Is Less Really More? Reflections on Scarcity in “Laudato Si’”

What might be the problem with the pope’s economic claim that we should consume less in order to have more resources?

During his recent three-nation trip to Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador, Pope Francis spoke at Quito’s Catholic University, urging students and professors to champion responsible care for the environment: “It is no longer a mere recommendation, but rather a requirement because of the harm we have inflicted on [the Earth] by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed it,” he said.

In the wake of the recent release of the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ and in the South American context of some of the most beautiful and rich ecology in the world, the pope has amplified his invocation to all men and women of good will to become wise stewards of God’s creation.

In his encyclical, Francis offers a moral theological guide for this purpose. He does this for good reason, not least of which because the environment often concerns genuinely difficult and complex decisions about interdependent ecosystems, externalities and unintended consequences of economic and political decisions, as well as weighty scientific paradigms.

Such complexity becomes more acute when combined with the contradictions and ambitions associated with particular political agendas. Such is the case with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who as president of an OPEC country has been heavily criticized for drilling in the Amazon, despite lifting 1.8 million Ecuadorians out of poverty, while his country laments the receding of its Andean glaciers and depletion of other sources of fresh water. According to the Associated Press, Bolivia’s Christ- on-a-hammer-and-sickle-crucifix-bearing president Evo Morales “has been hailed as an environmental hero by many for demanding rich nations do more to halt global warming, but…assailed by conservationists at home who say he puts oil and gas extraction ahead of clean water and forests.”

Paraguay has its own share of ecological troubles, particularly with having the one of the highest rates of deforestation in Latin America, according to WWF Global, with its president Horacio Cartes promising crackdowns on illegal logging and clearing in a small landlocked country that struggles to create new industry and provide adequate land titling.

General prudential guidelines

According to Francis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our inner moral character—sinful or virtuous—can be observed outwardly through our mindful care or our sinful abuse of the natural resources. With the first encyclical ever dedicated to the environment, Francis seeks to help us develop and put into practice core Catholic beliefs concerning man’s relationship with the world created by God and entrusted to man.

In providing an ethical framework for thinking about the environment, the pope maintains that our prudential judgements must be driven by key principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Among others, this includes the truth that nature is not God and that we should evade idolatrous conservationism (75); that being has priority over having so as to temper radical pragmatism and consumerism (69); that man is not the absolute overlord of earth but rather that his dominion is guided by the call to be a grateful steward of creation, thereby diminishing prideful anthropocentrism (67); that human life enjoys primacy over all other forms of life, which underscores the moral evil involved in draconian population control measures and illicit medical research on fetal human beings (136); and that creation is vastly interdependent so as to inspire both awe and scrupulous discernment of how our actions affect the natural order (86, 164) and whether they accord with the demands of natural law.

A controversial premise: ‘Less is more’

One could elaborate upon the arguments derived from faith and reason that are at the core of Francis’s call to conserve, respect, and use the environment well according to God’s plan. Orthodox Catholics, whether on the political left or right, will find quick agreement on virtually all of them, though they may legitimately differ on certain policy prescriptions as well as some of the pope’s comments about the market economy and industrialization.

Still, there is one premise of ethical wisdom used by Pope Francis that requires some critical scrutiny.

It involves the Holy Father advocating a culture of self-control and asceticism when faced with ecological “rapidification”, which he says is due to“the continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet [which] is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work…. [The] speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution.” (18)

On this basis, Francis concludes, “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more’.”(22)

What, one might ask, does that mean? To be sure, limiting mindless consumption of material goods curbs the development of vicious dependencies and increases spirituality and virtue, as Francis says (222-223); but what might be the problem with the pope’s economic claim that we should consume less in order to have more resources?

Finiteness and Scarcity

Initially, Francis’s point of view seems understandable and evident. It might be true to say that there is a finite amount of any material substance at any given time.

For example, we can estimate X number of loaves of bread to be produced from Y number of bushels of wheat, and X number of fishes from Y number of ponds. There are no miracles involved in estimating the amount loaves and fishes to be produced. It is simply a matter of present quantity and natural factors that tend to inhibit or increase production.

This is true even for the impossible task of estimating, say, the total amount of clean air and potable water on earth. Still, we believe, at any fixed point in time, there is only so much to go around. After all, only God is infinite in his being and existence; everything else in the created order is finite and limited – even if abundantly so at this present time or in this particular place.

It would seem, then, that the pope is right to underscore this question of what economists call scarcity. Without scarcity of goods there would be very little to debate about with regard to just prices, proper use as well as efficient and sustainable distribution in any economic system.

“Squeezed dry”?

