On Care For Our Common Home

There’s been a sea change on attitudes toward global warming in the last couple of years, which makes me feel much less need to determine the basic facts of the matter, or convince people of these facts. The challenge is now to do something.

Even the biggest European oil and gas companies are calling for a carbon tax! Their motives, of course, should be suspect. But they have realized it’s hopeless to argue about the basics. They wrote a letter to the United Nations beginning:

Dear Excellencies:

Climate change is a critical challenge for our world. As major companies from the oil & gas sector, we recognize both the importance of the climate challenge and the importance of energy to human life and well-being. We acknowledge that the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions is in excess of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is needed to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The challenge is how to meet greater energy demand with less CO2. We stand ready to play our part.

It seems there are just a few places, mostly former British colonies, where questioning the reality and importance of man-made global warming is a popular stance among politicians. Unfortunately one of these, the United States, is a big carbon emitter. Otherwise we could just ignore these holdouts.

Given all this, it’s not so surprising that Pope Francis has joined the crowd and released a document on environmental issues:

• Pope Francis, Enyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home.

Still, it is interesting to read this document, because unlike most reports we read on climate change, it addresses the cultural and spiritual dimensions of this problem.

I believe arguments should be judged by their merits, not the fact that they’re made by someone with an impressive title like

His Holiness Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.

(Note the hat-tip to Darwin there. )

But in fact Francis has some interesting things to say. And among all the reportage on this issue, it’s hard to find more than quick snippets of the actual 182-page document, which is actually quite interesting. So, let me quote a bit.

I will try to dodge the explicitly Christian bits, because I really don’t want people arguing about religion on this blog—in fact I won’t allow it. Of course discussing what the Pope says without getting into Christianity is very difficult and perhaps even absurd. But let’s try.

I will also skip the extensive section where he summarizes the science. It’s very readable, and for an audience who doesn’t want numbers and graphs it’s excellent. But I figure the audience of this blog already knows that material.

So, here are some of the passages I found most interesting.

St. Francis of Assisi

He discusses how St. Francis of Assisi has been an example to him, and says:

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.

[…]

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Weak responses

On the responses to ecological problems thus far:

The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document urges that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources”. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.

On the risks:

It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims.

Everything is connected

He writes:

Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.

Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships
with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”.

Technology: creativity and power

Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, bridges, buildings and public spaces. It can also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to “leap” into the world of beauty. Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? Valuable works of art and music now make use of new technologies. So, in the beauty intended by the one who uses new technical instruments and in the contemplation of such beauty, a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfilment which is uniquely human.

Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.

The globalization of the technocratic paradigm

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is 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 difficulty of changing course

The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. 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. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.

The technocratic paradigm also 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. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.

Toward an ecological culture

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. 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?

Integral ecology

Near the end he calls the for the development of an ‘integral ecology’. I find it fascinating that this has something in common with ‘network theory’:

Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.

Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom. Ongoing research should also give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. We take these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.

Ecological education

He concludes by discussing the need for ‘ecological education’.

Environmental education has broadened its goals. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly centred on scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, it tends now to include a critique of the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market). It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.

Even small good practices can encourage new attitudes:

Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.

We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.

Part of the goal is to be more closely attentive to what we have, not fooled into thinking we’d always be happier with more:

It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

44 Responses to On Care For Our Common Home

1. Paul Mainardi says:

Thanks much for this John. This is the level where discussion needs to be but is not yet. You can hear in tones of voice that people are locked in the usual place of separation from nature. Pm

2. Thanks for this core excerpt!

By bad luck I stumbled upon §50 first, and got mightily disappointed: It is evil rhetoric (false dichotomy) to avoid facing the other elephant in the room: population pressure. For a fully integral ecological acceptance of the world you can not evade the population question. Ask the Rwandans or Syrians or the Lemmings. Both elephants are already teaming together in their destructive strengths.

