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.
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.