Pope Francis’s Ecological Vision: A Sojourner’s Guide to the Closed World

February 29, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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This is fifth in a series on the future of freedom.  Previous installments can be found here: https://www.resilience.org/author-detail/1151776-erik-lindberg

Suppose you lived on a finite planet—say a sphere or globe of some sort.   And imagine, further, that this planet was becoming crowded with humans, for whom it was becoming too hot to sustain life as they knew it.  Suppose for a moment that this sphere had already been scoured for fuels and minerals, its forests and prairies already near picked clean, its rivers and lakes filled with toxins, its oceans fished almost to the point of collapse.  Now imagine that you have been tasked with designing human systems adapted to these conditions, and maybe even of preventing them in the future.  By systems, I’m referring to political systems and economic ones, to the way people relate and interact, and to agricultural systems, waste-management, and production.  But most of all, I’m thinking of belief systems–the principles, ideals, and incentives held in highest esteem and taught to the young.  How would these systems be organized?  What overarching values might these systems be structured around?

It seems a pretty safe bet that basic goods and services would not be produced and then traded according to a system that required permanent growth in their quantity, nor would it be likely that individual desires, formed in large part by an unchecked system of marketing and advertising, would be the main measure of  value.   A constant rise in consumer spending would not be required for the system to remain stable and intact, nor would increased consumption be cause for near universal celebration.  Rather, some principle of sharing, cooperation, and satisfaction with enough would be better adapted to life on a finite planet—not a competitive sociability geared towards personal gain and accumulation.  Moral training would likely emphasize limits and moderation, rather than the drive to get ahead.   Perhaps community well-being would replace the individual as the basis of political and economic measure.  From birth until death virtues of restraint and fair distribution would be a primary life-guide.

And what of freedom amongst these systems of restraint?  Duty, humility, sacrifice, or resilience might instead assume the highest place in the pantheon of values.  Freedom might be a marginal value, a minor reward for sufficient duty, sacrifice, or resilience, and using it to take more than your share might result in great scorn.  Perhaps freedom, should the term still be used with such frequency, would refer to the freedom from unnecessary and unsustainable wants and desires.  Rather than being associated with a competitive urgency, freedom might instead assume an air of peace and tranquility—more meditative than striving.

If we were able to design life and value systems well adapted to a finite planet, this is all to say, they would bear little resemblance to those we see at the helm a free-trading, neo-liberal world order, where values of speed, mobility, access, autonomy, and consumption rule the day, where the heroes live in a mad rush to have it all, where state-craft works in the service of some or another kind of “great game,” still,  and where the ragged lives of the masses  remain the pawns of power and prestige.  Modernity, from our new design perspective, might seem like an episode of terrible adolescent hubris in a farther reaching epic of human struggle.  In this act of our drama, America and Europe might play the flawed and eventually humbled lead.  The notion that people might best thrive when unleased from every previously imagined limit or constraint might begin to look like the height of human folly—or perhaps as humanity’s tragic undoing.

This, at any rate, is what I have been thinking about as I’ve written the previous posts in this series.  My views, or perhaps my more direct focus on the moral issues at stake, have been greatly inspired—maybe precipitated–by Pope Francis’s recent and acclaimed Encyclical Letter, On Care for our Common Home.  I am not, of course, the only one who has been moved by the Pope’s remarkable Letter, which has received widespread attention.  But I do think that its implications have been equally and widely overlooked, especially when liberals and progressives have armed themselves for battle with conservative climate change deniers with the Pope’s indictment of environmental inaction. 

This liberal mis-reading of the Encyclical Letter could, it turns out, be cleared up as early as the first page of the Pope’s text, where he announces, “Nothing In this World is Indifferent to Us.”  Progressives, it is true, may have a wider range of public concern than their more individualistic conservative rivals, and may gravitate towards this sort of language, as well as words like “common” and “home” in reference to our planet.  This phrase, like “everything is connected,” appears many times throughout the Pope’s writing, and may seem rather unremarkable.  But it is central to the Pope’s vision and it cuts to the heart of a common set of assumptions that hold contemporary progressives and conservatives together as part of a broader Liberal tradition.  Liberalism, regardless of the progressive or conservative reforms it has undergone, is built on the proposition, in contrast, that most things in this world are indifferent to us and that most things are not tightly connected.  Although this is not widely understood, one cannot be a Liberal of any sort—a progressive, a libertarian, a pro-capitalist Christian evangelical, or a Occupy Wall Street protester, it hardly matters which—and consistently maintain that “nothing in this world is indifferent to us” or that “everything is interconnected.”  Sustainability on a finite planet, the Pope’s argument further suggests, is an illiberal value, while Liberalism is an anti-ecological world view.