• Actually, “population pressure” is a red herring. I attended the New England Statistics Symposium in April (2015) where a keynote speaker was Adrian E. Raftery of University of Washington, a famous Bayesian. (His work with UN population estimates has been mentioned in SCIENCE, for instance, e.g., http://news.sciencemag.org/economics/2014/09/experts-be-damned-world-population-will-continue-rise.) A recent paper he co-authored was:

Maltiel, R., Raftery, A.E., McCormick, T.H. and Baraff (in press). Estimating Population Size Using the Network Scale Up Method. Annals of Applied Statistics, to appear. There’s an older version available at: http://www.csss.washington.edu/Papers/wp129.pdf

From my notes on his talk, and highlighting his PNAS paper, http://www.pnas.org/content/109/35/13915.abstract, work done jointly with the UN population division, world population is actually stable with the exception of Africa and, in particular, Nigeria. It’s likely to level out at around 11 billion in 2100 given present trends. Both UN and Nigerian government are aware of the problem, and root causes appear to be social concept of what constitutes an ideal sized family, which there is seen as large, and because of poor education for young women. As in many places around the world, once women are educated, family planning comes to fore. It is not simply whether or not contraception is available. Countries appear to systematically move through phases, and the matter is complicated. For instance, the Chinese one-child policy is vastly overrated as a means of population control. At the moment that was instituted, China already had experienced a 2/3 decline in fertility, with fertility rates taking trajectories with one-child policy similar to Taiwan and Singapore.

• 11 billion? Lord (if existing) have mercy on them! So, we are very far from “stabilization”. Maybe 2100 we can relocate 1 billion of 2.5 billion Indians to Siberia. Catholic rural Philipino girls are already exported and available all over Europe and Russia.

A common fallacy is to take the global average view on population and agricultural productivity. The problem is of course local. You can’t breed another 200 million Nigerians and rely on Iowa corn to feed them.

• It turns global when they start migrating. E.g. Europe currently has a refugee crisis, 1000s drowning in the Mediterranean, unknown numbers left dead in the Sahara. How will this be in 2050 when climate change hits much harder and multiplies with poverty and population pressure? E.g. how will 150 million Egyptians be fed from a submerged Nile delta, without oil exports to pay for wheat imports? Surely Europe will find a smart solution…

Repeating Francis’ words: “At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness.”

(Me now gone for a week)

• Mind, I did not convey Raftery’s entire talk. The estimate of population conveyed is a steady-state solution to a system of equations which has, as its positive forcing function, birth rate, and as negative forcings, disease, famine, and so on. It does not consider effects of climate change, although estimates of population are used in doing impact assessments. The modeling done for demography, pioneered by Raftery and colleagues, includes Total Fertility Rate (“TFR”) which includes these effects. The case of the population trajectory for Brazil is instructive.

I would urge a read of the PNAS paper.

• Did I say “refugee crisis”? That was before the recent swell to proportions not seen since WW2. Still, it’s just the humble beginning.

Still, it’s just the humble beginning.

Martin, I agree. By the way in this talk Michael Lüders explains that the uprising against Assad was first mostly initiated people in the lower middle class in the suburbs of cities and by farmers which partially had to leave their land because of DROUGHT and other things (in german around 48:11).

…had to leave their land because of DROUGHT

I don’t know though wether he has concrete numbers in his book.

3. Steve Wenner says:

Thanks. Although I’m an atheist, the pope’s words in those excepts brought tears to my eyes. Too bad his dogma prevents him from recognizing the critical role of overpopulation; however, if his impassioned plea on climate change helps galvanize Christians to pressure their political leaders to take serious action, then he will have done us all a great service. It is left to the more secular among us to lobby for action on the population front.

4. […] Baez also offers interesting analysis of Laudato Si at the Azimuth Project where, among other things, he teases out appeals to network […]

5. domenico says:

It take great courage, and modernity, to write this encyclical; if others major religions would take the same clear position, then the climate change could be solved, because of many people follow religious positions (in the world not many are atheists).

• Blake Pollard says:

I think atheism is the fastest growing religious sect. As Wolfgang Pauli said, “Es gibt keinen Gott und Dirac ist sein Prophet” or “There is no God and Dirac is his Prophet.”

• John Baez says:

We’re not having an argument yet, but we could be soon, so please remember, I wrote:

I really don’t want people arguing about religion on this blog—in fact I won’t allow it.

There’s a reason you never see arguments about partisan politics and religion on Azimuth; it’s because they’re banned. (Arguments about political theory are allowed, but arguments about specific parties and people are not.)

• Blake Pollard says:

I didn’t mean to push an issue. I found the excerpts from the Pontiff’s letter to be very moving.

I’ve encountered a fair amount of ‘hippies’ along my journey thus far, in particular ‘permaculturists,’ i.e. practitioners of ‘permaculture,’ short for permanent agriculture, later expanded to permanent culture in recognition of the inseparability of the two. According to Wikipedia: “Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.”

