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What’s wrong with “harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity”?

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While it is doubtful whether Pope Francis’ speech to the United Nations actually ascribed rights to Nature, the Pope clearly denied that humans have the right to harm Nature: doing so harms humanity, he said. I believe this kind of thinking is dangerous for two reasons: it ignores the lessons of history and it will inevitably stymie human development in poor countries. (To give credit where credit is due, though, I was heartened that the Pope saw fit to mention the unborn in his latest speech – something he didn’t do in his speech to Congress.)

What did the Pope actually say?

For the benefit of readers, here is the relevant passage from Pope Francis’ United Nations speech (Al Jazeera News, September 25, 2015), where he discusses the “right of the environment” and the limits which God imposes on our right to use His creation:

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology” (Laudato Si’, 81), is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.

Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorised to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good (cf. ibid.).

Let me say at once that I am fully on board with the Pope’s declaration that every living creature has intrinsic value, and that humans depend on their environment, and are therefore obliged not to destroy it, since in so doing, they are robbing future generations of a home to live in. But it is another thing entirely to say that we have no right to harm Nature. The lesson of history is clear: harming Nature has always been vital for human progress.

What, then, did the Pope means when he spoke of a “right of the environment”? Over at Evolution News and Views (September 25, 2015), Wesley Smith argues that the Pope may not have been implying that Nature has rights:

A “right of the environment” is sufficiently vague as to potentially mean that humans have a right to a clean environment, not that the environment (or nature) has “rights.”

That’s an important distinction. “Nature rights” elevates the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees, to a level of human value, or perhaps better stated, reduces us to just another animal in the forest.

In an article in the Weekly Standard titled, Why We Call Them Human Rights (November 24, 2008), Wesley Smith explains why the ascription of rights to Nature or to non-human animals is utterly nonsensical:

Rights, properly understood, are moral entitlements embodied in law to protect all people. They are not earned: Rights come as part of the package of being a member of the human race. This principle was most eloquently enunciated in the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But why, one might ask, are only humans capable of having rights? Why not other animals? And why not Nature? The highly acclaimed philosopher David Oderberg tackles these questions head-on, in an article in Human Life Review (Spring-Summer, 2000: 37-45) titled, The Illusion of Animal Rights. The exercise of a right, he declares, presupposes that the rights-holder knows that he is demanding respect from other individuals, and that he/she is free either to exercise that right or refrain from doing so. Non-human animals appear to lack the relevant capacities:

…[N]o one can call another to account over respecting his right if the former cannot know what it is the latter is supposed to respect. By “call to account” I mean making a conscious demand on them, even without speaking a word. How can the right holder make a conscious demand on another if he cannot know what he is demanding? … Similarly, no one can possess a right if he is not free to pursue the good it protects, if he is not capable of planning his life, ordering his priorities, choosing to live in a dignified and human way or a squalid and less-than-human way.

Now it becomes clear why animals – nonhuman ones – cannot possess rights. It is because they do not possess the two features which are necessary for being a right-holder. No animal knows why it lives the way it does; no animal is free to live in one way or another.

As babies, when mentally handicapped or senile, or even comatose, humans may be governed far more by instinct than by knowledge and free choice, but this does not mean such people have no rights. They are still qualitatively different from other animals because of the kind of creatures they are; and so they have human rights just as much as the sleeping, the drunk and the drugged. Neither age, nor illness, nor abnormality can change the fundamental fact that all such people are instances of a distinctive kind of animal -free to choose and aware of why it does so.

In his 2008 article, Wesley Smith remarks that Ecuador’s Constitution recently enshrined “Nature rights” in its new constitution, which was strongly supported by the country’s leftist president, Rafael Correa. Article 1 of the new Ecuadorian constitution reads as follows:

Nature or Pachamama [the Goddess Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Commenting on the new article, Wesley Smith notes that it could be used to block just about any form of human development:

The potential harm to human welfare seems virtually unlimited. Take, for example, a farmer who wishes to drain a swamp to create more tillable land to better support his family. Now, the swamp has equal rights with the farmer, as do the mosquitoes, snakes, pond scum, rats, spiders, trees, and fish that reside therein.

And since draining the swamp would unquestionably destroy “nature” and prevent it from “existing” and “persisting,” one can conceive of the farmer — or miners, loggers, fishermen, and other users and developers of natural resources — being not only prevented from earning his livelihood, but perhaps even charged with oppressing nature.

