Liberals are positively giddy that Pope Francis has joined their crusade against fossil fuels. They are probably disappointed that he didn’t blast the Koch Brothers, too, in his widely heralded encyclical.
“Laudato Si,” translated as “Praise be to You: On Care for our Common Home” is a mostly hard-left document that argues for redistribution of wealth on a global scale, champions increased supra-national authority, derides market-based solutions and – yes – promotes efforts (though not the most popular ones) to curb global warming.
Its timing is not an accident. As the nations of the world head to Paris for a conference on climate change this December, President Obama will demand that Americans grant him authority to compromise our growth by setting ever-tougher emissions standards.
We will be asked to sacrifice the enormous competitive advantage we enjoy by dint of our plentiful and cheap supplies of energy. We will be told that the United States must set an example by hobbling our industries and raising costs for our citizens, while we accept in good faith that the Chinese -- by far the world’s largest polluter -- will do likewise. President Obama is desperate to conclude a legacy deal; he will apparently have Pope Francis on his side.
The Pope and Obama’s radical environmentalism doesn’t alarm The New York Times, which has printed thousands words on the pope’s message while notably not highlighting his reaffirmed opposition to abortion, or his enthusiastic endorsement of work. “Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs,” he writes. “The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.” Who knew Pope Francis backed welfare reform?
Pope Francis’ encyclical will strike a chord with many who abhor today’s culture of self-absorption, instant gratification, and love affair with new gizmos. Many people will sympathize with the Pope’s dismay over declining ethical standards and short-termism, and his concern over evolving techniques in genetics, for instance. But, it is impossible to accept the encyclical’s central attack on capitalism and consumerism – or, what we might call progress.
You cannot cherry pick from the Pope’s paper, which is what environmentalists are doing. Francis’ message is all encompassing, and perfectly congruent. His is a world of hair shirts and poverty vows – not of iPhones and Pop Tarts. It is a world where the desire for consumer goods, like roofs and soybeans, for instance, should not vault ahead of spiritual connections to Mother Earth and care for all living things.
While the message has an Elvira Madigan appeal – feeding sparrows trumps making plastics -- it is mainly appealing to (and directed at) those living in wealthy industrialized countries who eat three meals a day and have heat in the winter. Poor people in India or Africa may not be so enthusiastic.
The Pope’s encyclical is a grumpy but also revolutionary – and perhaps even dangerous -- document; censorious 78-year-old meets Occupy Wall Street. It is, of course, the United States and other wealthy developed countries that Pope Francis targets. He links reversing global warming with eliminating poverty and seeks a redistribution of wealth, suggesting “…the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”
Francis claims that global corporations are weakening the power of nations; this trend should be countered, he suggests, by “stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions.” A “true world authority,” as an earlier pope suggested. “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed.”
There is an over-arching suggestion that humanity should go backward, not forward. How this would benefit the poor is unclear. Perhaps because it would not. It is impossible to argue that capitalism has not lifted billions out of poverty since the Industrial Revolution. Food and healthcare have become more widely available because of development, not in spite of it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States. James Otteson, writing for the Manhattan Institute notes, “In 1800, the total population in America was 5.3 million, life expectancy was 39, and the real gross domestic product per capita was $1,343 (in 2010 dollars); in 2011, our population was 308 million, our life expectancy was 78, and our GDP per capita was $48,800.
Thus even while the population increased 58-fold, our life expectancy doubled, and our GDP per capita increased almost 36-fold. Such growth is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Considering that worldwide per-capita real income for the previous 99.9 percent of human existence averaged consistently around $1 per day -- that is extraordinary.”
Pope Francis comes by his anti-capitalist bias honestly. He hails from Argentina, a country that has squandered its plentiful resources over time, ranks near the top in income inequality, posted the biggest bankruptcy of all time, and failed to deliver on the promise of capitalism. Argentina ranks the 107th most corrupt country in the world – in a league with Moldova and Niger.
Perhaps because of its poor performance, Argentina is uniquely anti-American in South America. According to a Pew survey, 65 percent of the people in Brazil, 72 percent of Chileans, 71 percent of Nicaraguans and even 62 percent of Venezuelans had a favorable view of the U.S. Alone on the continent, only a minority of people in Argentina –36 percent -- gave Uncle Sam a thumbs-up.
Pope Francis is the first non-European leader of the Catholic Church in 1,200 years. He was elected to bring fresh air and new perspectives to the Church of Peter. That he has done. Unhappily, though his ambitions are no doubt pure, his conclusions are wrong-headed. The poor of India, Africa and elsewhere will prosper through growth and development; denying them that opportunity in the service of Mother Earth is not the answer. Nor is giving up our energy advantage to the Chinese.
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