In talking with them and listening to their philosophies I always found myself with this conflicted feeling. Part of me hears their point of view and says, ‘you are so right.’ Another part of me says ‘you have good intentions, but are not proceeding along the optimal path to a better/enlightened society.’ The Pontiff’s words really resonated with me in the sense that I feel that the latter of my feelings, while perhaps logically grounded, are attached to the ‘technological paradigm,’ while the former of my feelings resonate much more with nature and the experience of being human. I think that the path for our species will be the sum of many, many sub-optimal paths.

Francis wrote:
“Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.”

and

“We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world.”

and

“Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.”

which basically sum up what I’m trying to say in a much more eloquent manner. Thanks for the post.

• John Baez says:

I too feel torn, mainly because the “technoscientific paradigm” Francis describes seems so deeply ingrained in our culture that it seems hopeless to struggle against it… even if it’s leading us down a dead end! So what do we do?

That’s why these words resonated with me:

The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. 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.

It may be that we need to go down this dead end and crash before we can change course. Or, maybe people are already starting here and there to try something a bit different: not a rejection of technology and science, of course, but a different attitude toward it.

• Paul Mainardi says:

Having grown up with a math professor and a physics professor, I “get” the struggle of disciplined minds trying to grasp the basic message of the Pope – that we must first acknowledge the limitations of the mental disciplines we know and love, disciplines that occupy our minds and pull our thinking along, and we must open ourselves up, individually and collectively, to a different paradigm in which we lead with love and respect for it all (what the Pope refers to as “creation”). The message of the encyclical is huge as it is challenging.

• Oh, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t for a second — and personally — buy this “transcend the language of mathematics and biology” business. No matter, at least to me. We need all the allies we can get to deal with the climate emergency.

• John Baez says:

Hypergeometric wrote:

Oh, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t for a second — and personally — buy this “transcend the language of mathematics and biology” business.

To me it depends what’s meant. There’s a lot more to life than mathematics and biology, and in particular a lot more is required to decide what we should do. As they say, “you can’t derive an ought from an is.” No amount of pure fact, derived from mathematics and science, will ever tell us what we should do. At best it can just tell us what will happen if we do X, Y, or Z. So, the kind of ecological thinking Pope Francis wants has a moral aspect, and I think he’s invoking his namesake St. Francis to point that out:

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.

In fact I’d say that underlying the “moral” aspect of ecology there’s a deeper aspect, which is the real point of the passage. Namely: if you don’t love the Earth, if you aren’t delighted and awed by nature, then you won’t treat ecology in the same way as someone who does… like me.

To me, taking care of the Earth is not some dry ‘duty’, or something that only emerges as best course of action as the result of an economic calculation. It’s like taking care of a loved one: I quite naturally want to do it.

Needless to say, this ‘touchy-feely’ aspect of ecology, while incredibly important, is also hard to discuss in a clear way… so as a scientist, I mainly keep it in the background. But Francis, being Pope, is focused primarily on this, and I think he does a pretty good job.

• I would respectfully disagree. I think it’s possible to derive ethics from a few principles, accepted as axioms, like The good of the many is more important than the good of the one or All creatures are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and an appropriate ecosystem. Working out such ethics is, no doubt, a complicated business, and then its policy implications. I think loving Earth, and being delighted and awed with Nature are shortcuts to where these should end up.

That said, I think what I am really — and emotionally, irrationally — responding and objecting to is the idea that a mathematical or mechanistic view of such systems necessarily leads to an instrumentalist and especially exploitative view of them. I would argue a proper appreciation for their mathematics and biology not only leads to extreme respect for them, a respect far greater than the European conquest of North America showed them, based upon obvious historical evidence, but also the imperative of treading lightly and delicately whenever interacting with them.

My favorite example of the latter comes from two short paragraphs at the end of Chapter 12, “Ecology”, in the 1974 edition of M. W. Hirsch, S. Smale, Differential Equations, Dynamical Systems, and Linear Algebra, where they write:

Such a change, even though quite small, is an ecological catastrophe. For the trajectory of $v_{1}$ has quite a different fate: it goes to $(0, b)$ and the $x$ species is wiped out!
Of course in practical ecology one rarely has Fig. H to work with. Without it, the change from $v_{0}$ to $v_{1}$ does not seem very different from the insignificant change from $v_{0}$ to a near state $v_{2}$, which also goes to $p$. The moral is clear: in the absence of comprehensive knowledge, a deliberate change in the ecology, even an apparently minor one, is a very risky proposition.

