Nine points that Pope Francis needs to make in his upcoming encyclical on the environment

Your Eminence:

My name is Vincent Torley, and I'm an Australian Catholic layman (now residing in Japan), with a Ph.D. in philosophy. My Webpage is here. I should mention that I am well-acquainted with the animal rights movement and that I have read fairly widely in the field of environmental ethics. Additionally, I am the author of a free pro-life electronic book, titled, Embryo and Einstein - Why They're Equal. In Section I of my book, I provide a detailed scientific rebuttal of the argument, put forward by many ecologists, that overpopulation and environmental destruction make abortion and population control a practical necessity.

The reason why I am writing to you is that I am greatly concerned that enemies of the Church - especially those writing for the secular press - will wickedly distort the meaning of His Holiness Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on the environment, to suit their own political agenda, which includes: (i) according legal rights to animals and to ecosystems - a move that would stymie land development projects in many Third World countries, preventing these countries from escaping poverty; and (ii) forcing birth control on Third World women, in the name of "saving the environment." In order to forestall any possibility of the secular press misinterpreting Pope Francis' encyclical, His Holiness would be well-advised to clearly and explicitly articulate the following nine points:

(a) first, any duties that human beings have with regard to God's creation are duties owed to God, and not to "Gaia" or the biosphere;

(b) second, the only duty that we have towards sentient non-rational animals is one of kindness. Sentient animals are not persons with a right to life;

(c) third, human beings have a God-given right to pursue the basic human goods of life and health, marriage and procreation, friendship, science (or the pursuit of knowledge), religion, art, work and play;

(d) fourth, our right to pursue these basic human goods cannot be over-ridden by the competing interests - whether individual or collective - of other creatures;

(e) fifth, the utilitarian notion that the interests of humans need to be balanced against those of other creatures is fundamentally mistaken, as it puts human interests on a common scale with other creatures;

(f) sixth, when pursuing a basic human good, we have an obligation to refrain from those activities that cause harm to God's creatures, only if an alternative way of realizing the same good can be found which causes less harm, and which leaves us equally free to pursue other human goods;

(g) seventh, species are not sacrosanct: hence a human activity which realizes a basic human good but which unintentionally results in the extinction of a species may be morally justifiable, under some circumstances;

(h) eighth, activities which are ecologically unsustainable in the long-term are not necessarily wrong in the short-term: such activities may be morally justified if there is a reasonable expectation that they will be discontinued long before their ecologically unsustainable consequences are felt; and

(i) ninth and finally, human beings have no obligation to limit the size of their families, in order to save the planet.

Here's why I believe that these nine points need to be emphasized in His Holiness' upcoming encyclical:

With regard to (a): some theologians have recently described environmental destruction as a sin against God's creation, which conveys the false impression that we have duties towards creation as a whole, or the biosphere. This is a philosophically mistaken view, since we can only have duties towards entities, and the biosphere is not an entity but a collection of entities. Such a view is also profoundly anti-human: according legal rights to rivers and forests, as some lawyers have recently proposed, and recognizing the legal personality of Nature, as the Ecuadorian Constitution already does, could result in a legal ban on land-clearing, which would stifle human development in poor countries which are trying to escape poverty.

With regard to (b): an Argentine court has recently ruled that an orangutan, who had spent 20 years in a zoo, should be recognized as a person with a right to freedom. By contrast, the constant teaching of the Catholic Church has been that sentient non-rational creatures do not have a right to life or liberty, and the only duty we owe these creatures is that of kindness, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in its section on the seventh commandment. Only human beings, who are made in the image of God, possess any right to life or liberty.

With regard to (c): pursuing the basic human goods is precisely what humans were created to do, as our human nature is fulfilled by the attainment of these goods. To put it bluntly: if we don't have the right to pursue these goods, then we don't have the right to do anything. Our right to pursue these basic human goods does not require the consent of other creatures, as it is our inalienable, God-given right to pursue the goods that human beings were intended by their Creator to pursue.

With regard to (d): even in those situations when the interests of people pursuing the basic human goods clash with the interests of other creatures, we shouldn't have to apologize to other creatures for pursuing those goods which fulfill us as human beings. Instead, the question we should ask ourselves in such situations is: can we find a way of pursuing the same goods, but in a way which minimizes the harm done to God's creatures?

With regard to (e): the balance metaphor is widely invoked by environmental ethicists. The flaw underlying the metaphor needs to be laid bare. Man is an animal like no other, who is capable of knowing and loving his Creator. To rank human interests on a common scale with those of other creatures is like comparing apples and oranges.

