In my initial post about the Pope’s environmental encyclical, Laudato si’, I highlighted its positive aspects: its affirmation of human uniqueness, its rejection of biocentrism and its firm insistence that each species of living creature was designed by God to play its own special part in the order of Nature. The Pope also rejects population control, but what he fails to realize is that population growth cannot be sustained simply by living in harmony with Nature. If we are to continue growing, we need to redefine our whole relationship with Nature. While we can never be totally independent of Nature, we must use our human intelligence to reduce our dependence on Nature, in order to prevent our ecological footprint from becoming unmanageably large. This is the essential point made by the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which I’ll be discussing below.
In my second post on the Pope’s encyclical, I criticized his view that the eradication of a species is always wrong. In today’s post, I’ll be explaining why I think the Pope’s thinking on environmental issues is both inconsistent and dangerously wrong.
Reading the Pope’s encyclical, I perceived four internal contradictions in his thinking regarding human development. None of these contradictions are doctrinal; however, they have the unfortunate effect of making it harder to defend the traditional Catholic teaching that children are a blessing, not a curse, and that population growth is a good thing, not a bad thing.
First, the Pope sharply criticizes the idea that humans can achieve unlimited growth (paras. 78, 106), arguing that the Earth’s resources are finite. But at the same time, he insists that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (para. 50). You can’t have it both ways. If there are limits to growth, then sooner or later, a steadily growing population will encounter those limits. At that point, population control will become a necessity. If you reject the idea of population control, then you need to find a way to keep growing indefinitely. Technology provides the only way to do that.
Second, the Pope endorses the Precautionary Principle (paras. 186 and 187), which says that a development project should be halted if there is even a possibility that it may cause serious and irreversible damage. But if this principle had been implemented during the 1960s, there would never have been a Green Revolution in India. Despite the fact that it saved a billion people from famine, starvation and death, the Green Revolution had many critics, who complained that it would create a monoculture of cereal grains and that it would exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. Nevertheless, it was worth it, as Indians living today will attest. The simple fact is that populations can only continue to grow by embracing new technologies which invariably embody some element of risk. If you want a zero-risk society, then what you’ll get is a stagnant, zero-growth, pre-industrial society.
Third, the Pope embraces small-scale farming (paras. 112, 129), as he inveighs against the excesses of large-scale agribusiness. But what he appears not to realize is that the ecological footprint of small-scale farming is far greater than that of large-scale agriculture (see also here). If we were to go back to small-scale farming, then there’s no way that we could possibly support a population of seven billion people.
Finally, the Pope insists that human beings and Nature are inter-dependent (paras. 42, 86, 117, 139 and 140), and that it would be a form of blasphemy for man to attempt to make himself independent of Nature. But while we will never be totally independent of Nature, the fact remains that it is only by decoupling ourselves from Nature and reducing our level of dependence on the Earth’s ecosystems that we have been able to support a large population, which the Pope rightly regards as a good thing.
In short: if you want to live in a pro-natal society, then you need to embrace a way of life which celebrates technology, urbanization, industrialization and big business, and which strives to protect the environment by reducing our level of dependence on it. That’s the only way the population can continue growing.
If the Pope really wants to know how to achieve a pro-people society, then he would do well to read An Ecomodernist Manifesto, about which I’ll say more below.
Contradiction #1: If you reject the idea of unlimited growth, then you have to accept population control
Why most scientists believe in the need for population control
About twenty years ago, mathematical biologist Joel Cohen, who is currently the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations at the Rockefeller University in New York City and at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, compiled and presented all the numerical estimates that he could find of Earth’s human carrying capacity in a book titled, How Many People Can the Earth Support? (New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 1995). The book’s key conclusions are summarized on page 3 of a 2012 UN discussion paper titled, One Planet, How Many People? A Review of Earth’s Carrying Capacity. It turns out that around two-thirds of the estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity fall in the range of 4 to 16 billion, while the majority put the Earth’s limit at or below 8 billion people – a number we will exceed by 2027.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss took up this theme in a review of the Pope’s latest encyclical, titled, Ideology subsumes empiricism in Pope’s climate encyclical (Scientific American blog, June 18, 2015), in which he accused the Pope of having a cognitive “blind spot” on his thinking on the population issue:
Here, ideology subsumes empiricism, and the inevitable conflict between science and religion comes to the fore. One can argue until one is blue in the face that God has a preordained plan for every zygote, but the simple fact is that if one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale population is a problem. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level in which all humans have adequate food, water, medicine and security. Moreover, as this pope should particularly appreciate, the environmental problems that overpopulation creates also disproportionately afflict those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. Ultimately, the surest road out of poverty is to empower women to control their own fertility. Doing so allows them to better provide for themselves and their children, improves access to education and healthcare and, eventually, creates incentives for environmental sustainability.