• this “transcend the language of mathematics and biology” business

…methinks is about transcending the Cartesian split, or, as Ian McGilchrist diagnoses, Descartes’ schizophrenia: Seeing the outside world as mechanism, dead matter. While we know that the science of dead matter can be deeply inspiring, even evocating religious feeling (cf. Einstein) there’s something missing: An organism is different to a machine. This otherness is difficult to grasp and appreciate with narrow rationality. Cartesian science takes a God’s eye view of the living world, as if we are detached and separate from it.

But actually, this delusional thinking started earlier, with theology and scholasticism, be it Christian or Buddhist. E.g. the unmoved mover, God, is a result of an unappropriately strict linear causality view of the world. Another example is the paradox provocing atomism of time in Buddhist abhidhamma.

So, the blame is not to be laid on scientific thinking alone, but on an unbalanced abstract fundamentalist approach to the world, dominated by the left brain hemisphere. Empathy resides in the right hemisphere. (Mathematics, btw, needs both hemispheres…) Ian McGilchrist explores this in his great book “The Master and his Emissary – The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” (2009).

Martin Gisser

• So what do we do?

In my opinion, 3 things.

First we have to build a hierarchy of models that will allow us to understand the consequences of our actions on society, and hence on ourselves. As you notice down below right now this is a tricky problem in economics, sociology, and psychology, and those disciplines cannot (right now) model what’s going on. In part because it is a multi-disciplinary problem, among other things. Anyway, this is hard, and it’s going to take many decades in the best scenario.

Second, this knowledge has to seep through and reach all people really, instead of remaining confined in some publications. How to achieve this is both an educational and political problem. It is likely to take many decades as well.

Third, hopefully with the help of the knowledge acquired in steps one and two, (but it might start sooner), we need to facilitate and indeed incentivize (in any possible way including laws, including especially non-monetary incentives, and including teaching ourselves to take care of nature like a loved one) the individual behaviors that will result in some kind of “optimal path” for society and nature in the long run.

You can say that this kind of approach borrows too much from the “technoscientific” paradigm, which is seen as part of the problem, but really this is science more than technology. And i’d say that (although we need all the help we can get from other ways of looking at the world, including religion) we can’t expect a solution without science, meant here as understanding of nature (and hence of ourselves as part of nature).

6. Seems like this is about changing “institutions,” in the sense of “an established law, practice, or custom.” For example, borders between countries that serve to prevent mass migrations due to drought, war, etc. are an institution. In America, owning your own home with a big yard and a two car garage is an institution.

In his book “The Greening of America” Charles Reich said the organizations and institutions in the above sense would be the last to change– that the desired change would first have happen in individuals. The last things to change would be organizations and institutions.

So for example, is the above tax rhetoric due to a change in individuals or is it really just the idea that the people should be taxed and companies be given the resulting subsidies?

Given this hypothesis, for a start wouldn’t one mathematical problem be to describe how changes in individuals result in changes to organizations, companies, and institutions?

• John Baez says:

Lee wrote:

for a start wouldn’t one mathematical problem be to describe how changes in individuals result in changes to organizations, companies, and institutions?

Right now that sounds like a tricky problem in sociology, psychology and economics. If those disciplines can model what’s going on, it might become a mathematical problem—or, more likely, a bunch of mathematical problems.

7. Blake Pollard says:

The Pontiff wrote, “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”

Do you think these are decorated cospan categories?
They must at least be symmetric and monoidal. :)

• John Baez says:

So far our work on categories of Markov processes has involved more differential equations than integrals… which I guess means more problems than solutions. Maybe this is why Francis wants an integral ecology.

• Jason Erbele says:

I’d be more satisfied with that interpretation with an extra comma included: “… openness to categories, which transcend…”

Even without arguing over a jot or a tiddle, not even our categories for control theory are in the clear. I mean, yeah, there are more integrators in control theory than differentiators… but alas, “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” ;)

• John Baez says:

You found a pun involving not just the word “controlled” but also the word “object”. Would Francis prefer to treat reality as morphism?

More seriously, I do think that the “ecotechnology” I’m vaguely dreaming of will need to go beyond the control theory perspective (where you get a physical system to do what you want), toward something a bit more “cooperative” (where you, say, help an ecosystem flourish—i.e., do what it wants). This isn’t easy for me to formalize.

