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The Pope, the Planet and the Conservative Revolution

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The Vatican has published the long awaited encyclical of Pope Francis today. An encyclical[1] is a “circular letter” from the Pontiff to an audience of Bishops and Archbishops; the audience could be a region, a country or the whole world. The purpose of the letter is to guide these prelates in their relations with their flocks by clarifying the Pope’s view of certain issues that are sufficiently weighty to have come to the Holy Father’s attention. These are not always issues of faith or morals; they can also describe the Catholic Church’s views on items of high secular priority. The encyclicals Casti connubii and Humanae vitae issued by Popes Pius XI and Paul VI dealt with birth control and contraception; Leo XIII issued Rerum novarum in 1891 as a protest against both unrestrained capitalism and the new ideology of revolutionary communism that was spreading in the growing and miserable working classes; and John Paul II issued Centesimus annus in 1991 as a “modern update” to Leo’s previous work on the philosophy of Catholic social justice.

popes

Pope Francis has sent a letter, Laudato si[2], addressed to the whole Catholic hierarchy around the world which addresses both the urgent need to take action on climate change as well as building upon Rerum novarum and Centesimum annus in calling for a new way of thinking about economics that transcends traditional models and meets the urgent global demand for social inclusion, equality and justice. Francis warns of the serious consequences to everyone from the unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with the greatest burden falling unjustly on the poorest countries and the poorest individuals within countries. The Argentine cleric lives up to his candid reputation and is not afraid to assign the blame: knowingly reckless use of fossil fuels, rampant consumerism, political apathy, blind greed and excessive faith in technological solutions.

Conservatives around the world, including so-called Catholic conservatives, have been quick to disparage the contents of the encyclical, though the latter might have been a bit more circumspect in their condemnations…though not much. The more kindly have argued that poor Francis is in over his head and has been hoodwinked by the clever proponents of climate change; the more outraged have bluntly told the Pontiff to stay out of their business and stick to the unfathomable mysteries of the Triune God. Yet there isn’t anything particularly daring about the Pope’s message, other than that he dared to publish it at all.

The key points of Laudato si are wholly uncontroversial and brutally evident to our own personal observations[3]:

  1. Human activities, like deforestation and pollution, are causing mass extinctions. We lose thousands of species a year, most of which are unknown to us;
  2. Human activities are also exacerbating problems of drought and access to clean water supplies. California is only a recent rich country example, but the problems of water supply and contamination in Africa and the Middle East are a problem of daily survival for millions.
  3. The Pope calls access to clean water a basic and universal human right; something many billionaires would disagree with. For example, Peter Brabeck[4], CEO of Nestlé, argues that access to water ought to be regulated by the market, i.e. if you’re too poor, you don’t get any. This is the unbiased opinion of the man who runs a company that earned 7 billion dollars last year in the sale of bottled water while almost a billion people suffered from the lack of it;
  4. The international community has not acted enough to arrest the negative trends due to a lack of political will. The Pope is either being kind or coy here; in fact, the international community has not acted at all to arrest climate change. The reason hasn’t been lack of political will, it has been because the political classes around the world have been coopted by the very business interests that are most opposed to any change in the current fossil fuel and ruthless exploitation of nature regime. That includes so called “Communist China” which is about as Marxist as the Ming Dynasty;
  5. Technology and markets are no guarantee of social inclusion and full human development. That ought to be too obvious to elaborate on, though far too many people continue to refer to the “freedom of the market” as something almost sacrosanct: usually because they are already in a position of market dominance. Both technologies and markets are, of course, wholly neutral: they are tools and frameworks that serve human needs and act within human laws. Market capitalism is the most efficient system for creating wealth that we know, but market capitalism is blind to the distribution of that wealth. Technology may build better weapons as well as better artificial limbs to replace those lost by our veterans to our better weapons. The importance we give to one over the other depends wholly on our society and I’m afraid that this is where we are most evidently failing,

American conservatives have been most vocal in challenging the language chosen by the Holy Father, even before the encyclical was issued, perhaps because they are already on the campaign trail for 2016. Jeb Bush, who is Catholic, said that he doesn’t take economic advice from bishops or cardinals and that the Pope should steer clear of political issues[5]. While Mr. Bush is indeed right in echoing Kennedy that the Pope cannot dictate policy to a US President who happens to be Catholic, he entirely misses the point Francis is trying to make: this is not a “catholic” issue or a political issue, it is an issue that affects all of humanity.