How the Pope dug himself into a hole on the population issue, by rejecting unlimited growth
In his encyclical, Laudato si’, the Pope categorically rejected the view that overpopulation is responsible for the planet’s woes:
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development“. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. (para. 50)
At the same time, however, Pope Francis firmly rejected the optimistic view, espoused by economists such as Julian Simon (whose obituary is available here, that people are “the ultimate resource” and that our potential for growth is unlimited, because human ingenuity knows no limits. On the contrary, thundered the Pope, our planet is finite and fragile, and there is a limit to the Earth’s supply of energy and resources:
If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power. (para. 78)
Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”. (para. 106)
But the Pope can’t have it both ways. If, as he believes, there are built-in limits to growth, then it necessarily follows that sooner or later, a steadily growing population will encounter those limits. At that point, population control will become a necessity. The only way to avoid hitting the Earth’s limits is to reduce the population growth rate to zero. It’s as simple as that. By endorsing the idea of limits to growth, the Pope has effectively checkmated himself.
Perhaps someone might attempt defend the Pope by arguing that population can continue to grow sustainably as long as consumption per capita continues to fall. But consumption can only fall so far, without putting people into poverty. People need food, water, electricity, transportation, and phone and Internet connections. It would be possible to supply some of these goods without relying on Nature: recently, for instance, scientists unveiled the world’s first laboratory-grown hamburger. But as we’ll see below, this is precisely the kind of technology which the Pope rejects, in his encyclical: he wants to keep humanity very closely tied to Nature.
Why unlimited growth is possible for the foreseeable future
However, the “received view” that there are built-in limits to growth, which is accepted by most scientists (including those advising the Pope) is simply wrong. The fallacy in this kind of reasoning is exposed in a 2015 document titled, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, which was written by a group of prominent environmental thinkers and development specialists (including Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger), many of whom are affiliated with a think-tank called The Breakthrough Institute. Allow me to quote a brief excerpt from the document:
Despite frequent assertions starting in the 1970s of fundamental “limits to growth,” there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future.
To the degree to which there are fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant. The amount of solar radiation that hits the Earth, for instance, is ultimately finite but represents no meaningful constraint upon human endeavors. Human civilization can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion. With proper management, humans are at no risk of lacking sufficient agricultural land for food. Given plentiful land and unlimited energy, substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive…
Indeed, in contradiction to the often-expressed fear of infinite growth colliding with a finite planet, demand for many material goods may be saturating as societies grow wealthier. Meat consumption, for instance, has peaked in many wealthy nations and has shifted away from beef toward protein sources that are less land intensive.
As demand for material goods is met, developed economies see higher levels of spending directed to materially less-intensive service and knowledge sectors, which account for an increasing share of economic activity. This dynamic might be even more pronounced in today’s developing economies, which may benefit from being late adopters of resource-efficient technologies.
Taken together, these trends mean that the total human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century. By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.
Why we need technology if we want to grow
The simple fact is that we need to keep growing, if we are to support an ever-increasing population. But if we want to keep growing, the only way to continue growing is through technology – a point made by Manhattan Institute scholar Stephen Malanga in an article titled, Brother Glum, Mother Earth (City Journal, June 19, 2015):
Pope Francis frames his argument in favor of a heavy-handed environmentalism around the idea that climate change hurts the poor the most. Yet he seems to have little notion of what has helped the world’s poor more than anything: namely, the march of markets and technology, which has lifted billions out of destitution. Instead, Francis rails against those who “doggedly uphold the myth of progress,” the “modern myth of unlimited material progress,” and the “myths of modernity,” including “unlimited progress.” Yet after levying these warnings against progress, the pope calls for a bigger effort to develop sources of renewable energy. Exactly how will this be accomplished, except through giant advances in technology?
The authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto also point out that if we are to successfully combat climate change, then we will need to rely on technology to do so. Reducing consumption won’t make a significant difference:
Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation. While advocates differ in the particular mix of technologies they favor, we are aware of no quantified climate mitigation scenario in which technological change is not responsible for the vast majority of emissions cuts…
Sadly, the Pope takes a very dim view of the power of technology to heal the planet’s ills, as the following excerpt from his encyclical reveals:
109. The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy…
111. 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 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.
115. Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed”.