Amazing Grace?

Before examining in greater detail these closely related propositions, let us review some of the ground we’ve covered over the past few months.  Liberal freedom, following John Stuart Mill’s formulation, is the liberty to do as you please and without restraint, up to the point where it may begin to affect or harm others.  A society can operate upon this principle, I have argued, only within an open system, one capable of expanding and widening and increasing its bounty so that one person’s action and gain needn’t limit the possibility of others to do and have the same.  Within a closed system, in contrast, the point at which my freedom affects yours is always a short step away.  As economists, modernity’s witch-doctors, fully understand, only an economy that might grow forever ensures the win-win systems that Liberal freedom requires.  Liberal Freedom is entirely maladapted to biological equilibrium and harmony on a finite planet, a fact that is routinely ignored so that we might instead preserve our now-sacred and internationally-protected economic growth.

This conceptual view of freedom is supported by the conditions of its historical rise: the possibility that human societies might peacefully function according to a principle of competitive individual freedom, I suggested, accompanied a broad and sweeping change in the metaphysical and cosmological assumptions of Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The Scientific Revolution, and then the Enlightenment, in Andre Koryre’s rich phrase, replaced a conceptual map based on a “closed world” with the new vision of an “infinite universe.”  The concurrence of this vision with the “discovery of the Americas”–a continent that even Thomas Jefferson claimed was, for all practical purposes, infinite—was not mere coincidence.  It was only after society began to imagine that the space, resources, and  the wealth at its potential disposal may be limitless that the ideal of freedom took hold as the ruling value of modern society—and, before long, to the point which no others seemed a viable and humane alternative.    

The ensuing global pursuit of individual gain seemed a workable way of doing things for a time; its path into the future seemed secure enough that Nietzsche could appropriately announce the death of God.  The contradictions of a sojourn across an infinite universe hand in hand with Jesus (who is leading whom remains an open question) or some other undemanding deity notwithstanding, most modern people are still unable to imagine any other way to organize human good.  At first, our ecological margins were deep enough to confirm the illusion that the Earth had infinite bounty.  More recently, the systems we have designed as if the Earth were infinite have become habitual, and are supported by an increasingly zealous ideology, and now delusions, about the infinite capacity of human technology.

My argument, like the Pope’s, is that we have barreled past the point at which we can ignore the finite nature of our common home, and that we are in urgent need of new systems–especially belief and value systems.  A revaluation of all values has become a historical necessity. It is a matter of life and death.  “Live free or die” clamors the sound of our death knell.

Much of my writing over the past four installments has been mere groundwork and conceptual background intended as an introduction to my reading of Pope Francis and his remarkable Encyclical Letter, Care for our Common Home.  When I read the document it swept over me like a revelation.  It cut the cables suspending my disbelief, shattering the confidence behind my atheism previously confirmed with evangelical fervor.  It cast into doubt my high-modernist irony, irreverence, and disrespect, now looking for something solemn and permanent upon which to drive its anchor.  The piety, obedience, and humility that we, the modern knowing and profane, had long since abandoned as the dead weight of senseless tradition and useless virtues now arose proud and defiant from the smoldering ashes of modern wreckage.  Salvation?  Conversion?  A loss of nerve at the first recognition, finally, of my own mortality? The last refuge of the desperate?—I don’t yet know. 

This, at least, was one of my first response upon reading the Pope.  As remarkable a document as his Encyclical Letter is, even more significant is the reception of the Pope’s ecological manifesto by liberals and progressives around the world.  It is significant because the Pope is, as I have already mentioned, no Liberal.  He is in fact deeply anti-liberal, but in a historically interesting way.  For despite his deep-running illiberalism, there is little danger that European and American political conservatives will try to claim Francis as one of his own, while progressives seem willing to look past even the narrow swath of his illiberal views that they actually recognize—like his views on gender, population, and birth control, not to mention a very patriarchal and theistic theology.  For some very significant reasons, which I will discuss later, a traditional liberal allergy to a non-secular approach to things is, at our moment in history, beginning to have fewer irritants than it once did.  I hope that this means progressive liberals are ready, one way or another, to retool their political and moral framework for the closed world of a finite planet; I fear that these progressive liberals embrace the Pope because in large part they do not yet understand the implications of his message.  My words, here, are an attempt to make these implications hopefully clear. 