Adhering to this basic precept of ‘finiteness’, Francis warns of human pride and delusion: “Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions [about usefulness and abundance] constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is” (56) and therefore should not live “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, [which] leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” (106)

Will human beings, however, really “squeeze dry” any of the earth’s resources? That seems a quite debatable premise, more suited to a United Nations document or the eco-babble of radical environmentalists.

If the pope and others are ringing alarm bells, at times they seem to underestimate the creative power of human intelligence and freedom in the face of extreme scarcity of resources.

Scarcity forces man to make choices, and to think about how to use things in new and creative ways so that human needs and aspirations can be met. Contemporary references to innovative, more efficient and thus more abundant replacements of scarce resources are endless.

For example, UHT and advanced pasteurization have increased the time of healthy milk on shelves, and the IDFA claims that farm milk yields have gone up by 75% since 1975 in the United States alone to meet increased demand. Fluorescent, LED, low pressure sodium, solar and other energy-efficient lighting have greatly decreased burdens on struggling urban electrical grids (and have also reduced light pollution).

What’s more, man has developed more fuel efficient cars, tractors, and other heavy equipment running on combustion fossil fuel engines. As a consequence, the aforesaid machines are not only more fuel efficient, but are also cleaner and, therefore, emit less air pollutants.

Finally, just when we thought we are running low on petroleum, new oil fields are being discovered in the oddest of places, such as under Gatwick near London, and furthermore can be extracted thanks to new technology. Fracking is a good example of such technology that is not without controversy; yet, even so, who is to say that another secure method of oil extraction will not soon be invented by engineers of good will? Likewise, cannot less invasive and safer forms of drilling be developed for Amazon forests? Do we really have to progressively replace “highly polluting fossil fuels…without delay” (126), as Francis asserts, in order to have more glaciers and cooler temperatures as well as less greenhouse gases?

This all seems very debatable indeed, and, it should be noted, Catholics are quite free to debate such issues since they don’t fall into the realm of faith and morals. (The fact that this raises the question about why the pope is speaking about such technical matters in the first place is a subject for another article.)

Two camps: optimists vs. pessimists

Constant discovery is a demonstrable given through human history. Industrious, inventive, other-directed, and morally responsible human beings constantly seek to meet demands of consumers while striving to be good stewards of the earth and contributors to the common good.

Nonetheless there are two camps in constant opposition: one that is optimistic, trusting in human capacity to deal inventively with the increasing demands on scarce goods while balancing environmental concerns; the other is pessimistic, preferring a radical stop to hazardous means and excessive consumption, often through governmental decrees and force.

The enterprise-friendly ecologist Matt Ridley wrote in his April 2014 op-ed “The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out” that he believes conservationists like Jim Leape of World Wide Fund for Nature International have gone too far. Leape’s extremely negative beliefs about limits to human use of natural resources have lead him and others to make absurd projections which seem based more on promoting fear rather than creativity in dealing with scarcity. One such claim, writes Ridley, is that by 2030 not even two planets will be sufficient to keep pace with current levels of consumption.

However, Ridley argues that mankind has “burst through such limits again and again … the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this ‘niche construction’—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature’s bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty,” he writes in reference to creative farming technologies that have helped to create the most abundant crops in human history.

According to Ridley, economists get frustrated by ecologists when the latter think in terms of static limits. “Ecologists can’t seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.”

That frustration”, he says, “is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called ‘markets’ or ‘prices’ to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth.”

The worst pessimism about scarcity

The worst form of pessimism, in terms of scarce resources on planet earth, is surely associated with Thomas Malthus, who believed that less human consumption via less human beings on earth is the best way to secure more resources for everyone else.

Way back in 1798 in his Essay on the Principle of Population, the Anglican minister warned that if we are not careful in our use of natural resources, then nature will take her own brutal course of action. He consequently cited plagues and many other ‘natural’ catastrophes as regularly recalibrating the earth’s total inhabitants to meet aggregate demand for food and water.

Neo-Malthusians, like the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Ehlrich, the author of The Population Bomb (1968), do not want to wait for slow-evolving nature to take her course to reduce global population to prevent a so-called “aCROPalypse”, as one blogger for Environment Now creatively termed it. To avoid mass starvation due to a planetary crop shortage, they seek to rapidly limit the number of mouths born in this world competing with scarce resources. Their drastic methods include promoting policies that favor artificial family planning, forced sterilization, and even mass abortion. Their agenda is to more than halve the current 7.2 billion world population to at least 2-3 billion, according to World Watch’s “optimum population” projection.

Exactly why the Pontifical Academy of Science is consulting with Professor Sachs is a mystery to many. Clearly, while advising against overconsumption and waste, Francis gives no support to draconian Neo-Malthusian solutions because he affirms the primacy of human life. “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (120)

In addition, Francis, along with many economic thinkers, can point to many positive examples of nations like India and Bangladesh: countries that some Neo-Malthusians thought would be the first to run out of food. India and Bangladesh have not only confounded Neo-Malthusian apocalyptic expectations, but are now producing crop surpluses and export to global markets abroad.

