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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Navigating Complexity and Catastrophe: From Laudato Si’ to the GND

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Peter Minowitz

AP Photo: Cliff Owen

Peter Minowitz is a professor of political science at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Environmental problems such as global warming pose potentially insurmountable challenges. In addition to summoning an array of painful trade-offs, these problems require us to address scientific complexities that dwarf any individual’s capacity for knowledge and analysis. It is probably impossible, finally, to specify all of the major costs and benefits that would ensue from all-encompassing proposals such as the Green New Deal (GND).

The painful trade-offs involve all five of the ethical “approaches” that the Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making outlines: Utilitarian, Rights, Fairness/Justice, Common Good, and Virtue. Replacing all of the world’s gas-powered cars with electric ones during the next two decades, for example, would promote utility and the common good by reducing the severity of heat waves and by slowing the rise of the oceans. But it would also eliminate millions of existing jobs; deplete resources that electric cars, lithium-ion batteries, and charging stations require; and convert massive current infrastructures into junk.

Trade-offs involving Rights and Fairness/Justice are unavoidable, meanwhile, when we turn our attention to agriculture. Cutting global consumption of beef and pork by 90% would slow the advance of climate change by reducing emissions of methane from livestock. There would be other great environmental benefits regarding water usage, waste disposal, and the clearing of forests to grow animal feed. To people who emphasize animal rights, furthermore, there is a strong ethical case for veganism.

As with the elimination of gasoline-based transportation, however, this 90% reduction would confront “utilitarian” trade-offs involving jobs and infrastructure. And some people would insist that using coercive measures (e.g., legislative bans and punitive taxes) violates the rights of individuals who want to eat beef or pork. Doing justice to animals, furthermore, might require that we sometimes do injustice to people by eliminating certain livelihoods and by reducing protein consumption. Cows, of course, also supply enormous quantities of milk.

Such considerations make us confront a vexing dilemma. On the one hand, we need impassioned exhortation to reduce climate complacency, i.e., to mobilize people to seek and implement programs for reducing carbon emissions. Such exhortation, however, also threatens to obscure important realities, e.g., the staggering difficulties that obstruct the GND goal of “meeting 100 percent” of U.S. power demand via “clean, renewable, and zero-emission” sources within just ten years. One difficulty is that solar power will struggle to provide round-the-clock global access to large amounts of electricity. And such access brings many benefits that promote utility, rights, fairness, the common good, and various types of virtue.

Critics have faulted the Green New Deal for ignoring capitalistic remedies such as carbon taxes; critics also complain that it ignores the abundant carbon-free electricity that nuclear power generates.[1] With well-designed carbon taxes, we would reduce the errors and evils that concentrated governmental power can produce; hundreds of millions of people, furthermore, would have potent incentives to creatively reorient their employment activities and their consumption decisions. The GND also adds potentially extravagant goals—e.g., providing “unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security” for everyone in America—that don’t directly address environmental ills. Unprecedented prosperity, indeed, might increase energy usage, habitat destruction, and certain types of pollution.

On October 16, our campus will feature a 12-hour reading of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. This encyclical (a “throughline” for many of our tUrn events) has been justly celebrated for an array of diverse contributions: the boosts it provides to environmental awareness; the appreciation it conveys for the complexities of the interrelationships that create and support earthly life; the critiques it provides of technocracy, utilitarianism, and consumerism; the trenchant pleas it issues on behalf of the global poor; and the scientific reminders it provides (e.g., concerning the ecological importance of “fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms” [34]) while advancing the Church’s reconciliation with Darwinism.

Unfortunately, Laudato Si’ is occasionally marred by oversimplification and rhetorical excess. As a university, SCU is ethically obliged to retain scholarly objectivity, especially to avoid demonizing individuals who might have reservations about the New Deals (Red as well as Green) that tUrn is promoting.

Like the Green New Deal, the encyclical has been criticized for belittling the prospects that market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade can be used to address global warming.[2] Few people, however, have commented on the challenges that the document’s embrace of modern biology, geology, and cosmology can pose to theology. And tUrn, like the GND, insists that its agenda is centered upon “science.”[3]

In paraphrasing the saint (Francis of Assisi) from whom the pope took his name, the encyclical says that “to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection” and that St. Francis therefore “felt called to care for all that exists” (11). The encyclical, however, only briefly addresses the predatory imperatives that nature imposes on so many of its creatures. ¶66, for example, suggests that one must invoke sin to explain how “the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual.” But how can the methods of natural science, social science, and history, which the Church now embraces, allow us to presume that human beings ever lived without the lethal mortality of aging, the threat of being eaten, and the need to struggle for food and shelter?

For hundreds of millions of years before the emergence of our species, predators were feasting on prey and thereby filling the land, sea, and air with suffering and violent death. Animals, furthermore, were routinely subjected to the pain of diseases, and various males fought for access to females. If one accepts such lessons taught by zoologists and paleontologists, it is very difficult to blame this immense suffering and destruction on “sin.” By invoking sin too casually, furthermore, the pope may encourage polarization and demonization.

The encyclical’s loudest protest concerning extinctions comes in its section on “Loss of Biodiversity,” where Francis asserts that “[t]he great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33). By using “become” (present tense) and mentioning their message “to us,” obviously, Francis is focusing on contemporary civilization, because “the great majority” (roughly 99%) of the species that have already disappeared predate Homo sapiens.

When we turn our thoughts to “sustainability” in the distant future, we confront the prospect that even if human civilization transformed itself according to the GND, geological and cosmic changes basically guarantee that extinction will proceed apace—and that our species will vanish over the course of the next billion years (probably a lot sooner). Granted, every thoughtful person should contemplate the encyclical’s warning that “[t]he pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world” (161). Catastrophes, though, we cannot escape—unless by technological miracles or divine intervention.

At the end of the encyclical, Francis presents an inspiring sketch of God’s kingdom. We are already “journeying towards the Sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem”; at the end, we’ll be able to perceive that we ourselves, along with the universe, will “share in unending plenitude”; and “each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all” (243). The wording seems to imply that every living thing—from the smallest virus to the largest dinosaur—will be reconstituted, and that human beings will finally be “liberated” from the harsh realities of biological struggle. To believe this, however, even those of us who are not skeptical about the existence of catastrophic human-caused global warming will need to let faith supplant key lessons taught by contemporary science.

[1] Although the 2/7/19 GND resolution simply ignores these alternatives, the corresponding FAQ document acknowledges that carbon taxes and “cap and trade” could play “a tiny role.” And although that document insists that no more nuclear plants be constructed, it concedes that the GND may be unable to “decommission” every existing nuclear plant “within 10 years.”

[2] According to ¶171, “the strategy of buying and selling ‘car­bon credits’ can lead to a new form of specula­tion which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environ­ment, but in no way does it allow for the radi­cal change which present circumstances require.”

[3] In the 9/23/19 memo that tUrn sent to SCU’s faculty and staff, we encountered these tributes (among others) to Greta Thunberg: “She’s got the math. She’s got the science.” No human being, however, understands more than a fraction of the science that we’ll need to master all of the challenges that climate change poses. And Thunberg is only 16.

Oct 14, 2019

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