With regard to (f): when we consider the morality of hunting for sport, we can see that it realizes the basic human good of play. However, there are other forms of play - e.g. target shooting - which realize the same basic human good, without harming God's creatures. Hence one could justifiably argue that hunting for sport is immoral. Or consider the morality of meat-eating. Environmental scientists tell us that humanity could dramatically reduce its ecological footprint - and feed more people - by foregoing meat, and eating fish and vegetables instead. While there are sound nutritional arguments against an all-vegetarian diet, it is certainly possible for human beings to have a healthy diet by substituting fish for meat. Hence one could justifiably argue that in those times when meat-eating would be ecologically unsustainable, human beings should switch to a fish-and-vegetables diet. On the other hand, consider the deforestation of the Amazon, which is lifting people out of poverty in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and the other five nations whose territories cover 40 percent of the Amazon basin (see the recent Washington Post article, South American commodity boom drives deforestation and land conflicts). People are chopping down trees in a scramble for oil, minerals and cropland. Is this a bad thing? I think not. The money that these countries get from these commodities is going to build schools, houses and hospitals, thereby helping these countries' citizens to pursue the basic human goods of life, health and the pursuit of knowledge. Additionally, there isn't any other feasible way for these countries to acquire the same amount of money through other, less destructive means. In this situation, then, deforestation is regrettable, but wholly justifiable.

With regard to (g): consider the widely cited textbook case of a government which is planning to build a road that runs through a forest, where the most direct route would run right through the habitat of an endangered species. Is the government obliged to build a more roundabout route that would save that species, and thereby reduce the harm done to God's creation? The obvious answer would seem to be "Yes." But now suppose that the government is building is building not one but 1,000 new roads, many of which go through habitats of endangered species, and suppose also that constructing more roundabout routes would add $1 billion to the total construction bill - money that could be spent on building hospitals, educating the country's children, or providing welfare services to the poor. Is the government then obliged to spend the extra $1 billion? I would answer "No." The destruction of a species, however tragic it may be, cannot be invoked as grounds for deterring human beings from pursuing the basic human goods. Or again, consider the billions of dollars currently spent each year on fighting global warming. Even if the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is completely correct when it warns that a doubling in CO2 levels would endanger the Earth's biosphere, the fact remains that millions of children around the world die every year from childhood diseases and malnutrition. The threat to the Earth's biosphere is decades away, while the specter of infant mortality constitutes a clear and present danger. Consequently it would be wickedly immoral for a First World government to reduce spending on combating malnutrition, and to divert money instead to projects aimed at saving the Earth's biosphere. People come first, and presently existing people take precedence over yet-to-be-born ones, as only actual entities can be said to have rights.

With regard to (h): nobody could deny that industrialization, which has lifted countries around the world out of poverty, was morally justifiable: it raised the living standards of ordinary people, enabling them to find work, feed their families, and eventually, earn enough money to send their children to school. Yet experience shows that the process of industrialization has never been carried out in an ecologically sustainable fashion; nor could it have been. From Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to China and India in the late twentieth century, the story is always the same: during its first few decades, industrialization invariably required the burning of large amount of coal and generated massive levels of air and water pollution. Only when citizens were more affluent were they able to demand (and obtain) cleaner air and water: before then, their governments would have been too poor to make industries comply with citizens' requests. Why was this environmental damage justifiable? Because it was temporary: it lasted for a few decades, until countries became wealthy enough to enforce more stringent environmental standards.

With regard to (i): the Pope may appeal, in his encyclical, to a scientific consensus that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are endangering the Earth's biosphere. However, the secular press is sure to point out that there is an equally strong scientific consensus, at the present time, that overpopulation is a leading factor behind the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases, and that the Earth's maximum sustainable human population, where people enjoy a First World standard of living and a Western-style diet, is about two billion people, based on current technology. The world's population is currently 7.2 billion and is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. For these reasons, many scientists argue that people have a moral obligation to have no more than two children, which runs contrary to the 3,000-year-old Judeo-Christian tradition that human beings have a God-given right to "be fruitful and multiply." To counteract the secular perception that the Pope is implicitly endorsing the notion that we need to reduce family sizes in order to save the planet, His Holiness needs to do one of three things:

(i) emphatically declare that he rejects the scientific consensus on Earth's maximum sustainable population. If His Holiness wants to make this argument, then the resources I have collected here may be of some assistance;

(ii) declare that he accepts the scientific consensus on Earth's maximum sustainable population, but add that he expects people to cut back not on family sizes but on on meat-eating, and switch to a more vegetarian diet, in order to save the planet;

(iii) explain that while he accepts the consensus on Earth's maximum sustainable population, he also believes that God, in His foresight, has provided a solution for every human problem, and that we should trust that scientists will discover technologies that can increase the Earth's maximum sustainable human population, allowing people to have large families if they wish. His Holiness should also add that nuclear energy may turn out to be a vital technology for reducing CO2 emissions. A recent report signed by no less than 65 of the world's leading conservation biologists has concluded that nuclear power is the greenest option.

Lastly, I am sure that some members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will be urging His Holiness to take a public stand against global warming "deniers." I believe that His Holiness should resist this temptation, as it over-simplifies the global warming debate, and overlooks the "thoughtful middle": people who accept the reality of man-made global warming but don't think that a doubling of CO2 levels would pose a critical danger to the biosphere. Based on what I have read, I believe that the long-term result (the technical term for which is equilibrium climate sensitivity) of such a doubling would be a rise of slightly less than 2 degrees Celsius (which is probably sustainable) and that CO2 levels are unlikely to go beyond 800 parts per million, in the future: by the end of the century, the widespread adoption of nuclear power - especially by China - could prevent further increases in CO2.

I sincerely hope that these reflections may be of assistance to Your Eminences, and that you will convey their contents to anyone else who may find them useful. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to read this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Vincent Torley
14 January 2015