Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Call me Troglodyte: The Cross and carbon credits

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 22, 2015

At the recent Vatican conference on climate change and human trafficking, Governor Jerry Brown of California accused powerful U.S. corporate interests of denying climate change. He said these “interests” use their money and influence “to keep from office people such as yourselves and elect troglodytes and other deniers of the obvious science.” Actually, there are a lot better reasons for keeping people like Brown out of office and, if the American political experience is any guide, very few elections anywhere have come down to climate change—or any other dispute over scientific evidence.

Pope Francis is obviously quite interested in tying concern about climate change to other important social issues—usually, for Vatican conferences, human trafficking. Whether or not he is right in his assumption that the most common scientific opinion about anthropogenic global warming is correct, the Pope is absolutely on target in his insistence that we view nature as a gift for the benefit of all, and avoid a technocratic attitude toward Creation.

The tragedy of the technocratic viewpoint is clear in the way we exploit nature, including even our own bodies, in the service of disordered human desires. God’s gifts are constantly abused and distorted to serve our appetites, particularly greed and lust.

But it is precisely conferences like this one at the Vatican which prove again what an enormous moral distraction arguments about climate change can be. That a strongly pro-abortion politician should be able to use a Vatican event to seize the moral high ground by denouncing his opponents as troglodytes beggars the imagination.

You say troglodyte…

While the term troglodyte has come to mean someone whose ideas are outmoded and reactionary, it originally referred to ancient peoples who lived chiefly in caves. But wait: One cannot help pointing out the enormous benefits to the environment of cave-dwelling, by which both heating and air-conditioning are performed as God apparently intended. Few practices could be more in keeping with the principles of Laudato Si’.

Living simply, after all, is the essence of the Christian concern for both detachment from the world and the universal destination of goods. If we can grow in our ability to view each benefit as a gift to be preserved, developed, perfected and shared according to the will of the Creator, we would all be far better off. For one thing, we would have little need to listen to the self-righteous posturing of leaders who have larger carbon footprints than most of us ever will, such as Jerry Brown or the American face of global warming, Al Gore.

I have already written extensively about why it seems to me that the science of climate change is still in its infancy, lacking in reliable predictive power (see Scientific Disagreement about Climate Change back in 2012). But at the start of that piece, I pointed to two previous essays on an even more important issue (see The Moral Downside of Climate Change and Climate Change and Moral Knowledge). For I had already argued that the biggest problem with “climate preoccupation” is not the accuracy of the science but the way so many of its most vocal proponents use doomsday scenarios to deflect attention from the results of their own profligacy. I am referring to the enormous suffering caused by their consistent efforts to stamp out the basic moral values which enable persons, families and societies to thrive in the first place—even when the weather is excellent.

…and I say technocrat

The technocratic mindset sees nature as an accident which we must repurpose on demand to satisfy our own desires. For those infected by the technocratic bug, this may mean anything from raping natural resources to get rich to reconfiguring human bodies to achieve a sexual fantasy. Because this attitude is fundamentally manipulative, it is fundamentally individualistic and selfish. It sees nature as a whole, including other people and even one’s own body, as so much raw material to be used in producing personal satisfaction.

Again, the problem with this attitude is that natural things are viewed as instruments of essentially selfish desire. This inescapably undermines not only the universal destination of goods but any possibility of seeking to do God’s will. Rather, in the name of personal “autonomy”, the self insists that reality be redefined in accordance with each inordinate desire. Nature is viewed neither as a gift to be cherished nor as a reflection of the Creator’s loving plan for our well-being.

This is one of the main points in Laudato Si’, yet it seems to be the last thing that the major proponents of climate crisis understand. Pope Francis keeps trying to link our various ecological crises to this technocratic instrumentalization, but it is almost inevitable that the world will read Francis selectively, using his moral authority for their own programs  while conveniently ignoring the larger moral implications—as exemplified by the hedonism of the contemporary West.

If climate change, or any particular environmental problem, is a real threat, then that threat is produced in large part by profligacy on an enormous scale—a kind of cultural profligacy which we scarcely know how to escape. But it is the same profligacy which leads to pornography, sexual perversion, contraception, abortion, surgical enhancement or elimination of our sexual identity, divorce, the refusal to have children, the destruction of the family, exploitation of the weak in a thousand forms, and every other disorder which arises when nature is viewed as a substance to be manipulated for me.

Pope Francis has said that the solution must come from conversion, not from the technocratic fallacy. It must come from the recognition that Creation is a gift from a loving Father who desires nothing more than to teach us how to be happy by drawing us to Himself. But while this is the message of Pope Francis, nothing even remotely like it is driving the broader discussion of climate change which the Vatican academies have been attempting (rather ineptly, I think) to transform. Instead, the danger remains just what I said it was three years ago.

Will climate change advocacy be transformed by the Cross? Or will the Cross be confused with carbon credits for the rich?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jul. 25, 2015 7:22 PM ET USA

    Liberals tell us “the vast majority of scientists say it is so, therefore it is a settled fact. How do we really know we have a climate problem? We don't have solid data over 1,000s of years to know what normal climate variations are. In the USSR days data was reported from their far flung northern outposts. When the USSR collapsed most of that data stopped being reported. This would cause a temperature rise. Many other non-climate related things cause the reported temperature to rise.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 25, 2015 12:00 PM ET USA

    james-w-anderson8230: You are right, of course, but I presume most readers understood me to be referring to human-caused environmental problems. Outside of that context, the entire essay makes no sense. Remember that Laudato Si' did not restrict itself to climate change, but discussed many other kinds of environmental depradation specifically undertaken for the self-interest of individuals, companies, and nations.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jul. 25, 2015 1:06 AM ET USA

    You state "If climate change, or any particular environmental problem, is a real threat, then that threat is produced in large part by profligacy on an enormous scale". You are contradicting history! The climate change that wiped out the dinosaurs was a real threat and man wasn't there. The last ice age wasn't caused by man. The following mini ice age wasn't caused by man. How can you assume the next climate change will be caused by man?

  • Posted by: - Jul. 24, 2015 5:48 PM ET USA

    No doubt, we do have climate change which probably has occurred since the beginning of creation in one form or another. People should conserve water and take care of other resources. One good blast of that volcano in Yellowstone could end it all for quite some time. Trust that God is in control.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 23, 2015 9:15 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus is insightful on every point in this essay. My comment is that previous popes restricted their official statements to theological matters, reserving speculations about current political controversies as an aside. The tight rope being walked by Pope Francis is his deference to political controversy as of equal importance to theological truth. The message we Catholics take from his official pronouncements is often opposite that taken by the secular culture.