Mr. Bush argues that the science of climate change is not yet clear, which echoes the line of all who deny human agency. But that argument is as biased and uncompelling as the decades of refutations and studies sponsored by tobacco companies to refute the link between smoking and lung cancer. It is a rear-guard action by self-interested partisans of the current economic regime to maximize doubt for as long as possible in order to maximize profits for as long as possible. Of course, climate change sceptics argue the opposite: this is all a plot by a bunch of liberal academics and “green companies” to introduce a carbon tax and support their own companies. The crook believes that everyone else is crooked too. But what is more believable? That thousands of fiercely competitive academics would form a worldwide cabal with a bunch of start-up green tech companies and agree to “invent” the science of climate change for economic gains that won’t benefit the majority of them? Or that the massively powerful, wealthy and influential fossil fuel and automotive industries would fund just enough studies and research by a handful of skeptical (or interested) climatologists to make a scientifically illiterate public doubt an issue which is yearly more obvious? Hmmmm….

temperature

The argument that climate models vary widely in their estimates of outcomes is wholly irrelevant. Before Sir Isaac Newton discovered the differential calculus that allowed him to elaborate the theory of gravity, no models whatsoever existed for it. Yet no one needed a model to predict the probable outcome of hurling themselves from a tall structure. Lack of model only points to the complexity of the system; not to the doubts about the trends or eventual impacts. Sea levels will rise, ice caps will melt, droughts will worsen, the intensity of storms will increase: whether these changes represent a 10% or 110% change are of course important, but not so important as the fact of change occurring. The nature of long-tailed phenomenon (low probability, high impact events) is such that we should be exceedingly cautious in relying on models anyway and highly conservative in protecting ourselves from the potential impacts. While we argue and the fossil fuel companies continue to extract their profits, the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached levels not seen since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 53 million years ago.

co2

Pope Francis’ encyclical has been dubbed revolutionary, but it is not: it is wholly in keeping with the long Catholic tradition of economic inclusion, social justice and environmental stewardship (long held, if often breached by those calling themselves Catholics). What is called for is a conservative revolution in the United States, a revolution by conservatives against what has become of their once Grand Old Party.

What happened to the Republicans of yesteryear? Where have they gone? That their descendants should so wholly reject this Papal message?

  • Was it not the Republican Party that sponsored and passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution? Did these not give African Americans all the rights and protections common to all citizens of the Union?
  • Didn’t the Republican Party vote in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment to establish Women’s Suffrage by a margin of 200 for, 19 against in the House and 30 for, 12 against in the Senate? In both cases, Republicans voted for Women’s Suffrage by a greater margin than Democrats;
  • Wasn’t it Republican Senator John Sherman and Republican President Benjamin Harrison who respectively sponsored and signed into law the Sherman Antitrust Act, a recognition of the wholly pernicious influence of anti-competitive monopolies and cartels – like Big Oil – on the public welfare? Wasn’t it consecutive Republican Administrations that were the most effective trust-busters of US history?
  • Didn’t that great Republican President Teddy Roosevelt create the National Park system and so found the American environmental movement? Haven’t generations of American hunters and fishermen protected and maintained our wild spaces and waterways, passing on great tracts of pristine public lands for the enjoyment and education of our sons and daughters?

republicans

That Republican Party is dead, unfortunately; slowly poisoned by the corrupting money of corporations and by the theocratic fanaticism of a small minority of its most radical wing. The GOP today has been exposed as a platform for bored billionaires, like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, or radical populists who are content through the dozens of hoops set for them by their oligarchic masters, like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson.  The Tea Party, despite some democratic promise as an initially grassroots organization, has been largely captured by a few billionaire sponsors; or else acts as a right-wing anarchist’s gripe club.

What our country needs is revolt by the real conservatives in America. The people who genuinely worry about public debt and deficits without demanding the abolition of government; the people who support free markets but also abhor monopolies; the people who want small government, but effective government; the people who want to protect traditional values without acting with xenophobic violence against those that are different. We need a real, representative Republican Party, not a slavish and increasingly white, geriatric front for a ruling class and nascent theocracy. America demands a Republican Party that is willing to fight for its ideals in the great forum of public opinions, but isn’t willing to tear down the Republic when the public chooses a different path.

I support the Holy Father’s position in Laudato si and what’s more, I’m calling for a return of the Grand Old Party to what it used to be: a bulwark of the American middle class and a great contributor to the strength of our two-party system. Rise up conservatives; restore your party to the glory brought it by such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.


Sources and Notes

[1] “What is an Encyclical?” Papal Encyclicals Online, The Vatican Archives, searched: 18 June 2015

[2] Jim Yardley and Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change,” The New York Times, 18 June 2015

[3] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “10 Key Excerpts from Pope Francis’s Encyclical On the Environment,” The Washington Post, 18 June 2015

[4] George McGraw, “Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck Says We Don’t Have a Right to Water, Believes We Do Have a Right to Water and Everyone’s Confused,” Huffington Post, 25 April 2013

[5] Steve Holland and Amanda Becker, “Jeb Bush: Pope Francis should steer clear of climate change,” Reuters, 16 June 2015

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