The Pope, the Poor and Climate Change

Man is the despoiler in the Church of St. Green, but Genesis says we are here to work the earth.

Pope Francis addresses the crowd at St.Peter's square at the Vatican on Sunday. ENLARGE
Pope Francis addresses the crowd at St.Peter’s square at the Vatican on Sunday. Photo: TIZIANA FABITIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

William McGurn

April 20, 2015 7:31 p.m. ET

This Wednesday we mark Earth Day. A week from now, the Vatican will add its own contribution to what Pope Francis calls “human ecology” in the form of a summit called “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity.” The summit will in turn be followed by an encyclical some time later this year.

Many find the whole idea unsettling. They fear it means a papal imprimatur for the political and economic orthodoxies of the green movement, confusing the faithful and leading to another series of press conferences that will begin with a Vatican spokesman saying, “What the pope meant to say . . .”

The fears are not without cause. There are many signs that do not augur well, from the muddled section on economics in the pope’s first encyclical to his posing for a photo while holding up an anti-fracking T-shirt, to press coverage anticipating he will be to the fight against greenhouse gases what Pope John Paul II was to the fight against Soviet communism.

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Main Street Columnist Bill McGurn on the Vatican’s embrace of environmentalism. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Even so, the topic is ripe for precisely the kind of corrective a pope has to offer: a reminder that God’s creation is meant to serve man—not man the environment. And its corollary: It is the have-nots who pay the highest price for the statist interventions so beloved of the Church of St. Green.

The Judeo-Christian view takes its lead from Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Plainly this imposes on mankind an obligation of stewardship. And yes, we can all think of people and regions that have suffered because someone exploited an area for private gain while dumping all the costs on the public.

Still, the first part of that Genesis passage means something too: that the earth is to be worked, and that this work and the fruit it bears are also blessed.

After all, what is work but the application of human ingenuity and labor to God’s creation to increase God’s bounty? For Genesis also tells us we are fashioned in the image and likeness of our Creator. In a sense this means we are at our most human when we use our God-given talents to participate in acts of co-creation.

How different this is from the narrative that dominates the conversation on the environment, and especially the conversation on climate change. All too often the vision of man here is as the despoiler, speeding the planet along the path to doom and destruction.

In this reading, modern technology is almost always an enemy, progress is illusory and more babies mean more carbon footprints melting the ice caps where polar bears live. Indeed, the number of environmentalists who end up embracing population control is astounding. Likewise their language, which tends to the apocalyptic—from Paul Ehrlich calling his book “The Population Bomb” to the conservationist Paul Watson characterizing humans as “the AIDS of the earth.”

When this thinking is taken to its logical conclusion, it’s not Swedish or American women or their babies who find themselves targeted. It is African women and African babies, Chinese women and Chinese babies, Indian women and Indian babies, Latino women and Latino babies, and so on. Something, perhaps, for the pope to ponder next time he’s in the mood to preach against noxious Western exports.

Meanwhile, encouraging a sturdier appreciation in the green movement for man’s ability to use his mind to find solutions for the earth’s problems would help. Take, for example, two popular targets of the environmental movement: chemicals and fossil fuels.

Those of us who get our fruit and vegetables at Whole Foods may have a hard time appreciating the scourge that insects, parasites and disease are to those in poorer parts of the world. Or the high price these people pay when they are denied these man-made tools in the name of some environmental fad.

How many African children died, for example, when the use of DDT on the continent—arguably the most effective anti-mosquito insecticide—declined after the U.S. banned it in 1972 on the basis of pop science? Along the same lines, when we measure the costs of fossil fuels, shouldn’t we include the human costs that result when restrictions on fossil fuels would mean denying hundreds of millions of people in the developing world the life-enhancing improvements that come from cheaper energy?

In its unwillingness to consider such trade-offs, modern environmentalism at times takes on the aspects of an authoritarian religion for the wealthy, with its own Eden (earth before man ruined it); its heretics (skeptics about man’s contributions to global warming are “deniers”); and its indulgences (make up for your corporate jet by driving a Prius).

All well worth not only mentioning but highlighting, especially in a papal effort that aims at putting the human back in human ecology.

Jerry Stergios
Jerry Stergios 1 hour ago

The Pope should confine himself to spiritual matters, otherwise “good works” devolve into crusades and matters of pride. To paraphrase Luther, are those works good enough?

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