The Critical Theory of Pope Francis III: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis (Laudato Si)

In Laudato Si: On care for our common home (2015), Pope Francis argues that one cannot rest with mere description of the symptoms of the ecological crisis without acknowledging its human origins. “A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us” (p. 78). It certainly has and my first two CP articles on the Pope’s Critical Theory set out his philosophical-religious reasons for why it has gone off-kilter. In chapter 3, “The human roots of the ecological crisis,” Pope Francis now focuses on the “dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world” (ibid.).

Technology: creativity and power

Humanity’s considerable technical prowess over the last two centuries – stream engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution and robotics, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies—has provided humanity with enormous benefits. We are right to rejoice: Pope John Paul II exclaimed that “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity” (p. 79). Pope Francis adds his praise: “How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?” (ibid.). Humanity, it appears, has a relentless impulse to overcome all material limitations.

Pope Francis also admits that “technoscience” can improve the quality of life, it can “also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to ‘leap’ into the world of beauty. Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? So, in the beauty intended by the one who uses new technical instruments and in the contemplation of such beauty, a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfilment which is uniquely human” (ibid.). Yet we must acknowledge that nuclear energy, knowledge of our DNA and many other abilities we have acquired has given us “tremendous power” (p. 80). Mega-corporations have the “economic resources” to use them and gain “an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used” (ibid.). “Nothing ensures”: these are portentous words as we stand back from the twentieth century and weep as we see an array of military technologies (including nuclear weapons) killing millions upon millions of people, driven by both those nations claiming to be “democratic” and those who do not. Francis emphasizes that today we have “an increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it” (ibid). These are searing and troubling questions.

Pope Francis believes that technologies (military and otherwise) are captive to myths of progress – “as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such” (ibid.). Here’s the rub: our “immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience …. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us” (p. 81). We don’t: a reckless, manic spirit is wandering around the geo-political landscape. For Francis, our freedom to make ethically responsible choices that enable all life to flourish can be “handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (ibid.).

The globalization of the technocratic paradigm

Pope Francis thinks that the “problem” goes even deeper: “it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (p. 82). Flowing in the Critical Theory tradition of Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, Francis argues that logical and rational procedures oriented to control over an external object is “already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something, formless, completely open to manipulation” (ibid.). Here, reason becomes instrumental rationality: domination over things and people. Pope Francis maintains that modern technical rationality does not receive “what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand” (ibid.).

Now, human beings no longer “extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational” (ibid.). Once the relationship slips into confrontation, there are no limits imposed on human actors. In the 1970s, the discourse of “limits to growth” crept into our thinking, challenging the idea there was an “infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit” (ibid.). Illustrations abound — as forests are cut to shreds to make way for cattle ranching (or some super-highway) and the coral reefs are bleached of life and colour.

The challenge for both secular and religious persons is to reject the idea that technological products are neutral. They aren’t. They “create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build” (p. 83). But it is one thing to shift one’s thought (or even world-view); it is quite another to overcome the “technological paradigm.” Technology, the Pope states, “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” (ibid.). Francis argues that the technocratic paradigm also “tends to dominate economic and political life” (p. 84). Neo-liberal globalized capitalism (my phrase) seizes technological advances to maximize its profits without “concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the economy” (ibid.). And our environment deteriorates. Market growth has not solved world hunger; and a technological quick-fix is inconceivable.

Driven by greed and delusion, a profit-driven, militarized economic system shows “no interest in mor e balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations” (ibid.). How can one disagree with Francis’ incisive condemnation that a sort of “’superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation” (p.85) defines our reality? Pope Francis confronts us with our failure to “see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth” (ibid.). He believes that the “fragmentation of knowledge” leads us away from our ability to appreciate the whole and the relationships between things.

Problems pertaining to the environment and the poor cannot be “dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests. A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there general ethical horizons to which one can appeal” (p. 86). One of Francis’ most penetrating critiques of our present response to ecological crises is his affirmation that a profound “perspective transformation” must occur: “there needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (ibid.).

We need to broaden our vision; this choice is ours to make. We can create another type of development and just progress. We can limit and direct technology. People throughout the world have invented less polluting means of production and created non-consumerist ways of life. “An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently through a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?” (p, 87). A new resistance exists in the cracks and crannies of life in our cities and rural areas: if one looks carefully. This new resistance, Pope Francis adds, is fueled by a “growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere” (ibid.).

The crisis and effects of modern anthropocentrism

Francis states that the “intrinsic dignity” (p. 89) of the world is compromised when nature is reduced to an “insensate order, a “cold body of facts,” or “raw material to be hammered into useful shape” (p.88). He thinks that modernity is “marked by an excessive anthropocentrism” that stands in the way of strengthening social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society” (p. 89). Pope Francis reminds us once again that our “’dominion’ over the
universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (p. 90). “Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for ‘instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature” (ibid.). The latter words are Pope John Paul II’s.

Francis warns humanity of a “misguided anthropocentrism”: shifting to a biocentric world-view entails ‘adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued” (p. 91). Nor can we assume to heal our relationship with nature “without healing all fundamental human relationships. Christian thought sees human beings as possessing a particular dignity above other creatures; it thus inculcates esteem for each person and respect for others. Our openness to others, each of whom is a ‘thou’ capable of knowing, loving and entering into dialogue, remains the source of our nobility as human persons. A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the ‘Thou’ of God” (p. 92). One can hear echoes of Habermas’ theory of communicative action and Buber’s I-Thou personalism in these words just read.

Pope Francis links the “culture of relativism” with the “cult of unlimited human power” (p. 93). “The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage” (ibid.). We satisfy our own desires and immediate needs, says Francis, in the “absence of objective truths or sound principles” (ibid.). The prevalent ideology of our times is—as we know—a post-modern relativism where truth is banned from the discourse.

Francis believes the lack of “objective truths” makes it difficult to place limits on “human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade. Commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species” (p. 94). “Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentalism, ore eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same ‘use and throw away’ logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (ibid.). Pope Francis’ concluding words for this chapter are that a “technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power” (p. 103).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.