Smith’s example is a telling one. In this post, I’d like to expand upon his point by focusing on one of the most serious kinds of damage inflicted on our environment: deforestation. In the historical survey below, I shall argue that the transition from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to an agricultural society, and from an agricultural society to an industrial civilization, could never have taken place without massive deforestation. The price of human progress, I shall argue, is the infliction of a high degree of harm on local environments. Consequently, Pope Francis’ assertion that “harm done to the environment … is harm done to humanity” has it backwards. What’s good for humanity is not always good for Nature.

The historical link between deforestation and human progress

My survey begins with prehistoric societies and continues on into the Neolithic, when agriculture was discovered. This transition took place at various times around the world, beginning as early as 10,200 B.C. in the Middle East and ending as late as 2,000 B.C. in some regions. Next, I survey the history of Europe from 1,000 B.C. up to the Industrial era, and cite evidence showing that massive deforestation needed to take place, in order to create farms that would support a large population. Next, I examine global trends over the last 300 years, and cite evidence that the Earth’s cultivated land has quintupled over this period, enabling the Earth to support a larger human population than it could previously, and that much of the increase in cultivated land was due to deforestation. after that, I discuss more recent trends, and I present evidence that population growth caused deforestation in many areas of central America, Africa and South Asia during the 1980s and 1990s. Even in today’s modern world, over half of the deforestation occurring in poor countries is caused by subsistence farming and wood-gathering. If we look at global greenhouse gas emissions, however, we find that the poor have a very small ecological footprint, and that conspicuous consumption, and not overpopulation, is the main cause of rising GHG emissions. What’s more, in many advanced countries, a trend towards reafforestation is well underway, and we can finally search for rational ways of repairing the harm we have wrought upon Nature. The point I wish to make, however, is that it is only after wrecking much of the planet that we can look at ways of restoring it. The damage we did was a necessary stage in human history. It was certainly unsustainable in the long run, but it was necessary in the short run.

(a) Deforestation during the Mesolithic and Neolithic era

An aerial view of Jericho, the world’s oldest city, showing the ruins of Tell es-Sultan. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Encyclopedia of Earth, in its article (by C. Michael Horgan) on deforestation, traces the history of the practice back to prehistoric times, describing how it accelerated rapidly with the dawn of agriculture:

Small scale deforestation was practiced by some societies tens of thousands of years before the present, with some of the earliest evidence of deforestation appearing in the Mesolithic period.[4] These initial clearings were likely devised to convert closed forests into more open ecosystems favourable to game animals. With the advent of agriculture in the mid-Holocene, greater areas were deforested, and fire became an increasing method to clear land for crops.… Removal of the forests led to decreased transpiration, resulting in increased formation of raised peat bogs. Widespread decrease in elm pollen across Europe between 8400-8300 BC and 7200-7000 BC, starting in southern Europe and gradually moving north to Great Britain, likely represents land clearing by fire at the onset of Neolithic agriculture.

The Neolithic period ushered in extensive deforestation for agriculture.

From the foregoing passage, it can be seen that the human species could never have advanced beyond the Stone Age without inflicting a significant degree of damage on local environments, by clearing and burning down trees. It was this fateful step that enabled our ancestors to farm the land, and in so doing, support a much larger population. During the 4th millennium B.C., for instance, world population doubled from 7 to 14 million people, and it doubled again to 30 million people in the 3rd millennium B.C. By the year 1 A.D. world population had risen from 5 million in 8000 B.C., at the start of the Neolithic era, to a total of 300 million, or 60 times what it had been at the end of the Stone Age. according to estimates by the Population Reference Bureau.

(b) How population growth led to deforestation in pre-industrial Europe

Painting by Eero Järnefelt showing forest burning. Image courtesy of Hannu Aaltonen, the Bridgeman Art Library and Wikipedia.

There is abundant evidence that before the Industrial era, deforestation in Europe was driven largely by population growth. This evidence is reviewed in an article titled, The prehistoric and preindustrial deforestation of Europe by Jed O. Kaplan, Kristen M. Krumhardt and Niklaus Zimmermann (Quaternary Science Reviews 28 (2009) 3016–3034). The evidence is handily summarized in the article’s abstract:


Humans have transformed Europe’s landscapes since the establishment of the first agricultural societies in the mid-Holocene. The most important anthropogenic alteration of the natural environment was the clearing of forests to establish cropland and pasture, and the exploitation of forests for fuel wood and construction materials.… Our model results provide reasonable estimations of deforestation in Europe when compared to historical accounts. We simulate extensive European deforestation at 1000 BC, implying that past attempts to quantify anthropogenic perturbation of the Holocene carbon cycle may have greatly underestimated early human impact on the climate system.