By belittling the importance of modern technology and decrying its allegedly corrosive spiritual influences, the Pope has painted the Catholic Church into a corner, by spurning the only tool we have that can feed the world’s billions and allow human populations to grow.
The upshot of all this is that as we approach the limits of growth, under those conditions which the Pope deems to be ethical, population control will eventually come to be seen by the Catholic clergy as not only a practical necessity, but also a moral duty. People will be told to limit the size of their families for purely ecological reasons. If that were to happen, it would be a colossal tragedy.
Contradiction #2: If you accept the Precautionary Principle, then you’ll end up rejecting the technologies which enable human populations to grow
In his encyclical, Laudato si’, Pope Francis espouses the Precautionary Principle, which says that a development project should be halted if there is even a possibility that it may cause serious and irreversible environmental damage:
186. The Rio Declaration of 1992 states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” which prevent environmental degradation. This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it.
187. This does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life. But it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account, and that, when significant new information comes to light, a reassessment should be made, with the involvement of all interested parties. The outcome may be a decision not to proceed with a given project, to modify it or to consider alternative proposals.
In endorsing the Precautionary Principle, the Pope is overturning centuries of moral theology, dating back to Aquinas; in ecological matters, he appears to be setting aside the Doctrine of Double Effect. A handy modern formulation of the doctrine (Mangan, Joseph, 1949, “An Historical Analysis of the Principle of Double Effect,” Theological Studies, 10: 41–61) defines the conditions which must be satisfied in order for this principle to apply:
A person may licitly perform an action that he foresees will produce a good effect and a bad effect provided that four conditions are verified at one and the same time:
that the action in itself from its very object be good or at least indifferent;
that the good effect and not the evil effect be intended;
that the good effect be not produced by means of the evil effect;
that there be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect. (1949, p. 43)
In essence, what the Pope is basically saying here is that there is no proportionately grave reason for permitting “serious and irreversible” environmental damage, under any circumstances whatsoever. This is a sweeping assertion for which no evidence is presented. What’s more, it’s simply wrong. The saving of a single human life would be a good enough reason. As Jesus once remarked, “You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7).
Implementing the Precautionary Principle would have disastrous moral consequences
I might add that applying the Precautionary Principle would have morally disastrous consequences, as the following four examples show.
1. The introduction of DDT in countries around the world resulted in 500 million human lives being saved, as the National Academy of Sciences acknowledged in its 1970 report, as well as the elimination of malaria in many countries. Unfortunately, lobbying by the environmental movement (beginning with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962) led to the chemical’s being banned around the world, for reasons that turned out to have been specious. During the past 40 years, 50 million people worldwide have died from malaria – deaths that in many cases could have been prevented.
The point I want to make here, however, is that back in 1939, when DDT was invented by Paul Hermann Müller, there was certainly no proof that the use of the chemical would not cause serious and irreversible environmental damage. The chemical is, after all, toxic to a wide range of living organisms, and it has caused eggshell thinning and is said to have resulted in severe population declines in many species of birds of prey, in North America and Europe. Had the governments of Switzerland, England and the United States invoked the Precautionary Principle when Paul Müller and the Geigy Corporation applied for a patent, it is extremely unlikely that his patents would have been granted. Fortunately, these governments decided that the dramatic benefits of DDT outweighed any possible risks, and granted Müller a patent in 1940, 1942 and 1943, respectively. Result: 500 million lives saved.
2. As I pointed out above, the Green Revolution in India, which saved a billion people from famine, starvation and death, would never have gotten underway if the Precautionary Principle had been applied. Critics complained that the Green Revolution would create a monoculture of cereal grains, and that it would exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. They had a point. Nevertheless, on balance, the Green Revolution was unquestionably a good thing: it did, after all, save hundreds of millions of lives.
3. The industrialization of China in the 1980s lifted 680 million people out of poverty and reduced its extreme poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to just 10% now. At the same time, however, it generated massive volumes of pollution, resulting in irreversible environmental damage: life in the north of China has fallen by 5.5 years as a result of air pollution, and environmental degradation cost China 9% of its gross national income in 2008, as Beina Xu points out in a recent article (Council on Foreign Relations, April 25, 2014). However, as Jeffries analysts Laban Yu and Jack Lu put it in a recent article evaluating the costs and benefits of China’s industrialization: “[I]ndustrialization – with its incumbent air pollution – eliminates poverty… Higher cancer rates in old age are the price that China, and many other nations, have chosen to pay for lower death rates from childhood diarrhea.” I might add that Chinese life expectancy, which was 67.02 years in 1980, currently stands at 75.20 years, according to World Bank figures – just 3.54 years behind America.
