Chapter III of Laudato Si is the chapter titled, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” covering ¶102-136, and it is here that people will probably begin to interpret what the Pope has to say depending on what prior understandings they hold. Based on ideological concerns, such people will read selectively and praise or condemn the Pope (depending on the political slant of the reader in relation to the sections read).
But that’s a real pity because the Pope has some excellent insights into the problems of society. Building on Chapter II on the relations of human persons with God, neighbor and creation, he discusses and develops two themes of his predecessors—Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI—the problems of technocratic and anthropomorphic thinking that miss the point of what is important. Speaking against technocracy is not a condemnation of technology, but a condemnation of certain ways of looking at humanity—just as a condemnation of scientism is not a condemnation of science but a condemnation of certain ways of looking at the world. Both cause harm and if we want to avoid the harm, we need to start thinking in different ways.
The Technocratic Mindset
He begins by praising the good that technology has done (¶102) when it modifies nature for the benefit of mankind, so anyone who invokes the old canard of the Church or the Pope being anti-science is demonstrating he or she has not read the encyclical or only read it superficially. However, the danger is that humanity is discovering extraordinarily powerful things which can be harmful, and there are no brakes to stop us from misusing them. He points out (¶104) the fact that totalitarian regimes have misused technology for terrible purposes and that the control of technology in the hands of the few is a dangerous thing.
He warns (¶105) about the view that the increase in power is an increase in progress is the result of an erroneous view that things give us freedom, but do not consider what the responsibilities are in using them. This makes a lot of sense—I recall hearing the old saying of “you can’t stop progress!” It assumes that technical progress is automatically thought of as proof of benefitting humanity as a whole. The Pope points out that economic and technological advances do not automatically equate with real good when we have very little control over what we do, saying " .
He warns (¶106) that we begin to think about things in terms of their utility and how they can be manipulated without thoughts to their consequences. As a result we treat resources as if they were easily renewable and don’t think about the consequences of their consumption. Indeed, we tend to think of the aims of technology as if they were the aims of society and views which question this are seen as countercultural. Technology isn’t used for the betterment of society, but in terms of profit and gratification.
I think the Holy Father makes some good insights here. We tend to think more about the features on the new Apple Watch than the effect of technology on helping people in the poor world, and we do have the idea that with the proper development of science and technology, we can eliminate all wants—look at Star Trek, with the backstory of technology eventually eliminating all want on earth and, consequently all crime and poverty and greed and places without this technical advance are seen as backwards societies. But the reality is, in the First World we get smart phones while people in the Third World die of diseases that are treatable and could be eliminated.
The Holy Father goes on to talk about the problems of specialization in technology making it harder to get the big picture about things in finding solutions to problems, and says that we need to go beyond just thinking in terms of science and technology, and consider social ethics and philosophy. Thus technology needs to be directed towards the big picture of the good of the whole and help improve the lot of all instead of being aimed at the what’s in it for me? mindset (¶109).
This all makes a lot of sense here. We tend towards gadgets which improve our high-tech lives while not thinking too much about whether that work could be used to benefit humanity as a whole. I mean tablets and laptops are useful, but they tend more towards the convenience of the person in a high tech society and less towards the survival of an individual in a low tech society. Of course, when someone suggests a change of priorities, we get bombarded with a lot of (irrelevant) arguments that “me not buying a new iPhone isn’t going to change the way things are!” True, but the decisions over where to focus on technology will.
The Pope points out this becomes even more significant when we consider that the personalized technology we have doesn’t seem to satisfy and we tend to look for novelties to fill that emptiness [¶113]. We can either confront the technocracy mindset or we can go on looking for new forms of escapism—which might explain why entertainment is growing more immersive and more extreme. It certainly explains my binge playing World of Warcraft for many years.
The Anthropomorphic Mindset
He also discusses the problems of anthropomorphism (¶115-128)—the view of humanity being the center of the universe with the productivity of humans being measuring their worth—thus the unborn and the disabled end up being viewed as having no value. [Hence, the push for abortion and euthanasia]. But, unless we recognize the value of humanity, we can’t form a proper value of creation. Thus he rejects abortion as being incompatible with a love of nature (¶121). Indeed, he points out:
122. A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.
Contrary to the accusations that the Pope was proposing things that were anti-business, he says that labor (which involves people) needs to be considered [¶124-128] as a relationship with something other than ourself. He points out that labor costs have human costs and vice versa. To stop investing in people for short term gain will have long term costs and harms society. Again, this is in keeping with the social teaching of the Church—thinking in terms of profits alone and not the good of the person working is a shortsighted mindset.
The chapter concludes [¶130-136] with discussion of biological technology and their impact. This may seem like a sudden jump-cut, but when you keep in mind the warnings against technocracy and anthropomorphic thinking, it serves as an example of how to approach science ethically.
Genetic manipulation that turns people and creation into exploitable commodities is wrong, but he recognizes that experimentation on animals can be valid when used for maintaining human life—which is consistent with his previous speaking against divinizing nature or reducing humanity to a cog or a menace. Science is good when used in love of God, neighbor and creation. He calls it difficult to assess the use of genetic modification in food, agriculture, medicine and animals. (He mentions the use of crossbreeding as an example of legitimate practices). But he also lists problems which need to be considered. He calls for broad scientific debate to look into the issues.
However, in keeping with his opposition to technocracy and anthropomorphism, he flat out condemns the genetic tampering with human embryos, finishing the chapter by saying (¶136):
There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.
Once again, we see the outrage/praise by people (depending on their political views) about the Pope writing a “climate change” encyclical are shown to be false. He speaks about a moral whole, where equating “technology” with progress and focusing on human individuals as the center of life without considering the relationship with God, neighbor and creation are the cause of harm done to self and others. What he says is true regardless of whether a person thinks “climate change” is true or thinks it is junk science. These attitudes the Pope warns against cause harm to people—morally, physically, socially and we need to change how we think about things if we want to improve things.
Next time, I will move on to Chapter IV—Integral Ecology.