Estimating the percentage of forest cover in Europe several centuries ago requires making certain methodological assumptions, which are set out in the article. In the Discussion section of the article, the authors critically evaluate two alternative models – the standard scenario and the technological change scenario – which attempt to estimate the percentage of forest cover in Europe, between 1000 B.C. and 1800 A.D.:

3.2. Historical forest cover estimates for the standard scenario

At the earliest time slice of our model, 1000 BC (Fig. 6, top left panel), the Near Eastern regions (Iraq, Syria-Lebanon, and Palestine-Jordan) clearly display widespread deforestation due to both the high population densities already achieved by that time and the low proportion of high quality agricultural land. Several small parts of central Europe (within Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria) display 70% clearance by 1000 BC, but overall the bulk of the European continent retains its forest cover in areas that were still mainly occupied by prehistoric societies. For example, North African and Eastern European regions display little or no deforestation at this time slice. In contrast, regions with very small amounts of cultivatable land such as Norway and Sweden had already cleared much of their usable land (a small area compared to the total area of the region) to be able to support their populations at this time (Table 3, Fig. 8).

Seven hundred years later, by 300 BC (Fig. 6, top right panel), forest clearance (agricultural areas) increased significantly in some parts of Europe and surrounding areas. The areas suited to agriculture within Greece, Algeria, and Tunisia, in particular, were classified as up to 90% under agriculture, while central and western European regions are calculated to have been between 10% and 60% deforested. Regions of the Near East continued to maintain their high population densities, while Eastern Europe, with low population densities, remained highly forested.

By AD 350 (Fig. 6, middle right panel), the collapse of the classical empires in Greece and neighboring regions led to lower population densities and afforestation in these areas relative to 300 BC. Central European regions, such as France, Germany, and Poland, showed moderately increased forest clearance (up to 90% in some areas) and Russian regions were just beginning to display significant levels of deforestation at this time. Although some regions exhibited a slight decrease in deforested area between AD 350 and AD 1000 (e.g., Central and Western Europe, see Fig. 8, group 3), net clearance of woodland in Europe did not change significantly (Fig. 6, middle panels). However, some regions that were previously highly deforested (e.g., Greece) displayed a continued increase in forest cover.

For many regions of Europe after AD 1000, deforestation continued steadily until the period of the Black Death, around AD 1350 (Fig. 8; Table 3). The major decline in population caused by this epidemic was reflected in the widespread afforestation of many regions of Europe, and was noticeable by AD 1400. Nearly all regions displayed either a pause in deforestation or an increase in forest area (Table 3). Regions with very low amounts of usable land showed no reforestation (e.g., Iceland). Populations of most regions of Europe had recovered to their pre-plague levels by AD 1450, and thus clearance levels were similar to those just prior to the Black Death. Consequently, from AD 1500 to AD 1850, we see the highest rates of forest clearance in our dataset and most usable land in Europe and surrounding regions became highly cleared just prior to industrialization. Notably during this period, Eastern Europe clearly displayed a steep rise in deforestation for the first time in history (e.g., Romania and Bulgaria, see Table 3 and Fig. 6, lower panels).

However, the authors prefer a scenario which takes account of improvements in technology over the course of time. On this scenario, heavier deforestation occurred earlier on. Later, as technology matured, less land was needed to grow food, and forests were able to grow back in some areas:

3.3. Technological change scenario

In our scenarios that include technological change, with increasing efficiency of land use over time, deforestation levels were greater than in the standard scenario for the first half of our study period and reduced in the second half (Fig. 7 as compared to Fig. 6). At 1000 BC, forested area is much more reduced in our technology scenario than in the standard scenario because people had less advanced techniques and needed to clear more forest to produce enough food to feed the populations during this early epoch. As time progresses, technology improved but populations became denser, thus creating a balance and little change in cleared area becomes apparent in our deforestation maps (Fig. 7). However, some countries became more forested due to technological developments during the later times of our model run, the most obvious of these being Spain, Morocco, Greece, and Turkey. These regions seem to have had low enough population densities that, when incorporating technological improvements, they could let previously cleared marginal lands return to forest and woodland, while still producing enough food to support their populations.

To sum up, then: without massive deforestation, Europe would never have been extensively settled. Pope Francis would do well to ponder this fact: after all, his parents came from Europe to live in Argentina. If his ancestors had not significantly harmed the environment by deforesting most of Europe, he would not be here today.

