Note: This post is the fourth in a series of posts on Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate”. Also see posts on the Intro and Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Five, and Chapter Six and Conclusion.
In Chapter Four of Caritas in Veritate, Benedict’s primary aim is to address the issue of the environment. The environment was first incorporated into CST with Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens, which was written in 1971. Paul VI only devotes one sub-section to it, but this laid the groundwork for its mention in nearly every encyclical thereafter. Paul VI wrote,
Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation…This is a wide ranging social problem..
In essence, we’ve moved from a point in time, 38 years ago, when environmental awareness was just beginning to increase (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, for context, and was received very negatively). Now, this awareness is a cornerstone of almost all religious and non-religious progressivism. “Stewardship” of natural resources is now its one principle of CST, as codified in the USCCB Pastoral Letter “Economic Justice for All.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way, but not quite far enough in terms of policy.
Benedict introduces the environment with a discussion of human rights and duties.
Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good…The sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights.
We’ve talked a bit on this blog, mainly when discussing humanitarianism, about the sometimes emptiness of merely asserting rights. Benedict does a good job of turning this on the head from the get go. Clean air, in this context, is not a right of every human, but a duty of every human, firm, government, etc.
Unsurprisingly, Benedict speaks against looking to population control as a means of addressing these problems. However, he frames this in the context of development, rather than the environment.
Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people.
Because he does not explicitly connect the population issue to the environment, this chapter becomes a little choppy. For some reason, he next turns to a reiteration of the need for ethics in the economy.
Striving to meet the deepest moral needs of the person also has important and beneficial repercussions at the level of economics. The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred.
And then a discussion, yet again, of the new types of enterprises:
When we consider the issues involved in the relationship between business and ethics, as well as the evolution currently taking place in methods of production, it would appear that the traditionally valid distinction between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations can no longer do full justice to reality, or offer practical direction for the future. It is made up of traditional companies which nonetheless subscribe to social aid agreements in support of underdeveloped countries, charitable foundations associated with individual companies, groups of companies oriented towards social welfare, and the diversified world of the so-called “civil economy” and the “economy of communion”…The very plurality of institutional forms of business gives rise to a market which is not only more civilized but also more competitive.
He then connects these concepts with development:
The strengthening of different types of businesses, especially those capable of viewing profit as a means for achieving the goal of a more humane market and society, must also be pursued in those countries that are excluded or marginalized from the influential circles of the global economy. In these countries it is very important to move ahead with projects based on subsidiarity, suitably planned and managed, aimed at affirming rights yet also providing for the assumption of corresponding responsibilities…International cooperation requires people who can be part of the process of economic and human development through the solidarity of their presence, supervision, training and respect. From this standpoint, international organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly…Hence it is to be hoped that all international agencies and non-governmental organizations will commit themselves to complete transparency…
It is unclear to me why Benedict chooses to devote a large portion of a chapter ostensibly about the environment to the issues he mentions here, especially when the previous chapter was addressing these very issues. I agree with a number of the things he says here, especially his vision of development aid (and even I think our friend Bill Easterly even be somewhat ok with it, although we’ll get to him later). However, he needs to stay focused. Now for the awkward segue back to the environment:
Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole.
I don’t disagree with a word of that- in fact, the second sentence is a very poignant way of framing the issue. However, it’s not clear why he didn’t simply move from his discussion of duties to the environment. I digress.
Benedict next lays out a Catholic view of the environment, and cautions against utilitarianism, neo-paganism, and technicism (not a word, whatever).
Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”, but as a gift of the Creator…But it should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person…it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature…Reducing nature merely to a collection of contingent data ends up doing violence to the environment and even encouraging activity that fails to respect human nature itself.
He addresses energy:
The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives…On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized…
And to resources in general:
This responsibility is a global one, for it is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources. Human beings legitimately exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world’s population.
And, here is the most explicit call to action- and it falls not just on individuals, which were mentioned a couple sections back, but states:
Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that 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: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet
And here’s the call for a rethinking of lifestyles:
The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”
Finally, Benedict zooms back out to contextualize the issue in a general moral framework:
In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life…the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves.
So, to recap, Benedict has done a lot in this section (I would argue too much). But, with respect to the environment, there are a few key moves to take note of: 1) humans have both rights and duties- the duties need to be paid more attention; 2) The environment is a gift to man, is not above man, and is not a utilitarian resource; 3) We owe it to God and to future humans to steward these resources; 4) Coordinated action of states and international institutions is needed to address this problem; 5) People have the duty to reexamine their own lifestyles; and 6) the environment can’t be separated from a broaded moral framework that respects life.
I think the 6 points I’ve gleaned are pretty coherent and actionable. Benedict has done a good job laying out, for our time, the right way of thinking about the environment.