Not only is there but one way of doing things rightly, but there is only one way of seeing them, and that is, seeing the whole of them.

John Ruskin [1]

[Last time Phil turned his beady eyes on to paragraph 23 of the Pope’s recent Encyclical[2], and by drilling down on it, illustrated some of the fundamentals of climate change. That was a good thing, I think, although many of today’s global warming deniers probably don’t agree. I expect they, and their enablers on the Hill and in the media, would prefer to make everything look more mysterious than it is, so that they can slip some truly crackpot ideas into the national discourse.

What ideas? How about: (i) our globe really isn’t warmer than it was in the last century; (ii) what we do in this country with fossil fuels doesn’t really affect the rest of the world, or vice versa; or (iii) people who say the globe is warming really don’t believe it – they’re simply promoting a scheme to take away the individual liberties of Americans, especially those who own homes or automobiles.

That last argument really frosts me. It’s usually made by the same people who heaped praise on the Bush Administration when it

  • kidnapped foreigners based on “actionable intelligence” [aka, rumor and innuendo],
  • tortured [or should I say, “enhancedly interrogated”] them for information, and, if they didn’t die in the process,
  • confined them indefinitely to protect us all from knowing what had been done.

The same people who supported the Patriot Act[3] in its entirety, regardless of how it threatened the privacy of non-criminal Americans. The people who, really, distinguish between property rights and civil liberties, and want to protect the former while infringing on, or scrapping the latter.

Sorry, I’m off topic. Indignation always makes my mind wander. The point I was going to make is that, while there’s value in scrutinizing the parts of a problem – or an encyclical – John Ruskin’s approach has merit when things are really complicated. The whole of a situation may be more than the sum of its parts, and also it may be simpler; sometimes we need to look at the big picture to really understand what’s going on.Our readers, such as they are, seem to feel the same way. They wrote, called, etc., to ask what the Pope had to say in the rest of his document.

Well, of course, we wrote about 2000 words on Paragraph 23; if we did the same thing for every other paragraph that would come out to about 490 thousand words, total. I don’t think Phil is up to that, and I certainly don’t want to read that much, so we looked for alternatives. One possibility, of course, was to create our own Executive Summary. As far as I can tell, the Vatican didn’t do that, probably for good reason. The way we do it here, the summary might be as long as the original. And frankly, I didn’t see that we had time to wade through all that detail.

So finally I settled on the least demanding alternative; I called Phil and asked whether he was up to doing a really “big picture” blog post, identifying some of the major themes in the document, and avoiding specifics whenever possible. And I left it up to him to make all the necessary editorial judgments. He always likes that part.]

And I said I would try, but frankly there’s too much in the encyclical even to do that. Well, of course, I could come up with something simple, like “The Pope is a holy person who wants us all to treat the Earth with respect and gratitude,” but that kind of misses the point. The Pope has a laundry list of specific complaints about the way things are, and a number of suggestions about what ought to be done. To fairly represent his views I have to get down into the details.

[Is the devil hiding there, in the details?[4]]

No, not this time; just some trenchant observations. Anyway, today I’m going to discuss one of his themes – i.e., how the richer nations and people mishandle our climate problems. “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power,” he says, “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms,” not with real solutions.[5] The world needs to move from half-measures to policies that, in the next few years, will drastically reduce “the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases.”[6]

To do that our leaders need to evaluate our climate problems in an open and transparent way, so that everyone understands the problems and their proposed solutions. Government and economic elites no doubt would prefer to do this privately, but that would be self-defeating.

An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views. On the other hand, the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for [favors], usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate.[7]

Private negotiations could lead to specious agreements and no real changes.

[OK, the Pope is for transparency. I understand.]

His views are more complicated than that. He says that there’s a “magical concept” of the market out there; that if markets keep expanding, then everyone will benefit over time. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right?

But that’s not true. Business today tends to focus on short term profits and losses, not on long term planning. Who today really believes “that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage they might leave behind for future generations?”[8] Future generations simply are not considered in modern business plans. Or put another way, the core function of business is to buy something, then sell it for more.[9] So in order to maximize profits a company must underpay as much as possible at the front end, and overcharge as much as permitted for the end product.

[I can’t believe you used a concept from the Five Minute University as a part of your analysis! That’s a comedy routine, not a serious analytic tool.]

If the joke fits, wear it! That’s my motto. Anyway, all too many modern businesses tend to run on a value neutral basis, treating government efforts to regulate them simply as obstacles. Eventually human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species, all might be considered legitimate occupations in a value neutral world.[10]

But getting back to the environment, the Pope thinks that modern business is getting a free ride, or at least and discounted one, when it radically alters parts of our globe. If a forest is cleared, for example, “no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.” Only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” can such actions be considered ethical. [11]

That’s not to say, however, that all environmental impacts can be quantified in terms of dollars and cents.

[Well, if some economic and social costs can’t be quantified, how in the world are planners supposed to take them into account?]

Good question. I don’t think the Pope has a definitive answer. He says that we [the world] have to work harder on understanding the impacts that aren’t quantifiable, and their value. He calls it developing a humanism that brings together many different fields of knowledge[12], and a politics “which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the present crisis.”[13]

[I’m not sure I understand that, but let’s leave it for another day. A friend of mine called last week, and asked what we should do about those who deny the present consensus about global warming, i.e., that it’s happening and accelerating. They say we should wait years for more data, before we take any action at all. Is it rational to wait?]

No, I don’t think so. The Pope specifically deals with the question. He cites the Rio Declaration of 1992[14] as his authority in the matter.[15] It says, basically, that when there are “threats of serious or irreversible damage,” the lack of “full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures” to prevent degradation of the environment. So if the world is pretty sure there’s a problem, it’s sensible to act.

[Once again, thanks Phil for your help. I’m still thinking the Pope will have something interesting to say about climate change when he visits D.C. in a week or so. Nobody’s invited me to attend any of the official functions – that’s no surprise – so I’m going to watch the festivities like most folks, i.e., on the TV. Nevertheless, it might be a very big show. Here’s hoping, but let’s also hope the masses of security assigned to his visit will keep him safe.]

[1] For this we went back to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __), at p. 660, John Ruskin, n. 4.

[2] See The Holy See, Encyclical Letter LAUDATO SI’ of the Holy Father Francis On Care for Our Common Home (Rome, May 24, 2015) (hereafter cited as Laudato Si’ at __) It’s available from the Vatican, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[3] Today we’re not writing about the Patriot Act per se, so we’ll give you a general, non-technical reference to it, i.e., the Wikipedia treatment, appearing at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriot_Act

[4] Sorry, I had to say it. “The Devil is in the details.” See ODQ at p. 669, Sayings, n. 12.

[5] See Laudato Si’ at p. 8-9, ¶26.

[6] Id.

[7] See Laudato Si’ at p. 53, ¶182.

[8] See Laudato Si’ at p. 55, ¶190. “Here too, it should always be kept in mind that “environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces”. Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”

[9] Want to see the whole curriculum? Go to http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=father+sarducci+five+minute+university&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=56C2CCFD1AD28EC9DADE56C2CCFD1AD28EC9DADE

[10] See Laudato Si’ at p. 36, ¶123.

[11] See Laudato Si’ at p. 56, ¶195: “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. Yet only when “the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations”, can those actions be considered ethical. An instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning.”

[12] See Laudato Si’ at p. 41, ¶141

[13] See Laudato Si’ at p. 57, ¶197

[14] See U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992), available at http://www.unesco.org/education/nfsunesco/pdf/RIO_E.PDF : “Principle 15: In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

[15] See Laudato Si’ at p. 54, ¶186

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