Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Chapter One: Our Common Home

Following up on my brief overview of the encyclical Laudato si, I'd now like to start going through the chapters one by one.  There are six of them and the first is titled What is happening to our common home?

To introduce it, consider this picture, part of an article that appeared in Life magazine in 1955.  (You can access this issue through Google Books.)

"The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean.", begins the article, "But no housewife need bother." [Hold the sexism, please.]  "They are all meant to be thrown away".

For the happy family in the picture, the invention of throwaway "pans, draperies, diapers, barbecue grills, duck decoys, beer and highball glasses, and a feeding dish for dogs" (etc) is a cause for unconditional celebration.

But Pope Francis sees it as a symptom of spiritual malaise.  Media coverage wants to call the encyclical "the Pope's statement on climate change" or something like that, and it is true that climate issues are front and center, both in Chapter 1 (which begins with a brisk summary about climate change) and elsewhere.  But on my reading, one of the key phrases of the first chapter is throwaway culture, which is introduced right after the initial discussion of climate:
These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. (22)
 As he develops this theme, Francis closely links two ideas:
  • The first is that an economic system that is based on a one way journey from resource to waste is not sustainable and, more importantly, that it is not in accord with the model revealed in the closed-cycle workings of the natural order.  Such an economic system may be expected to fail both by exhaustion of sources and by overfilling of sinks (the encyclical gives examples of each: water resources in the first case, climate pollution in the second).
  • The second is that treating the nonhuman created order as "throwaway" and treating other human beings as "throwaway" are part of the same moral deformation.  
 The second point is important because some (not all) of the pushback against the Encyclical is likely to argue that there is a tradeoff here: even though climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poorest, it does not follow that mitigating climate change is the best way to help the poor - perhaps we should regard mitigation as a luxury we should forgo in order to use resources to alleviate poverty in other, more effective ways.   (For instance, Bjorn Lomborg's response in USA Today tends in this direction.)

It seems to me that the Encyclical does not accept the "tradeoff" idea at all - and this is partly because it is operating at the level of ethics rather than policy.  Making of any part of the natural order merely an instrument or resource - "the chicken turned into an egg machine", as C.S.Lewis said - - already carries within it the roots of destructive greed.

So there is no place for the "weak response" of complacency in the face of the consequences of greed: the chapter mentions climate change, water shortages, biodiversity loss, and the decline in human relationships.


Eclipse Now said...

Interesting point. But what if the items we throw away don't come from the non-human created order, but instead come from a human created order instead? What if we so intensified our use (and reuse and replenishing) of our agricultural and forestry sectors, that almost everything we needed came from these areas and super-efficient recycling schemes? EG: Instead of landfill, Plasma Burners can turn ordinary household waste into about half the materials we need to build the next house or car!

Eclipse Now said...


John Roe said...

Thanks for your comments! If items are recycled, I would say that they are not "thrown away" - the essence of the "away" idea seems to me me to be that we want to sent something completely out of the realm that we have to deal with. But nonetheless, reducing consumption in teh first place, or reusing items, is still energetically (and maybe morally?) preferable to recycling... I confess to some skepticism about plasma burners and other "miracle technologies", e.g. see this post.