In doing so, Francis aligns himself with mainstream science on what is causing climate change: man’s consumption of fossil fuels and their attendant emissions.
“Most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity,” he writes. “Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space.”
But much of the document serves as a critique of tech culture, and the belief that we can simply innovate our way to addressing the world’s problems. Tech is actually mentioned more than 100 times in the document.
“The technocratic paradigm … tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings,” he writes.
As he constructs his argument, Francis builds on the work of other Vatican figures who have made similar critiques. Calling out what he sees as a “throwaway culture” of consumption and the “constant flood of new products coexist[ing] with a tedious monotony, Francis quotes a 2009 encyclical from his predecessor Pope Benedict, who said the world is in the midst of ‘A sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation.
He also cites Romano Guardini, a major 20th century Catholic philosopher, who in a book published in 1965 wrote, “…The gadgets and technics forced upon [humanity] by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself.”
This situation, Francis says, “leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power."
And he quotes a 2004 treatise issued by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, hitting out at “ the false notion that ‘an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.”
The Pope acknowledges that we do need technologies that can help slow climate change, like switching more power sources to renewable energy, making highrises more energy efficient, and investing in carbon capture and storage.
But to rely solely on technological solutions to climate change “would be dealing merely with symptoms," he says, as it ignores “the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”
So what is the solution? Something more profound—though, surprisingly, not anything specifically rooted in the Catholic Church, per se. But it will be difficult to get there, because our current society makes the setup hard to imagine.
“It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same,” he says.
But it’s not impossible. Here’s what it would look like:
“Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. 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 beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.