However, had the Precautionary Principle been applied to China’s industrialization campaign back in the 1980s, it would never have gotten off the ground. Perhaps some readers will suggest that China could have industrialized in a way that avoided much of the pollution generated if it had only done so more gradually, and if it had implemented anti-pollution laws at the outset. But a more gradual industrialization would also have meant that China’s infant mortality would have fallen more gradually – which means that millions more babies would have died. And pollution controls would have added to the cost, further delaying the process. China was entirely right to industrialize in the “quick and dirty” way, as England did in the nineteenth century.
4. Applying the Precautionary Principle consistently would rule out the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – a point which the Pope himself appears to acknowledge in his encyclical:
134. Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated. In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to “the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production”. The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas. The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future. In various countries, we see an expansion of oligopolies for the production of cereals and other products needed for their cultivation. This dependency would be aggravated were the production of infertile seeds to be considered; the effect would be to force farmers to purchase them from larger producers.
However, as prize-winning environmental writer Mark Lynas points out in an online article titled, How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition (The Breakthrough Institute, March 7, 2013), biofortification, the process of breeding nutrients into staple crops either through conventional selective breeding or genetic engineering, could bring about a massive reduction in vitamin A deficiency, which kills up to 250,000 children around the world, every year. Yes, there are alternative strategies that have been proposed, but as Lynas observes, these methods are much more more expensive. Biofortification is cheap and easy to implement.
I might also add that the introduction and proliferation of genetically modified organisms has resulted in an annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 27 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide, as well as reducing the total land used for crop cultivation by 15 million hectares worldwide and also reducing pesticide spraying, with the biggest gains in crop yields going to farmers from developing countries.
The question of whether to allow the cultivation of genetically modified organisms should be a slam-dunk moral decision. It’s a no-brainer: the benefits far outweigh the costs. However, the Precautionary Principle, favored by the Pope, turns the issue into a moral quagmire – at the cost of hundreds of thousands of human lives a year.
I conclude that the Precautionary Principle is morally bankrupt and utterly devoid of common sense.
Contradiction #3: If you want a return to small-scale agriculture, then you will massively enlarge humanity’s ecological footprint, making population control a practical necessity
In his encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis proposes a return to small-scale farming, which he sees as promoting the dignity of the human person. The Pope vehemently opposes large-scale, industrialized agriculture, regarding it as wasteful and socially disruptive:
Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. (para. 112)
129. In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops.Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. (para. 129)
However, the truth of the matter is that it is small-scale farming which causes greater harm to the environment, as environmental policy expert Ted Norhaus points out in a recent article written for The Breakthrough Institute, titled, The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture (June 8, 2015):
Low-productivity food systems have devastating impacts on the environment. As much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost entirely due to two related uses, clearing land for agriculture and using wood for energy. Indeed, many places that we now think of as vast wilderness were once farmed. Even the Amazon basin, long thought to have been a primeval Eden turns out to have been the site of extensive agriculture prior to the decimation of the pre-Columbian population due to conquest and disease. Today, forests have come back in New England and many other parts of the world not due to disease, privation, or genocide but rather because agricultural productivity has risen so dramatically that many marginal agricultural lands have been abandoned.
Nordhaus goes on to describe how modern, intensive processes such as feedlot beef farming use much less land and have a far lower environmental impact than traditional farming methods:
When leading public intellectuals and chefs like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters decry feedlot meat and rhapsodize about the culinary and environmental benefits of grass-fed beef, what they are really proposing is a vast expansion of human impacts on the land.
Even with much lower levels of per-capita beef consumption, there is no way that American beef consumption, much less global consumption, could be met with pastured beef without dedicating much more land to pasture. Even accounting for the immense amount of grain needed to feed cattle, feedlot beef is more land efficient than grass-fed.
In short, were such a thing even possible, attempting to feed a world of seven-going-on-nine billion people with a preindustrial food system would almost certainly result in a massive expansion of human impacts through accelerated conversion of forests, grasslands, and other habitat to cropland and pasture…
Summarizing his case, Nordhaus argues that it is impossible for a society to provide modern living standards without relying on modern, industrialized agricultural practices. Although these practices reduce the diversity of our crops, the land which they save will help create a world in which more forests, grasslands and wetlands can flourish:
Without modern agriculture you cannot have modern life. There are literally no examples where societies have achieved modern living standards –– universal education, healthcare, electrification, and so on –– without moving most of the population off the land and out of agriculture. Without modern agriculture, most of us could not live in cities, go to college, or have professional careers. A world in which celebrity chefs can open farm-to-table restaurants and cultural creatives can patronize them is, ironically, only possible after industrial agriculture has liberated most of us from farming…
…[W]e need to accelerate the long-term processes of growing more food on less land. Meeting rising food demand for a global population that will continue to grow for at least the next several decades, without converting virtually all of our remaining forests and grasslands to agriculture, will require that we grow food ever-more efficiently. Making more room for nature will, perhaps counterintuitively, require that we use the land on which we produce food more exclusively for production. A world with more forests, grasslands and wetlands, and more biodiversity within them, will require less biodiversity in our fields.