Eating the Fruits of Scientific Progress

One of the reasons that progressives have been so ready to embrace the Pope is the way he has fore-fronted the ecological fate of our common home.  For rather sound reasons suggested by recent political history, environmentalism, sustainability, or whatever else we may choose to call it, is a liberal issue—one that becomes increasingly central the further left  you venture (and more vehemently denied, the further right you look).  Progressives therefore assume that anyone who is focused on climate change or ecology must be one of their own.  Certainly no “conservative” would make the environment a main issue, and not in such a way that human dominion and power is questioned. 

George Lakoff has accordingly noted that climate change is “the moral issue of our age,” applauding Francis for getting “the framing right” in his Encyclical, and for advancing a vision in line with “the progressive value system” of empathy.[i] Progressives, Lakoff naturally assumes, will confront the moral issue of our age, and according to its established techniques.  While it is true that empathy has been both central to the major accomplishments of progressive politics, and is a significant theme of Care for our Common Home, I think that Lakoff, like most progressives, misunderstands the way ecological destruction and climate change require an approach that has no current entries in the progressive playbook.  Empathy, as I will argue in a later post, has moved on.   

Previous liberal or progressive accomplishments, without an exception that I can think of, have all been struggles for increased freedom, or increased consumption, and often both, as progressive politics has increasingly united the two.  Whether we are talking about the abolition of slavery, the Nineteenth Amendment, or the end of the 12 hour work-day, the fight against the political or cultural subordination of ethnic minorities, even rural electrification, the creation of the FDA, or victory in Roe vs. Wade–at stake in each case was freedom and material progress–letting people both do what they want and have more.  To return to the language of freedom articulated by Mill, most progressive accomplishments have won the right for the previously excluded “of framing the plan of their life to suit their own character; of doing as they like.”  In this, the age of freedom, obstacles to its wider enjoyment have, it is profoundly true, been mainly the result of arbitrary misuses of power.  Often garbed in the robes of tradition, limits and restraint have been a way of saying “you people over there and different from us—you may not have what we have!”  Since this sort of affirmation of inherited privilege was often advanced as the conventional morality of the day, sometimes under the cover of “the word of God,” progressive politics has at times allied itself with a sort of ironic, irreverent, and profane anti-morality.  As Francis similarly notes, “Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century,” a sign, I would hazard, of the slow ascension of a strong part of the progressive agenda.  For sobriety and humility have, in the age of plenty, been tools to keep the powerless down and the curious from questioning.

One of the most forceful articulations of the union of freedom and consumption can be found throughout the powerful speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who also delivered most of the conceptual tactics present in today’s progressive playbook.  In his “Four Freedoms” speech, often considered a progressive amendment to the Bill of Rights, Roosevelt declared that part of the freedom that citizens of Liberal democracies might expect is “the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”  In the future, as Roosevelt empathetically envisioned it, no one would be excluded from the basic comforts and security of middle-class life.  This individual good would become a common good, shared by all citizens of the United States.  We would also help and protect those struggling to achieve these same freedoms around the globe.

But here’s the problem: this progressive—“progress”-based approach–has now run into the oncoming walls of a closed world and has therefore nearly run its possible course.  Ecological devastation, including that caused by carbon dioxide emissions and the warming of the Earth, requires an entirely different kind of morality and politics; it is one that may seem inimical to the stated beliefs of most progressives, but also one that some of them (us) may have started to embrace, at least on the down-low.  Rather than increasing consumption, our common home requires that we limit consumption.  Even if we set aside the issue of climate change, as scientists have calculated it we the people of the Earth use up a year’s worth of renewable resources in about nine months; the remaining three months of consumption involve a permanent ecological “draw-down” of  non-renewable resources.  Add back global warming, or the fact we don’t have a replacement for fossil fuels (and probably never will), and the picture becomes yet more bleak: we have already heated the planet to the point where millions of people are already suffering or dying, while the most aggressive international proposals look only to prevent the most dire consequences. 

There is no formula, then, according to which the entire planet might enjoy “the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly expanding standard of living.”  As Pope Francis notes, “we all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels” (27).  The neo-liberal view that through free-trade and enhanced technology we might all live like middle-class people in the wealthy segments of the world do now, Francis rightly argues, “is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.” (50). 

Lost in Modernity

I have often written over the past several years about the difficulty liberals have accepting any message of  degrowth or economic contractions—of, in effect, living with less.  Perhaps the most significant reason for this is also the most simple.  Living with less means doing without things we take for granted and that make our lives easier, more secure, and, we believe, more happy and enjoyable.  Francis rightly dismisses most Liberal attempts to justify our current way of life as unwillingness and failure to look reality in the face.   We don’t want to admit our way of life is unsustainable because we don’t want to make changes or relinquish our tremendous privilege.  

