Pope Francis should get over his issues with technology

Heeding Pope Francis – and his environmental supporters – would drag the global economy backward

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis released his climate change encyclical, in which he inveighed against the evils of the “technocratic paradigm,” and suddenly everyone’s a Luddite.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis released an encyclical last week calling for drastic measures to combat climate change.

History buffs will recall the Luddites as early 19th century English textile workers who rioted against the labour-saving machinery – power looms and such – putting them out of work. Neo-Luddite is a modern term for someone who fears or opposes consumerism and modern technologies.

LAUDATO SI’ (On Care For Our Common Home) is a neo-Luddite document. Sure, Pope Francis nods to the remarkable progress technology has brought humankind, but he rails against the “technocratic paradigm” and frets that great “technical prowess” has afforded those with capital and power “an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world,” which in turn has led to environmental degradation. The world, my friends, has become a stinking pile of filth, according to the Pope.

Here’s a sample from the encyclical: “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.”

Not surprisingly, environmentalists – like everyone’s favorite eco-activist gasbag, David Suzuki – have taken up the alarm.

Pope Francis
Scientist and international eco-activist David Suzuki.

Here’s Suzuki: “Because our technological prowess has grown faster than our knowledge, wisdom and foresight, much of what we’ve created is now crashing down around us – battered by pollution, ecosystem collapse, species extinction, resource scarcity, inequality, climate change and overpopulation.”

The former chemist’s technician and the former fruit fly geneticist are tapping into a meme common in some circles in Western countries, that industrial civilization is out of control – like Skynet in the Terminator movies – and on the verge of collapse, with all the horrors familiar to fans of dystopian movies certain to follow. British historian Arnold Toynbee Jr. wrote the definitive work on this historical model, but popular hysteria was really fanned by a 2014 NASA study arguing that even sophisticated, technically advanced civilizations have collapsed and risen again many times over the course of human history.

Let’s try a thought experiment, shall we?

Let’s grant Pope Frankie and Dr. Suzuki their argument: The global ecosystem is in awful shape, humankind is one misstep from catastrophe, etc.

Logically, the status quo is a no go. We can’t continue as we are.

If this is true, then humans really only have two choices: Go back or go forward.

Pope Francis
Electric Vehicles are just one of many innovations that can help curb GHG emissions.

Going back to some sort of paleo future without autos or airplanes or any of the many, many technologies that currently depend upon fossil fuels is a life unimaginable. If Pope Frankie thinks the poor have it rough now – and he does, spoiler alert – wait until the rest of us are competing with them for the few resources available in the new, more environmentally-friendly future he fantasizes.

This sort of back to the future strategy is exemplified by climate scientists who propose a sort of World War II rationing system to halt economic growth in the industrialized West. Consumers would be limited to low or carbon-neutral products, carbon-intensive activities like airplane flights would be outlawed or rationed.

Hardly a future to look forward to.

But the absolute worse part of going backward would be abandoning all the fantastic technology of the past decade or so, much of it designed to improve energy efficiencies and use resources more wisely.

A few years ago I interviewed Ford Motor Co.’s head of engine development and asked him why automobiles were suddenly enjoying so many technology advances – e.g. direct fuel injection – that both improved performance and fuel mileage. “Because,” he replied, “consumers are now willing to pay for them.”

Probably the main reason consumers and businesses are willing to pay more for better energy-related technology these days is the impetus created by the growing global social acceptance of the climate change argument. Even CEOs of giant oil and gas companies recognize – or at least accept as an expediency – that decarbonizing the economy is a priority.

But there is an immutable truth Pope Francis refuses to recognize: To get better technology, you always start with bad technology.

Humankind would not be on the verge of renewable energy technologies and more efficient fossil fuel technologies if it had not started with coal 200 years ago, and then progressed through series of ever better technologies to get us where we are today.

Abandoning that progress would be madness.

The better strategy, the only sane strategy, is to press forward with technical innovation and ensure developing countries that insist upon the same lifestyle as the rich Western nations gain access to those innovations in a timely fashion.

If we do it right by embracing innovation, market-oriented solutions combined with sensible regulation, and emphasizing human ingenuity and adaptability, the 21st century can be the transition to a new age of sustainable global economies marked by greater prosperity and advance, all of it undergirded by cheap, clean energy.

But if we heed the hair-on-fire apocalyptic soothsaying of Pope Francis and David Suzuki, humankind will go backward and do far more damage than good.

The Luddites lost their battle two centuries ago and we must ensure that their intellectual descendants, neo-Luddites like Pope Francis and David Suzuki, don’t triumph in this century.


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