It is difficult to know what to make of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. Although formally devoted to global warming, the science and policy of climate change is mentioned only in passing. None of the encyclical’s 172 footnotes cite scientific or economic works. The facts associated with neither the immediate topic nor with broader ecological concerns are ever examined in any depth. Instead, readers are treated to a lengthy discussion of church philosophy on the relationship between man, God, and nature, illustrated by numerous quotations from past church leaders. Although critics have faulted the encyclical for many things, its language is too general and enough caveats are thrown in that such attacks seem overdone. The real problem is that, other than love each other and live more simply, it is difficult to know what Pope Francis would have us do differently.
The Pope is surely correct to point out the many instances where short-term profit for a few has produced environmental pollution whose cost is borne by the many. His criticism of materialism, defined as the love of things rather than people or values, also rings true. There is a moral dimension to spending $59,000 on a pre-owned Patek Phillipe watch when WorldVision can feed a child for roughly $1 a day. Higher living standards have certainly not brought dramatic improvements in either human happiness or social peace. But it is one thing to point this out and another to argue that the standard of living in the developed world is causing poverty elsewhere or that we cannot extend that standard to the entire world without exhausting the Earth’s supply of resources.
Although many instances of exploitation have occurred, the dominant cause of poverty in developing countries is not the living standards of the West. It is the pursuit of inappropriate policies by national governments. Internal growth is unlikely until the leaders in India, Russia, South Africa, and other places pursue policies that encourage the full development of their people’s talent. Donations of goods or money by developed countries can offer at best short-term relief. Although the Pope makes a glancing reference to this problem, in many cases regime change is the only way in which to allow the free expression of individuals’ economic, political, and social rights. And most regimes are prepared to defend their power with violence. Recent policy changes in China aside, dictatorships are far less likely to respond to the environmental concerns of their citizens than are democracies.
The Pope’s exhortation for us to lead a simpler, less materialistic life in better communion with ourselves and our neighbor is great spiritual guidance. But it is problematic as policy advice. Although the encyclical makes it clear that we are not to return to the Stone Ages, the exact amount of sacrifice needed is left vague. The criticism of air conditioning is, however, troubling. A middle-class standard of living in the West probably includes ample access to a large variety of food, independent housing for each family, freedom to travel, access to electricity and clean water, reasonable access to health care, and an assortment of relatively new and varied clothes, toys, and accessories and, yes, air conditioning. If the Pope is right in declaring that this standard of living cannot sustainably be extended, then politicians must somehow convince people to accept a dramatically reduced lifestyle. This is not likely to happen.
But the encyclical’s declaration should not be simply accepted as inevitable. This is why its disparagement of both markets and technologies is so troubling. The Pope makes a mistake in condemning both as being a cause of our current unsustainable path. Although the encyclical praises many of the benefits of technology, it doubts its future promise. The first thing to realize is that the economy is always unsustainable. Like a person walking, it lurches from instability to instability, ultimately achieving a dynamic equilibrium that would collapse if brought to a sudden halt. It is the combination of shortages, surpluses, and the large variety of wants that drives economic activity in one direction or another. Malthus was right in seeing that the system in front of him was unsustainable. He did not anticipate that it would self-correct in a largely unplanned fashion as the price of unsustainability rose. Instability is inevitable in modern economies.
A second thing to realize is that markets and technology largely reflect the collection of individual demands. Despite large amounts of advertising, consumers largely make decisions on their own. Technology has an independent momentum in the human desire to learn, but in the end its applications respond to economic forces. If the markets produce guns, alcohol, and pornography, it is because people want them. The only real solution is for individuals to change their priorities on their own. It is always tempting to believe that wise governments can and will enforce better ethics on their people. Yet the most obscene violence of modern times, including Nazi Germany, collectivization in Russia, and China’s Great Leap Forward, were all in the pursuit of one person’s vision of the perfect society. The amount of political and economic violence needed to force a dramatic decrease in the West’s standard of living is surely something the Vatican would condemn.
The Pope’s worry about technological displacement of workers reflects a growing unease about the future of work. But it is overdone. Although the encyclical talks about the inherent meaning of work, historically most jobs, especially farming, have been tedious, dirty, back-breaking work producing a marginal existence. Psychologist Abraham Maslow hypothesized that humans have a hierarchy of needs leading to self-actualization and concern for others. But these higher needs can only flourish when the lower needs for food, shelter, and safety are met. Technology allows this. But the benefits of technology always involve displacement. The Industrial Age was only possible because vast numbers of people left the farm to work in the factories.
It may not be possible to keep the many benefits of society such as modern medicine, electricity, quick transportation, and rapid communication without also accepting its less attractive features. All respond to the demands of human customers. As mentioned above, to frustrate a major portion of these demands would require large amounts of coercion. The costs of such coercion are never worth their promised benefits. Change, if it comes, will have to occur on the individual level as people change their values. Strong hints of such change can already be seen in the increased attention to environmental issues, greater religious and racial tolerance, reduced smoking and drinking, and increased focus on family versus work, especially among men. By and large these positive changes only occur as the standard of living rises.
We should hope and work for a better society. That includes an affirmation that morality includes higher principles than merely self-interest and that among these is the duty to bring freedom and sustenance to those who are deprived of them. It also requires an acknowledgment that the individual search for meaning and acceptance is unlikely to find satisfaction simply in the pursuit of more material goods. But if this transformation happens, technology and markets will be critical to achieving its promise. The encyclical’s dismissal of a carbon tax is especially troubling. The Pope acknowledges that externalities cause much of the environmental problem. The main purpose of a carbon tax is to ensure that those who emit carbon take into account the total cost of their actions.
Objective economic analysis is also important. The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of the world’s leading economists has met regularly for over a decade to try and prioritize the world’s problems. In 2012, five leading economists, including four Nobel Prize winners published a study looking at the most productive ways to spend $75 billion over four years. Of the 16 projects they found to be worthwhile, only one, research into geo-engineering, addressed global warming. The top projects were bundled micronutrient interventions, expanding the subsidy for malaria combination treatment, and expanded childhood immunization. The panel concluded that a carbon tax of around $5/ton of CO2 rising over time would be a sensible policy but that, without significant technological breakthroughs, CO2 reduction remains unlikely.
There is a moral element in preventing people from living better simply because you cannot imagine how higher standards of living can be achieved. But the record of the last several hundred years should give us some confidence that a combination of technology, markets, and democracy will find a way.