Although most citizens of industrial nations–having very little experience in imagining drastically different and more simple ways of life–miss this part of the Pope’s message, Francis holds this scientific and moral ground without apology: in order to maintain the integrity of our ecosystems, the wealthy of the world are obligated to live more simply, not only wasting less, but using less.  This is not a life-style choice.  It is an obligation.  Our expectations and entitlements are no excuse for our consumption. This is a matter of life and death in our closed world where our luxury means that others cannot have enough simply to survive.  As Francis writes, this “is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ means when ‘twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive’” (78).  The American way of life, in short, amounts to transnational and cross-generational genocide.  Although he doesn’t explicitly call consumption out as a sin, probably for strategic reasons, it certainly meets all the relevant criteria Francis would maintain, violating god’s law, despoiling his creation, and doing deathly harm to others.  Except according a moral code where might makes right, there can be no justification for many of the daily activities of the world’s wealthy middle class, not to mention the second homes, the airplane travel, the recreational vehicles, the in-home luxuries, the endless and all too banal array of clothes, novelties, and bewildering world of constant novelty and amusement.  Look around the room you are in.  Most of what you see, Francis would argue, is morally unjustifiable.  Thou shalt not kill, and all this stuff is killing.

The immorality of a high-consumption way of life is simple: it insures the death of the poor and huddled masses of the “developing world.” More complex, and in need of deeper analysis, however, is the way this simple immorality is kept from the view of even the most well-intentioned and well-informed people of the industrialized world.  For according to the (defective) modern moral compass, our freedom to consume points us generally in the right progressive direction, while limits are tantamount to “going backwards,” regressing, or being reactionary.  The oppressed of the world, in modernism, are those kept from the Liberal freedoms that enlightened people enjoy—or so we too-easily assume.  It is for this reason that Francis calls for a spiritual revolution. 

The first part of this revolution, the organization of On Care for Our Common Home suggests, requires a critique of our contemporary way of thinking and believing.  A critique is a form of criticism based on becoming aware of unspoken and unquestioned assumptions, dissembling the social and historical constructions that we might otherwise accept as natural or inevitable.  It understands that social change requires what Hegel called “the labor of the negative”—of taking apart, sometimes with ruthless cunning, our current structures so that something new can be built in their place.  Francis refers to the belief system that he submits to his critique as “the technocratic paradigm,” and his demolition of it sits at the very center of the Encyclical Letter, in Chapter 3, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis.”   In the technocratic paradigm, as Francis describes it, increased technological power over the Earth and its natural systems has become shorthand for progress and human well-being in general, while the sort of power and the ability to consume that it permits have become the meaning of life for much of modern civilization.

 On a basic level, the problem with the technocratic paradigm is that our increase in technological power has not been accompanied “by a development in human responsibility, value and conscience” (105).  We don’t know how to control our great power; the toddlers have been given a loaded gun.  It is possible to read the Pope as suggesting that a modern and technologically based approach to the world might be fine and dandy if we only add to it a “sound ethics . . . capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (105).  Progressive-minded middle-class liberals might be eager to read this as a call for some relatively minor reforms to our unfettered marketing of technology—the sort of reforms that progressive Democrats routinely propose.  But even as Francis is not prepared to openly discharge the entire modern technological project, he goes far beyond a reformist mentality.  As On Care for our Common Home describes it, modern people have lost their way and wander lost, broken, and yet all the more dangerous, in modernity.  We live amongst self-created marvels, but have no understanding of the plain sense of things: regarding the current ecological crisis, it is not our technology that needs to change, “it is we human beings who above all need to change” (208).  We need to overcome the basic tenet, perhaps, not just of technocracy, but its accompanying Liberal political and moral belief system: we need to “overcome individualism” itself (208). 