Finally, raising yields while reducing environmental impacts will require that we farm with ever-greater precision. Raising yields through greater application of technology has often meant more pesticides, fertilizer, and water. But as technology has improved, these trends have begun to reverse. Measured in relationship to agricultural output, nitrogen and water use on US farms has peaked and is now declining.
Why a return to small-scale agriculture would hamper, rather than help, the Catholic Church
As we have seen, small-scale agriculture cannot possibly feed a planet with a population of seven billion people. In a world in which large-scale, industrialized agriculture was outlawed, population control would become a practical necessity, thereby creating a moral nightmare for a Church which teaches that large families are a blessing, not a curse, and that artificial contraception is intrinsically immoral.
I have to ask: does the Pope really want to embrace this nightmare scenario, all for the sake of a sentimental attachment to the farming practices of the olden days? There’s an old saying: be careful what you wish for. You just might get what you want.
Contradiction #4: So long as humans remain highly dependent on Nature, their ecological footprint will only increase
In his encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis insists that man is vitally dependent on Nature and inseparably connected to Nature, and he decries the hubris of technocratic individuals who aspire to be independent of Nature:
Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. (para. 42)
As the Catechism teaches: “God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other”. (para. 86)
Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”. (para. 117)
Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. (para. 138)
Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. (para. 139)
Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. (para. 140)
What the foregoing argument overlooks, however, is that dependence is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of dependence. And as the authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto point out, the only way for human beings to reduce their environmental impact is to reduce their dependence on Nature. By doing so, they help to preserve Nature:
Even as human environmental impacts continue to grow in the aggregate, a range of long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts.
Decoupling occurs in both relative and absolute terms. Relative decoupling means that human environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth. Thus, for each unit of economic output, less environmental impact (e.g., deforestation, defaunation, pollution) results. Overall impacts may still increase, just at a slower rate than would otherwise be the case. Absolute decoupling occurs when total environmental impacts — impacts in the aggregate — peak and begin to decline, even as the economy continues to grow.
Decoupling can be driven by both technological and demographic trends and usually results from a combination of the two…
Insofar as past societies had less impact upon the environment, it was because those societies supported vastly smaller populations.
In fact, early human populations with much less advanced technologies had far larger individual land footprints than societies have today. Consider that a population of no more than one or two million North Americans hunted most of the continent’s large mammals into extinction in the late Pleistocene, while burning and clearing forests across the continent in the process. Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution.
The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs supported much lower living standards with much higher per-capita impacts on the environment. Absent a massive human die-off, any large-scale attempt at recoupling human societies to nature using these technologies would result in an unmitigated ecological and human disaster.
Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food hunt mammal species to local extirpation. Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature…
The authors go on to acknowledge that affluent consumption can place heavy demands on ecosystems, but argue that decoupling from Nature through urbanization, intensive agriculture, aquaculture, nuclear energy and desalination will reduce the destruction caused by high consumption. We will never be totally independent of Nature, but by decoupling, we can preserve it better:
It is also true that large, increasingly affluent urban populations have placed greater demands upon ecosystems in distant places –– the extraction of natural resources has been globalized. But those same technologies have also made it possible for people to secure food, shelter, heat, light, and mobility through means that are vastly more resource- and land-efficient than at any previous time in human history…
Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature…
Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree. Even if a fully synthetic world were possible, many of us might still choose to continue to live more coupled with nature than human sustenance and technologies require. What decoupling offers is the possibility that humanity’s material dependence upon nature might be less destructive.
If Pope Francis wants to help create a world in which the human population can continue to grow, then he needs to wholeheartedly embrace technology – especially large-scale agriculture, the genetic modification of organisms, laboratory-grown food, urbanization and nuclear power – and cast aside the morally disastrous Precautionary Principle and small-scale farming, both of which cripple human society. He also needs to accept a much more robust form of human dominion over the Earth than the timid version he presented in his latest encyclical: a form of dominion which would allow us to advance beyond Nature and create a lifestyle which is less dependent on the natural world, in order to preserve as much of Nature as possible.