Did the Pope ask oil companies to do the impossible?
In an address to oil-company executives, Pope Francis said that “the more than one billion people without electricity today need to gain access to it.” It’s hard to disagree with that, right?
Then the Pope continued: “But that energy should also be clean, by a reduction in the systematic use of fossil fuels.”
Taken together, what do those two statements mean?
How does the Holy Father propose that we deliver electrical power to the people who currently do not have access? It could be done, at least theoretically, by greatly expanding our existing production facilities. But of course that would mean burning much more fossil fuel. Or we could satisfy the Pope’s second wish by cutting back on the consumption of fossil fuels, thereby reducing the amount of electrical energy available to the world, and making it a good deal less likely that those one billion people would have power any time soon.
So does Pope Francis want oil companies to provide more electricity for the poor? Or does he want them to reduce consumption of fossil fuels? Given present circumstances there is no realistic prospect for doing both. It’s an either-or choice.
Maybe, in the future, technological progress will allow us to produce electricity economically without using fossil fuels. At the moment, unfortunately, the alternatives are either prohibitively expensive or technically impractical. (And by the way, the alternative means of production involve their own environmental drawbacks.) It’s nice to imagine a future in which clean, safe energy is abundant. But that day is not likely to come soon enough to satisfy one billion impatient people. Meanwhile it is important to recognize that imaginary solutions do not solve practical problems.
In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Matthew, the crafty servant of St. Thomas More, states the problem succinctly:
I wish we could all have good luck, all the time! I wish we had wings! I wish rainwater was beer! But it isn’t!
A proposal for expanded power production would make sense, as a means of helping the poor. A proposal for reduced production might make sense as a means or preserving the environment, although it should be acknowledged that any ecological improvement would come at the expense of the poor people waiting for electricity. A proposal for expanded and reduced production is a statement without practical meaning or moral content.
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