(c) The link between deforestation and population during the last 300 years

Deforestation of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest c.1820-1825, by Johann Moritz Rugendas. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In an article prepared for Rand Corporation, titled, Population and Environment: A Complex Relationship (Rand Corporation, Document Number: RB-5045, Year: 2000), author Lori M. Hunter points out that the Earth’s cultivated land has more than quintupled over the last 300 years, and that much of this increase occurred as a result of deforestation. She adds that a significant percentage of the increase in global greenhouse emissions can be tied to population growth:

Land Use

Fulfilling the resource requirements of a growing population ultimately requires some form of land-use change–to provide for the expansion of food production through forest clearing, to intensify production on already cultivated land, or to develop the infrastructure necessary to support increasing human numbers. During the past three centuries, the amount of Earth’s cultivated land has grown by more than 450 percent, increasing from 2.65 million square kilometers to 15 million square kilometers. A related process, deforestation, is also critically apparent: A net decline in forest cover of 180 million acres took place during the 15-year interval 1980–1995, although changes in forest cover vary greatly across regions. Whereas developing countries experienced a net loss of 200 million acres, developed countries actually experienced a net increase, of 20 million acres (see Figure 2).

These types of land-use changes have several ecological impacts. Converting land to agricultural use can lead to soil erosion, and the chemicals often used in fertilizers can also degrade soil. Deforestation is also associated with soil erosion and can lessen the ability of soil to hold water, thereby increasing the frequency and severity of floods. Human-induced changes in land use often result in habitat fragmentation and loss, the primary cause of species decline. In fact, if current rates of forest clearing continue, one-quarter of all species on Earth could be lost within the next 50 years.

Global Climate Change

…According to one estimate, population growth will account for 35 percent of the global increase in CO2 emissions between 1985 and 2100 and 48 percent of the increase in developing nations during that period. As such, both attention to demographic issues and the development of sustainable production and consumption processes are central responses to the processes involved in global warming.

As we’ll see in part (d) below, Lori Hunter’s claim that over one-third of the global increase in CO2 emissions from 1985 to 2100 will be caused by population growth is probably exaggerated. Nevertheless, what is indisputable is that world population growth over the last three centuries has led to considerable deforestation, which in turn exacerbates other forms of environmental damage. Unless Pope Francis wants to say that population growth is wrong, it seems that he must condone these forms of environmental damage. But then, what becomes of his assertion that “harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity”?

(d) How population growth has fueled deforestation in central America, Africa and South Asia

Slash-and-burn farming in the state of Rondônia, western Brazil. Image courtesy of Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory and Wikipedia.

In an article written for the Population Reference Bureau, titled, Population Growth and Deforestation: A Critical and Complex Relationship (June 2004), Frederick A.B. Meyerson describes how population growth fueled deforestation in areas of central America, Africa and South Asia, during the 1980s and 1990s. In other areas, however, the relationship between population growth and deforestation is much less straightforward, and in developed countries, forest cover has actually been increasing in recent decades:

While population growth and density are unquestionably related to forest cover trends, there is no simple way to describe or predict that association...

Nonetheless, important patterns are beginning to develop from the many studies that have been undertaken and the evolving debate around them. An overview of studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s reveals a strong relationship between population growth and deforestation in Central America, East and West Africa, and South Asia, but a much less clear association in Amazonia (South America) and Central Africa.(2) In a number of more developed countries, such as the United States, China and Russia, forest cover has been recovering for some time after extensive earlier deforestation.(3)

From the deforestation studies to date, a few generalizations can be made. At extremely low population densities (less than one to two persons per square kilometer), it is possible to maintain large amounts of forest intact in areas where the population can be sustained primarily through the harvesting of non-timber forest products rather than by agriculture.(4) However, even in sparsely inhabited areas, external forces such as demand for timber or cattle in other parts of the country or world can lead to deforestation that is not closely related to local population growth. This has been the case in parts of the Brazilian Amazon.(5)

As agriculturally based population density increases in and near forested areas, the strongest relationship between population growth and deforestation occurs, as local people and young migrant families arrive at the forest frontier and clear land to provide more area for subsistence farming.(6) The poorer the soil quality, the lower the agricultural production per hectare, and the more land per capita is likely to be cleared. In Central America, population density and loss of forest cover are closely related at many scales: at the regional and national level, and in local areas inside and near forest reserves, such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.(7) This relationship may overpower efforts to manage forests in protected areas, particularly where the local population is primarily dependent on subsistence agriculture (see figure).