8. […] John Carlos Baez – On care for our common home […]

9. Marco says:

These inspiring words from the Pope (never thought I’d say that!) sound remarkably similar to the ideas of Murray Bookchin as expounded in The Ecology of Freedom, which I happen to be reading now, though Bookchin is dull and rambling in comparison. Presumably the Pope’s main inspiration is Saint Francis whereas Bookchin hardly mentions him. It’s interesting to see two men who start from such different places (Bookchin was a Marxist then an anarchist) converge on the same worldview.

• John Baez says:

Interesting! Maybe I should read The Ecology of Freedom, but you’re not exactly giving it a ringing endorsement.

10. sidd says:

The encyclical quotes Guardini on this several times, e.g.

“The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself. To either a greater or lesser degree mass man is convinced that his conformity is both reasonable and just”

The Pope goes on:”Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

These thoughts seem to echo Ellul.

sidd

• Which reminds me of a passage in Heisenberg’s “Das Naturbild der heutigen Physik” (1955) p. 15:

“At such points, then, technology almost appears no longer as the product of a deliberate human effort to enlarge material power, but more like a biological process at large in which the innate structures of the human organism [mind? – Florif.] are transferred in an ever increasing measure into the environment of man; a biological process, thus, which as such is beyond human control; …”

• Paul Mainardi says:

Thank you for this excellent point which raises a concern that is different than, and less obvious than, the concern of loss of human control to artificial intelligence. Scary.

• Here comes a quote from the often cryptic yet prescient Martin Heidegger, written ca. 1937, published 1989: “Beiträge zur Philosophie”, §155. Above (in moderation for the G-word?) I mentioned Ian McGilchrist’s book, which offers a neuro-psychiatric explanation of much of Heidegger’s “post-turn” thought. Now the quote:

“155. Nature and earth.

Nature, separated out from beings by the natural sciences— what happens to it through technology? What happens is the destruction of “nature”, a destruction that is ever increasing or, rather, is simply rolling on to its end. What was nature once? It was the site of the advent and sojourning of the gods, when nature, still physis, rested in the essential occurence of Be-ing itself.

Subsequently, nature became a being and then even the counterpart of “grace” and, after this degradation was completely set out in the compulsion of calculative machination and economics.

Ultimately what remained were “scenic views” and recreational opportunities, and now even these calculated (…) for the masses. And then? Is that the end?

Why is the earth silent at this destruction? Because the earth is not allowed a strife with a world, not allowed the truth of Be-ing. Why so? Is it because that gigantic thing, the human being, all the smaller the more gigantically grown?

Does nature have to be renounced and abandoned to machination? Can we yet seek the earth anew? Who will kindle that strife in which the earth finds its open realm, (…), and is genuinly the earth?”

11. G.J. Smeets says:

Hi John,
“I do think that the “ecotechnology” I’m vaguely dreaming of will need to go beyond the control theory perspective (where you get a physical system to do what you want), toward something a bit more “cooperative” (where you, say, help an ecosystem flourish—i.e., do what it wants). This isn’t easy for me to formalize.”

I’m a philosopher (epistemology), not a mathematician, so try the folowing remarks as a step towards understanding what it is that needs formalizing.

Climate change / ecology is about the relationship between homo sapiens and his habitat. Grosso modo we have 4 ways to organize the relationship. Totemism, animism, theism and science.
– Totemism = exploiting regularities of the habitat as a guide for organizing human life. As in “we, the mountainpeople, are Bear.”
– Animism reverses that = exploiting regularities of human life as a guide for organizing the habitat. As in “the mountain is ill.”
– Theism makes things more complicated by inserting a deity between man and habitat. As in “we are stewarts of His / Her creation”.
Of course all 3 are metaphorical manoeuvres. And please note that in metaphor two or more relata are related without the need / possibility to exactly identify the relata.
– Science goes the opposite way = identifyng as exactly as possible the relata in whatever relationship under scrutiny. And please note that the role of the scientist for his people is to inform them. Whereas the role of a shaman or priest is to interfere with their doings.

Hope it helps. If not, oh well. Cordiali saluti.
Goff Smeets.

12. Berényi Péter says:

Even the biggest European oil and gas companies are calling for a carbon tax!

Of course they’re doing just that. Hydrocarbons release half that much CO2 than coal for the same energy output, so they can have the competition be taxed out of the market that way. Once that’s accomplished, there’s hardly any limit to increasing prices, so tax loss can be recovered happily. Pretty clever.