Perhaps, for Francis, food scarcity is more a question of distributive justice of abundant goods. As moral subjects living under wealthy conditions, the pope asks us to question the basis of our high consumption levels and lack of generosity when “stealing from the table of the poor” (50), like those he pastored in Buenos Aires’s slums who must forage for food in waste bins while other urban dwellers nearby in well-to-do neighborhoods have plenty in the cupboard. The pope’s harsh words can be interpreted either as a call for the poor to be able to provide their own nourishment through obtaining small agricultural land titles or given food directly via aid programs.

A real issue: water

While Francis surely burnt his copy of The Population Bombon a pile with other economically nonsensical interpretations of threats to human subsistence, there is one issue discussed in the encyclical that seems influenced by a fear of essential natural resources not able to meet human demand.

That issue is drinking water.

It is such a disturbing concern to Francis that he dedicates several pages to explaining what he means by “water poverty”. In brief, he states:

Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production. Some countries have areas rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity. (28)

In this regard, some of his language starts to sound somewhat Malthusian:

Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century. (31)

So extreme is “water poverty” today in certain regions of the world and so essential is water to human existence that the Holy Father wants guaranteed protection and distribution. In an instance of market skepticism, Francis warns against privatizing it as a commodity, implying that it could be better managed by state authorities:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. (30)

These are legitimate questions, no doubt. Together with oxygen, water is the most essential resource to life. Yet, another legitimate question involves whether it is right to blame multinationals or free markets themselves for over-controlling, instigating ‘water wars’, or polluting rivers and streams. Nor is it clear why the pope appears uninterested in the private sector management and distribution of drinking water. Water utilities managed by state agencies, especially in Africa, often end up being grossly inefficient and involved in corruption scandals; and when combined with little private investment for additional well drilling and more efficient water treatment, increased costs are passed on to those who consume the water.

As Samuel Gregg and others have pointed out, the worst recent environmental shortages and abuse of natural resources occurred in Soviet countries during the twentieth century. It was the Communist masters of the command economy—not CEOs of market corporations—that cared too little for Russia’s common natural resources. They succeeded in polluting vast waterways, including entire rivers, lakes and small seas. National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig vividly attested to such atrocity when describing a Soviet-era photo of fishers on the frozen Ural River: “In winter, men drill fishing holes in the ice… Knowing that the river is badly polluted by the steel works looming behind them, they often sell their catch to markets rather than consume it themselves.” Even today, former Soviet nations and communist China regularly rank among the most polluted places on earth.

The facts speak for themselves: privately sponsored water drilling and commercial research on waste treatment technologies have made massive improvements in the last half century, helping to make potable water more accessible than ever across the globe. As Stephen Mosher wrote recently in the New York Post:

On the issue of water, for example, the encyclical claims that “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor…the quality of available water is constantly diminishing.” But according to the Millennium Development Goals 2014 Report, “Access to an improved drinking water source became a reality for 2.3 billion people’ over the past 20 years. This United Nations report rightly celebrates the fact that “the target of halving the proportion of people without access to an improved drinking water source was achieved in 2010, five years ahead of schedule.”

More hope, less worry

To conclude: Do we want less of everything in order to return to some pure form of Eden-like abundance, to go back to the original state of nature free of the high demands of industry and consumers squeezing mother earth’s resources dry? And are we really running out of finite resources, in the first place, or actually creating more because of human ingenuity?

More provocatively speaking, is the constant reference to scarcity by environmentalists and conservationists really about “scare-city”? Are they themselves, as distrusting the pessimists, scared of running out of limited resources or are they purposely trying to scare others into chastising and demonizing business in order to return to some pre-industrial earthly paradise?

Like any orthodox Catholic, Pope Francis knows we descended from the real biblical Eden. This is where man first sinned. Like man, the natural world also bears signs of the effects of original sin. It follows that our care for the environment will always be far from perfect. Moreover, Genesis informs us that God did not leave man with an easy instruction manual of how to use and care for the natural world. This adds to our struggle, which at heart is a knowledge problem. Nevertheless, it can be addressed, albeit imperfectly, by God’s great gift of reason to man.

Indeed, in Laudato Si’ Francis tells us he trusts in man’s ability to use his reason to meet challenges:

Developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it, as this means that we ourselves become the instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things. (124)

Deep down, while perhaps wrongly fearful especially concerning water poverty, this pope is a joyful believer in human dignity and our creative ability to meet immense challenges; more importantly he trusts in man and God’s help. This is precisely the source of Francis’s magnetic natural and theological hope: “Let us sing as we go,” he writes near the conclusion of Laudato Si’. “May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (244).

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.