In the case of more-developed countries, the relationship becomes much more complex. The population begins to shift away from dependence on agriculture as a livelihood and agriculture uses more capital and technology and less labor. In addition, food, fuel, and timber needs may be met through imports from other areas of the country and world. Thus, the northeastern part of the United States, almost entirely deforested by the middle of the 19th century, is now largely reforested because people abandoned agricultural uses of the land and now import most of their food and fuel and some of their timber. Both population and per capita consumption may continue to increase but are no longer associated with local forests and land use. This pattern is also occurring in parts of Europe and some countries in the former Soviet Union.

…The general principle from the experience of countries as different as the United States, China, and India may be that after going through an initial deforestation phase, the combination of the scarcity of forest products and rising economic fortunes can lead societies to value, replant, and manage forests.

The evidence from all over the world seems clear. In the beginning, when nomadic societies make the transition to an agricultural lifestyle, they inflict massive harm on the environment through deforestation. Only after these societies become more prosperous can they afford to conserve Nature.

(e) The link between deforestation and population growth in today’s world: weak but nonetheless real

The last batch of sawnwood from the peat forest in Indragiri Hulu, Sumatra, Indonesia. Deforestation for oil palm plantation. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to C. Michael Horgan’s article on deforestation in the Encyclopedia of Earth, nearly half of all deforestation in poor countries today is caused by subsistence farming, while collecting wood for fuel accounts for another 6%:

The predominant driver for deforestation world wide is the clearing of trees to expand agriculture, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.[2] Subsistence agriculture in poor countries is responsible for 48% of deforestation; with commercial agriculture is responsible for 32% of deforestation; and commercial logging is responsible for only 14% of deforestation; charcoal and other fuel wood removals comprise less than 6% of deforestation, but those uses can generally be assigned to subsistence practices.

Although subsistence farming in poor countries is the number one cause of deforestation, it is not a significant contributor to global warming. In an article in the Guardian titled, The population myth (September 29, 2009), George Monbiot takes aim at population control zealots who blame the poor for the increase in CO2 emissions. In fact, argues Monbiot, it is conspicuous consumption by people in rich countries which has driven this increase. Monbiot adds that it is commercial operations set up for the benefit of affluent consumers which have caused most of the deforestation in developing countries, although on this particular point, he appears to be mistaken (see the passage quoted immediately above). Monbiot also cites a report showing that people in very poor countries have a very small ecological footprint. Nevertheless, Monbiot concedes that there is a weak positive relationship between deforestation and population growth in the world today, even as he insists that modern-day deforestation is largely consumption-driven:

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa…

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest... Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.

The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth...

…People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance.

Recently, in a remarkably candid piece, titled, If Pope Francis Really Wanted to Fight Climate Change, He’d Be a Feminist (The Nation, September 9, 2015), feminist Katha Pollitt cites a 2010 report which claims that providing birth control to women in very poor countries could help significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She then goes on to advocate this measure, largely on the grounds that other effective GHG-cutting measures (e.g. getting the world to go vegetarian) would be harder to implement:

 According to a recent report from the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, providing family planning to the 225 million women around the world who want it but can’t get it could meet 16 to 29 percent of the necessary decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions. Doesn’t meeting a desire that women already have seem a strategy more likely to succeed than turning the world vegetarian or keeping the new middle classes in China and India from buying cars and taking vacations? Educating girls, keeping women in the workforce, and providing good healthcare for women and children are crucial human-rights goals that also reduce the number of children a woman has.

Pollitt’s politics strike me as rather cynical: for all her talk of meeting women’s needs, it seems that the reason she is so willing to promote birth control in Third World countries is largely because it’s so much easier to do that than to get the world to go vegetarian.

In summary: although the bulk of deforestation in poor countries is still caused by subsistence farming and wood-gathering, it is conspicuous consumption, and not population growth, that has emerged as the number one threat to the biosphere. If we go further back in history, however, we find that deforestation played a vital part in the transition from the Stone Age to an agricultural society, and in the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. To maintain that these transitions could have been accomplished without inflicting major harm on the environment is to betray an appalling ignorance of history. It is only now that we live in an affluent, urbanized industrial society that we can afford the luxury of looking at ways of restoring Nature, and undoing the harm we have inflicted on the biosphere.

