On Care For Our Common Home: Opinion
This week, Pope Francis, the head of a church of over 1.2 billion people, published an encyclical called “Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis On Care for Our Common Home.” Because it’s such a big deal, I’m going to spend a little more time on it this week than on some of the other stories, so I hope you’ll bear with me. If you’re not interested in what I have to say about it, there are some good summaries over at the Washington Post and The Atlantic. You can check those out and skip down to the next item. But for now I just want to take a moment to talk about optimism.
In this response over at the Guardian, the editors rightly pick out that Francis’s criticisms are leveled not only at the climate change deniers, but also at the “optimists,” who see technological solutions as the way out of the situation. For Francis, in so many ways, this encyclical is not about the responsible use of technology as about its evils, and with as much respect as I can muster for a man who is arguably the best in a long line of backward-thinking popes, I disagree. But it’s not because I’m optimistic.
In a section labeled “The Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm,” Francis tries (and in my opinion fails) to construct a straw-man, non-church paradigm that is seemingly drawing us as a species away from acting morally in the face of our increasing ability to affect the environment:
“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.” (106)
But science and technology writ large do not automatically drive toward “possession, mastery and transformation;” they do not have their logical end-points in externalization. To describe them as such is to caricature them. There is no more use in claiming that technology has an inevitable drive toward alienation than claiming that religion has an inevitable drive toward navel-gazing.
Francis conflates the drive of unregulated capitalism toward morality-free accumulation of wealth with the scientific method, and then throws in a bit of anti-technological pining for “the good old days” while he’s at it:
“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.” (106)
In this he is thoroughly incorrect. Humanity has only ever tried to get everything it could out of nature — a nature which, I must add, has always been trying to kill humanity, with every predator we fought off, every storm we weathered, every plague we cured — the only difference between the “good old days” and today is that we’re actually getting good at it. Frightfully, unsustainably good.
Nor are science and technology, as he seems to argue, morality-free zones in desperate need of religion to save them. Without religion, scientists have together managed to form the IPCC, to broker deals between politicians to effect real change, to create new technologies that can harness humanity’s innate desire for competition and comfort to make it literally more profitable to be good to the environment.
I do appreciate that Pope Francis has made a theological case for being good to the planet. But all I can think is that, once again, religion is late to the party that everyone else has been at for decades. I don’t even know who he’s talking to. The politicians aren’t listening, and as for the rest of us, we’ve all known it was immoral to pollute since Captain Planet was showing on Saturday morning TV. Telling Catholics that they need to think of themselves as a part of the planet in 2015 is a little like telling Millennials not to smoke because it’s bad for you.
We know. Everyone knows. But we (as a group) do it anyway.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we (as a species) are shortsighted. We’ll only really fix the planet when it’s profitable in the short-to-middle term to do it. When the cost-benefit ratio on solar, wind, carbon capture, and other green technologies tip in their favour, it’ll happen with startling speed. The advancement of technology will be harnessed by even the ugliness of capitalism to, once again, serve itself — only this time in favour of the public good. And until then, no amount of religious doctrine is going to help. That’s not optimism, it’s just the way things are. So let’s not talk about science and technology as though they’re the problem, when they’re just a tool — like religion — that humanity has made use of to varying moral and immoral ends since we first came up with them.
There are three pieces of news relating to the FCC this week I’d like to share, all of which make me a little happier as a human being. The first is that the FCC has voted to subsidize broadband to low income families. This is the expansion of an already-existing program, called Lifeline, which already helps fund access to phone lines and cell phones, so it should be relatively simple to make happen. Under the new rules, eligible homes will receive up to $9.25/month to help get them online. The next piece of news is that, now that the new Net Neutrality rules have gone into effect, Sprint has stopped throttling. Finally, everyone’s favourite provider, AT&T, has been slapped with a one hundred million dollar fine for throttling data on a plan it insisted on calling “unlimited.” Sounds like the new regulations are working, even as the legal challenges are fast tracked.
I’ve got two pieces of news out of the best-known electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors this week: first, the forthcoming “affordable” line of Teslas, the “Model 3” won’t just be one car. Instead, it’ll be a family of cars, including a sedan and a “crossover.” While the company has yet to release any pictures, the company CEO Elon Musk is cited as saying there’ll be an unveiling of sorts in March 2016, with their first sales slated for 2017. With a price point of $35,000 and a range of 200 miles, the Model 3 is looking to fundamentally change the electric car market — if all goes to plan. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to the release later this year of the Model X, seen above. In the latest news on that front, Musk says the SUV, for which the company has already received about 20,000 reservations, is aimed at women — leaving some of us wondering just what that means. It looks pretty good, and the Washington Post has an article on it if you want more information.
Last week we reported that ESA had regained contact with the little lander that could, Philae, having woken up again after falling silent seven months ago on comet 67-P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This week the good news continued, as another connection was made on Friday, long enough to determine the status of the craft. ESA says for now they’re working on bringing Rosetta into a closer orbit that optimizes their ability to contact Philae, in the hopes of getting more science done with it now that it’s back online. Check out the Rosetta blog over at ESA for more as the story continues.
In tech news this week, Microsoft allowed people to play with its Hololens augmented reality system at E3 — mostly for playing Minecraft on your coffee table, it seems — and there are reviews of the good and the bad. Over at Gizmodo Sean Hollister has a “glass half full” take on it, meanwhile over at the Verge, Adi Robinson takes a less positive view. Everyone seems to agree that it’s amazing, the question is more one of how amazing, and wither its shortcomings can be fixed. Check the links out for more details.
Best of the Rest
I spent too much time this week reading the pope’s thoughts on climate change, so now there’s a huge list of things you’ll have to check out yourself:
- SpaceX is running a student Hyperloop pod racing competition
- Space internet company OneWeb just picked Airbus to build 900 satellites for it
- Google’s testing its internet balloons in a giant USAF freezer hangar thing
- The American Medical Association is looking to rid itself of the stigma of bad TV personalities like “Dr. Oz”
- The FDA is banning trans fats anywhere companies can’t prove them harmless
- Uber drivers have been ruled to be employees in California (which, if it sticks, will be a big problem for them)
- NASA’s making a heat shield for firefighters (and it looks like a big burrito)
- Physicists have gotten closer than ever before to absolute zero, and
- Google’s working on gesture-reading technology that is incredibly advanced.