DNA somehow, which helps explain how Homo sapiens, one of the most social of species, has come so far so fast.

The “others” who should be treated as I wish to be treated includes future generations. I’m ticked off about the amount of pollution prior generations put in the world I was born into, and I’m all in favor of cooperating sensibly to limit the damage we are doing to those to come. I’m not thrilled about paying more taxes or following more rules, but I would readily go along with a BTU tax or a cap-and-trade disguised tax to help protect future generations. In fact, the air conditioning in my house is shut off in several rooms and strictly controlled where we do use it. This is not because I’m moral but because I’m cheap. Raise the price, and I’ll be even more vigilant. Call me immoral for wanting to be happy, and after a suitable stream of epithets I’ll call you immoral right back.

The simplistic so-called realpolitik view is that the details of what the pope said don’t matter. All that matters is that “allies are good,” and having the pope as an ally on environmental issues must therefore be good as well. I disagree. An “ally” who deliberately distorts the cause of the problem, who undermines the most effective solutions, and who treats the whole issue as a recruitment strategy for itself is not an ally I’m thrilled to have. Useful action on the environment means making hard choices. Should a given billion dollars be devoted to carbon emissions, river cleanup, or any of a dozen other useful projects? The pope and the rest of the God industry have nothing of value to say on these questions and deserve no seat at the table when they are dealt with.

Moreover, the harm such an “ally” can do outweighs the good. For example, we’re now seeing articles with titles like “What the Climate Movement Must Learn From Religion” or “What Religion Can Teach Climate Scientists.” The gist of these pieces is that those concerned about the environment should dumb things down and persuade with emotion rather than reason. This throws open the door for those with a vested interest against climate change action to condemn what they are already calling the “climate change religion,” their latest clever code word. As New Republic writer Rebecca Leber noted, “If climate change is merely a faith—something one chooses to ‘believe’ in—then climate change deniers can claim they are the ones motivated by reason,” which is exactly what they are trying to do. There is nothing of value that climate scientists or activists should learn from the realm of the supernatural, other than to avoid its mistakes. We can’t stop the pope and other God experts from talking, but we don’t have to welcome what they say.