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What I would say to Pope Francis about the environment

Christians know that technology is a double-edged sword, not the answer to everything, but as to the environment, technological innovation and better management practices have produced remarkable results, and these technologies are constantly improving.

Solar panels are seen from the roof of the Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican November 2008. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

I have worked on environmental projects for over 40 years, as a student, engineer, project manager, educator, and leader of engineering companies; listened carefully to environmental sages (like my graduate advisor, Jim Etzel, and scientist Matt Ridley); taught environmental courses; dug into the history of the environment and human health; written extensively about the environment in the mainstream media. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t learn something new, or have to modify a perspective.

What would I say to Pope Francis if I could speak to him about the environment?

I would approach the Pope humbly, with an open mind and heart. First and foremost, listening and reflecting.

Based on what I’ve heard and read, I don’t think there’s a millimeter of space between the Pope’s vision for the environment and my own. God’s creation must be respected. Awful conditions persist in many parts of the world. We are stewards, not overlords. Action is needed. We have responsibilities that outweigh desires for money and things.

Then, what’s left to say? Plenty! Consensus doesn’t necessarily point to truth. Scientists are human beings, with human limitations, emotions, biases, and inclinations toward self-serving behavior. Science requires relentless attention to evidence. That’s how we progressed from the “settled science” of a flat Earth, how we progressed from Newton’s rigid laws to Einstein’s Relativity, how we went from vapors and miasmas to microorganisms and biochemical explanations for disease.

If we examine national environmental scorecards—air and water quality, the condition of the land, habitats and fragile species, human health—we discover that constitutional, rule of law, representative governments with market economies are much cleaner than command and control states. When basic needs are met, and when people can criticize their leaders without fear of retribution, they become empowered to engage in the improvement of their environments. Such market democracies are far from perfect, but the record demonstrates that their comprehensive environmental scorecards are far superior to command and control states like China, Russia, and Iran, and graft-laden nominal democracies like Brazil, Turkey, and India.

Does this mean rule of law market democracies can’t do better? By no means, but the performance of these states—the United States, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Israel, Australia, among them—is far superior to the command/control and graft-laden states in terms of environmental scorecards. For a variety of reasons, people don’t like to say this out loud or in print, but the facts speak for themselves, and if we can’t stand facts, how are we supposed to make progress?

Messy market democracies are responsible, albeit imperfectly, to their citizens who are able to invest time, effort, and their resources in protecting and enhancing the environment, while command and control states admit no dissent, and repress or eliminate troublesome people. Graft-laden nominal democracies funnel vast amounts of money to a privileged few, beggaring ecological initiatives and demoralizing citizens.

Christians know that technology is a double-edged sword, not the answer to everything, but as to the environment, technological innovation and better management practices (trenchless technologies, innovative water/air treatment processes, new materials, natural treatment systems, smart control systems) have produced remarkable results, and these technologies are constantly improving. Some of the industrial activity that afforded human beings longer and healthier lives has also damaged the environment, though we’ve gotten much better at enhancing human health and living conditions while protecting the environment, thanks to technological advancement and responsible environmental activism.

So why the consensus that the democracies are backsliding, environmentally speaking? Why so many loud voices insisting the sky is falling?

The Academy and researchers are apt to be experts within narrow bounds, and many today are so focused on the “tree” of carbon emissions they miss, or ignore, the “forest” of environmental scorecards. The people on the ground don’t miss it, however, as related in an October 20th Wall Street Journal article entitled “The World’s Next Environmental Disaster”, which describes the awful condition of India’s waters. The carbon emission “tree” may be a big tree, but there are other trees, and they’re not saplings if one takes the time to look. One-tree myopia can go so far as to produce a recent Washington Post article entitled “As Syria embraces Paris climate deal, it’s the United States against the world”, as if Syria’s trumpeting its support for the Paris accord makes up for its abysmal environmental scorecard when it comes to air, water, contaminated sites, the things that used to matter to people.

Not surprisingly, money is one of the culprits, and not just companies trying to reduce their environmental expenditures. Whether an institution is pursuing an environmental grant, or an advocacy organization is pursuing donations, or a company performs environmental projects, more money flows when people are convinced that conditions are dire. Though facts aren’t necessarily fudged, a less than comprehensive scorecard is often presented, with an emphasis on what’s wrong rather than the record of progress.