If Pope Francis wants to argue that wealthy countries have a moral duty to develop sustainably and to repair any damage that they cause to the environment, then that is well and good. But if he wants to claim that harming the environment is intrinsically harmful to humanity itself, then his logic would leave us all back in the Stone Age, when the world’s population was a mere 5 million, compared with the 7,300 million people alive in the world today. I will let my readers decide: which world would you prefer to live in?

(f) What should we do to save the planet? Token measures versus measures that would really make a difference

A vegetarian diet is derived from plants, with or without eggs or dairy. Image courtesy of Peggy Greb, US Department of Agriculture and Wikipedia.

Pope Francis hails from Argentina. According to Wikipedia, “Argentina has the world’s second highest consumption rate of beef, with yearly consumption at 55 kg per head.” Let me note in passing that while the Pope’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, deplored the widespread use of air conditioning, it said nothing about saving the planet by going vegetarian – or at the very least, by eating fish but refraining from eating meat. According to an article in Science Alert (November 4, 2014) which was originally published at Slate.com, the ecological consequences of going vegetarian would be profound (although the article goes on to note that one billion people would be out of a job):

Publishing in the journal Climate Change, researchers from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found that if everyone in the world switched to vegetarianism or veganism tomorrow, by 2050 carbon emissions related to the agriculture industry would have been reduced by 17 percent, methane emissions by 24 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions by 21 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions would see similarly significant reductions.

It may be argued that people will never willingly give up the taste of meat, but on the other hand, lab-grown beef is fast becoming affordable, and there is no reason why it could not take off, in the future. Lab-grown hamburgers are expected to be commercially viable in 20 to 30 years.

By comparison, according to a recent report in the Economist (January 5, 2013), even in the United States, “air conditioning still only accounted for 8% of household power consumption in 2005, according to the most recent comprehensive survey by America’s Energy Information Agency. That compares with 41% for heating, and 20% for making hot water, the necessity of which is seldom contested.” And in other countries, the total percentage of power consumption which is due to air conditioning is likely to be even lower. The report also mentions that air conditioning boosts productivity – “A study of government typists in 1950s America found that air conditioning raised productivity by a quarter” (see also here) – as well as reducing mortality in summer, among elderly people. I think we may conclude that vegetarianism would do much more for the planet than switching off our air conditioners. For readers who are interested in viable alternatives to air conditioning, the following article from Scientific American may prove interesting.

Conclusion: A Note on Doctrinal Discontinuity

in his encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis spoke of the destruction of the biological diversity of God’s creation as a sin (para. 8) and he declared we have no right to make species disappear (para. 33). In paragraph 34, Pope Francis made it clear that he was talking about all species, including microbes. in a previous post, I concluded that the Pope views the destruction of a species as intrinsically wrong. On the Pope’s bizarre logic, it would be immoral to eradicate the bacteria that cause tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis and tuberculosis, the viruses that cause polio, measles and AIDS, and the single-celled parasite that causes malaria.

In the same encyclical, the Pope declared that humans should never plunder the treasury of Nature: people are only entitled to take from the Earth what they need to survive: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations” (para. 67). On this logic, it would be difficult to argue that humans have a right to own anything more than a simple shelter, and the tools they need to grow their food.

In his encyclical, the Pope also endorsed 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: “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.” But as I pointed out in another post, 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, I would argue that 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.

Pope Francis has continually stressed that his encyclical contains no new teachings, and that he is only reiterating what his predecessors said regarding the environment. And yet as we have seen, on no less than three points, the Pope has said something quite new, which no Pope has said before. No Pope has declared that it is wrong to eradicate a species, or that we are only entitled to take from the Earth what we need for our subsistence, and no Pope has ever endorsed the Precautionary Principle. The Pope’s latest address to the United Nations contains at least one new teaching: that it is not only wrong of human beings to destroy their environment, but also wrong to harm it, for “harm done to the environment … is harm done to humanity.” This, as I have argued, is a novel idea which would stifle human progress. Finally, we have the Pope’s puzzling declaration in his United Nations speech that “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.” Taken together, the evidence suggests that the Pope is making quite a few theological innovations. Innovations per se aren’t bad; but there can be no question of them possessing any binding force on Catholic believers, since they form no part of the Church’s 2,000-year-old tradition. Only if they were formally defined at some future stage by an Ecumenical Council of the Church or an ex cathedra papal statement could they acquire binding force. That, however, seems highly doubtful.

Over at Religion News Service, David Gibson has written a thought-provoking article titled, Is Pope Francis changing church teachings before our eyes? I’ll leave it for readers to form their own conclusions.

Nm, my question is answered in the post! daveS

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