Provided, that all nuclear options are killed for good in advance, which deed is already done by the same environmental movement, so there’s no need to interfere there; plus none of the so called “renewable alternatives” like wind or solar is tenable, which they are clearly not with their excessive price tag, pathetic intermittency and inherently huge environmental footprint due to low incoming power flux densities.

• The EIA’s “levelized costs” (LCOE) are inconsistent with some of these assertions. See http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/pdf/appendix_tbls.pdf

• Re hypergeometric:

if you havent’ seen it you may enjoy this study:

100% clean and renewable wind, water, and
sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for
the 50 United States

Similar in nature to the excellent and free book “sustainability without all the hot air”

Re carbon tax here is a comment I left on this blog post a while ago (http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2015/07/carbon-tax-initiative-in-washington.html). long winded by you may find interesting:

an argument that cap and trade is preferable to a carbon tax, which we are considering here in washington state:

A carbon tax is a bad idea. Cap and Trade is better.

We have a carbon tax now. It is called the gas tax. And what is it used for? To help build roads that help us burn more gas!

Governments are no different from companies: they need to raise revenue. If you replace the B&O tax, which is our states income tax (only for companies and the self employed), with a Carbon Tax, you incentivize the government to have the people Burn More Carbon. And they will. When the federal government was funded primarily by a tax of alcohol, American’s consumed more than any people before or since. This is not an exaggeration. The liquor companies knew that the death of them would be the Income Tax, because the Feds wouldn’t need them as a revenue source. Sure enough, after the passage of the income tax (Amendment 16 Feb 1913) prohibition soon followed. Check out Ken Burns excellent documentary on prohibition if you are interested.

Cap and trade is a better idea. First, Cliff is wrong about it not working. As he should know it has worked great in our own life times to solve the first major global environmental catastrophe faced by mankind. The Ozone hole. Look it up: Montreal Protocol. It was based on Cap and Trade. It worked!

Cap and Trade is different because it doesn’t directly put money into government budgets and thus does incentivize governments to increase carbon pollution or face budget shortfalls.

There is really no such thing as a “revenue neutral” tax. Our revenue is generated by Sales, Property and Labor (B&O) taxes , what economists call the three legs of the stool. Look at our tax receipts as the economy cycles and you will find they lag each other, tending to balance out over time. You can’t just declare a tax to be revenue neutral.

If you don’t believe it, consider that what I am saying is already happening: Governments in Oregon Washington and California the most progressive around on Climate, are proposing special taxes for electric vehicles because they do not pay gas tax! Nuts!

But at the end of the day Governments need to pay the bills, and if tax receipts drop because we don’t have a B&O and everyone puts up solar panels and drives electric cars they will need to find the money for Schools, Roads, Water, Cops, Firemen and all the other vital functions that make up a civilization somewhere: and they will be sorely tempted to figure out ways to get us to burn more fuel to generate that revenue. It sounds crazy. But the world is a crazy place. And as I say, it is already happening right now: State Governments, even in the most progressive states are disincentivizing consumers away from electric vehicles specifically because these consumers are reducing receipts from our existing carbon tax.

• Thanks, Rob. I already know about the work of Jacobson and colleagues.

As for the rest of it, while I was engaged in some of that discussion, and remain somewhat engaged, I’m increasingly frustrated with the inability of OECD governments, especially the USA, to deal with this properly. Even if it is not sufficient, I think market-based solutions driven by the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, creative smart-grid ideas, and the forthcoming explosion of energy storage are our best hope. Hope these discussions are out of scope for Azimuth. On the other hand Science of Doom has taken on doing a serious analysis.

• John Baez says:

Hypergeometric (= Jan Galkowski) wrote:

I think market-based solutions driven by the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, creative smart-grid ideas, and the forthcoming explosion of energy storage are our best hope. Hope these discussions are out of scope for Azimuth.

No, they’re not out of scope! I’ve been pretty bad at posting articles on those topics, but they’re very important and within the scope of Azimuth.

13. “World Food Supply at Growing Risk from Severe Weather”

the biggest problem from climate change by far will be food production. Or rather the collision of peak population with food production. Even if we are lucky and the increase in mean temps are at the low end of IPCC projects, the impacts on impoverished people will be severe.

the article addresses server weather events, but there are numerous studies showing the negative correlation between temperature and yields of our stable crops (e.g. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1151&context=publichealthresources)

yes, this is a moral issue.