Reflections on chapter one of the Pope’s encyclical letter, Laudato Si’

In the paragraph below (and elsewhere), the Pope decries the tendency of new technologies to lead people to a more mediated experience of reality, interfering, he believes, with appreciating both other people and nature:

47. Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

In the course of affirming that reducing global inequality should be part of addressing global environmental issues, the Pope (unfortunately, I think) takes issue with global population stabilization efforts:

50. 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”.[28] To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It 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. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.[29] Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.

There are several problems with the logic of this paragraph. The Pope accepts that there can be problems with “unequal distribution of population and of available resources”, but this leaves unacknowledged the reality that there also can be too large a population vis a vis available resources, both nationally and globally–particularly if we are committed to leaving some resources for other species’ continued existence. He affirms that “demographic growth is fully compatible” with continued development, without acknowledging that there are likely limits to this compatibility (presumably the global human population cannot increase forever). He presents an implausibly absolute dichotomy between “extreme … consumerism”, which is bad, and continued population growth, which is neutral–as if the ecological impacts of consumption could be divorced from the number of consumers.

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