Empirical evidence—what we see, hear, experience on a daily basis—demonstrates that in the past 50-100 years constitutional, rule of law democracies have made dramatic improvements in their environmental scorecards. Fisherman, hikers, birdwatchers, boaters can attest to this. In my neck of the woods, improvements to the Detroit River and Lake Erie in the past half-century are demonstrated by robust wildlife—fish, fowl, mammals—in comparison to when I was a boy. States with top down control, ostensibly in the best position to manage their environments, have made little progress, and some have regressed.

Many point to dirty environments in the democracies during their development periods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the reason why the top downs shouldn’t be taken to task, but today’s technologies weren’t available to early 20th century democracies as they are today. The real reason for the top downs’ dismal scorecards is their lack of accountability to their people and other nations. That’s also true of the privileged few in graft-laden nominal democracies.

Perfection is a high bar, and we shouldn’t use such a bar to evaluate how we are doing. Rather, how are we doing in relation to where we were 10, 20, or 100 years ago? Are we still making progress?

I would humbly suggest the Holy Father and his environmental advisors listen to credible voices with different perspectives on the environment, and the relationship of environmental conditions to forms of government. I’m aligned with the Holy Father’s vision for the environment, but how to get there should start with all the trees in the forest and a comprehensive scorecard.

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About Thomas M. Doran 79 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.


  1. This article sums up perfectly the lack of definition in any environmental policy coming from the Vatican including the pope. Laudato Si is a perfect example of half explained perspectives that are rife with innuendos and platitudes. This is not to infer that I expect a checklist of what LS is asking/implying, but when you couple the popes comments about as stated here capitalism what exactly is he alluding to here. Am I to just disregard LS because of its vagaries like every other comment coming from this church that finds it impossible to actually define and spell things out about what they mean?

    Yes we all was clean air, water, soil. We want open and undefiled land for species to flourish and live unthreatened. 99.99% of people on this Earth want a healthy sustaining planet for everyone. No one, including the pope, want to just come out and discuss how we get there, what are they asking of us, and instead they believe we are all so moronic that giving us this information is dangerous.

    I have yet to hear anyone speak out about corporate raiding of the planet, and those who dump, spill, masticate the earth for profit. The over building in new areas while those areas that are now blighted are forgotten and ignored to fall into decay. Then there is no environmental outcry when a new nuclear plant is built when wind and solar could do the job. So the state of affairs as far as those environmental voices speaking out is really hypocrisy and looks more like targeting everyday working people as being the culprits making their daily living more difficult while they all ride in their private jets, yachts, and high maintenance landscaping.

  2. Tom, this piece should be a handbook for the environment… a virtual catechism for the earth’ success, our only home.

    I have worked in several industries, the last being solar energy. When I began I was convinced we had discovered a revolutionary method for a clean source of renewable energy. All of our models projected a utopian care-free setting. That may have been true in a static setting, however one piece kept expanding… the consumers. And, photovoltaic technology was aging. The best replacement is a prototype called “the Leaf” being developed in Australia.

    Pope Francis really hit the proverbial nail on the head when he said “Catholics must become better stewards of Mother Earth and stop reproducing like rabbits”. What the Holy Father failed to give us is the method by which we control our offspring.

    Those environment naysayers, like Trump, ignore that the human population of this finite planet is approaching 8 billion. I would ask him is there a tipping point? He would most likely point to China. It’s always the other guy’s fault.

    This subject should be foremost in most peoples minds. Good luck!

  3. I kept reading this article by Thomas M. Doran, but never saw his answer to the ONE question that everyone wants to know about:

    Does humanity need to take serious action to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent an ecological and civilizational catastrophe? Or is the “climate change crisis” a myth or overblown, as most Conservatives say?

    Why does Thomas M. Doran keep telling us how much better rule of law democracies are than dictatorships (we know that!), but never answers the one central question on everyone’s mind?

    (Forgive me if my obtuseness caused me to miss that Thomas M. Doran did answer this question.)

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