Thus Francis continues, “the basic problem goes even deeper [than uncontrolled technology]: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (106). Within this paradigm, “the methods and aims of science and technology” make “an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individual and the workings of society” (107).  We are caught in its “iron-clad logic.”   What is this one-dimensional paradigm? Francis refers to a modern characteristic that a number of post-modern philosophers and cultural critics have described in differing ways, though to my ear he echoes a good deal of Frankfurt School critics like Adorno, Horkheimer, Pollock, and Marcuse.  But in any number of other critiques of modernity, one can identify some common traits that I think are best described according to the distinction I have been making—the one between a closed world and an infinite universe. In modernity, according to this broad analysis of the one-dimensional civilization, questions of value and meaning are deemed unanswerable, and in some cases (like that of neo-Pragmatism) even harmful for the divisions they create or the restrictions on others that they invite us to make.  Without the guiding light of values—values like harmony, equilibrium, aim, or perfection—or a sense of meaning organized around a shared vision of our common task or role, we are left only with a pragmatic or instrumental kind of reasoning. This reasoning may be highly adept at achieving our goals and ends, whatever they may be; but it has nothing to say about what ends we ought to pursue.  This “ought,” Liberalism has always believed, would limit individual freedom; and it does.  Individuals, Liberals believe, need to determine what they want and value without undue influence, including that of tradition, of religion, or even of our elders, who we instead pack away into nursing homes as we endlessly worship the foolish, yet always innovative, novelty of youth. 

This is why Liberal freedom and instrumental reason dovetail so neatly with free-market economics, in which individual want and desire are the only measure of value, and where knowledge becomes the ability to assume mastery and domination as the individual pursues his or her desires.  “Rational self-interest” is pure instrumental reason, and has been necessary to Liberalism’s evasion of questions of aim or end.  As Pope Francis remarks, “we have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends” (203) and always will as long as we privilege capitalism as we currently do.  Care for our common home is one of the substantial ends Francis would instead have us employ as a substitute for individual satisfaction.  Spiritual dimensions, the dignity of manual labor, the value of community and fellowship, also erode from lack of attention and nurture, within a one-dimensional technocratic and instrumental paradigm where we are swamped with means, running hot within us.

So also does our natural environment, which, Francis emphasizes, cannot be cared for through technological developments involving the amassing of more data, achieving higher efficiency, or simply switching to another form of fuel in our pursuit of individual satisfaction.  Rather, it needs the sort of care that can only come from deeper reverence and humility.  As he explains, the “deterioration of the environment is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.”  Technology is hardly neutral.  It is not, as it is common to say, simply a tool.  For when it dominates our lives it edges out the other dimensions necessary for a healthy environment and a healthy humanity. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing, as Kenneth Burke once noted, and today the combination of individualism, technology, and the market economy ensure that we exclude all sorts of thinking, experiences, and emotions that are incompatible with accumulation, power, and profits.   As Francis explains, “decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build” (107).  What kind of decisions are these?  What kind of society to they tend to build?  Put simply, when we accede to instrumental logic as our main guide and main source of “knowledge,” we build a society in which instrumental reasoning predominates, and in which an entire world of other values are summarily excluded.  Without “genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal,” beyond the logic of function, growth, power, mastery, or pragmatic problem-solving, says Francis, “Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principle key to the meaning of existence” (110).

The logic of mastery and domination is one of the reasons why modern people, progressives included, tend to assume that “global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth” (109), or that environmental problems can be solved only by more technology—or in other words, more human power, mastery, and instrumental logic.   Another reason for this all too common modern assumption, Francis points out, is that instrumental logic leads to “the fragmentation of knowledge” (110).  In a way that should remind us of the current obsession with computer-generated data and its power within the economic and political imaginations of today’s power-brokers and academics alike, “the fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant” (110). This sort of fragmentation of knowledge, combined with a focus on instrumental reason, makes genetically modified crops widely attractive to policy makers and “humanitarians,” the issue of crop yields outweighing any broader concern for ecological impact.  It is this sort of fragmentation of knowledge, I would add, according to which “liberal NPR” will lead off with a story about an ice-shelf collapsing, followed by a celebration of a recent rise in consumer spending or the bright outlook for the auto-industry in the next fiscal quarter, apparently unaware or unashamed of the connection between environmental destruction and the economic growth that has a sacred hold on the modern Liberal consciousness.

Francis summarizes his point about the fragmentation of knowledge and the destruction of the planet when he says:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources.  There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at these things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.  Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic.  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. (111).

Or has he also puts it, “all this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution” (114).

Ethical Horizons

Francis may be unrelenting in his critique of modern liberal consumerism.  But his most extreme anti-Liberalism, perhaps surprisingly, appears in his humble and empathetic alternative, one based on the view that nothing in this world is indifferent to us and that everything is connected.  Here Francis articulates the re-placement of empathy and care for the common good in places where most of us assume it has long since departed.  Empathy, in contrast to Lakoff’s assumption, is no longer a progressive value.  It is to this that I will turn to next.


[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/pope-francis-gets-the-m…; emphasis added.  

By thierry ehrmannhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/8579939035/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27040836

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: freedom, liberalism, Modernism, Pope Francis, Sustainability