The Pope and the Planet

A week before the big release, this show had us excited about Pope Francis’s full-throated challenge to the status quo — the text in full of Laudato Si is now available on the Vatican’s website. But what he’s challenging (behavior that turns Creation, more and more, into “an immense pile of filth”) ended up sounding a lot like our guest Sally Weintrobe‘s psychoanalytic scolding of the wasteful parts of humanity:

It doesn’t go deep enough to say that this is a problem with capitalism. It’s a much, much older problem, the problem of the fantasy of the inexhaustible breast: that the earth is really a kind of a breast/toilet that provides endlessly in an ideal way and then receives all our waste. So I think the human race is being encouraged to grow up.

Meanwhile, our guest Naomi Oreskes got the celebrity-lightning-rod treatment in The New York Times — read more here.


Habemus problem!

In an encyclical letter, Pope Francis himself will intervene next week on the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face.”

Trade deals and drilling permits are booming while the Kyoto spirit limps along. No wonder world leaders, eco-crusaders, and atheist scientists are all so hungry for some Good News. It’s time to kick the climate problem upstairs, but can a letter from Rome change things?

We’ll be speaking to Naomi Oreskes, who’s advising the Vatican on climate and turning scientific knowledge into a political message. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt indicted the tactics that oil companies cribbed from the tobacco titans and became a film phenomenon last year. As with tobacco smoke and acid rain, science isn’t enough to win an argument against opponents with a modest but dangerous specialty: getting people to question certain unpleasant realities.

Sally Weintrobe, our psychoanalyst of climate change, will put late capitalism on the couch and explain why we’re so eager to ignore the real world of droughts, floods, and our own climate change complicity. Dr. Weintrobe says a little more climate guilt is what we need in the global North, and maybe that’s where the church comes in.

But Francis is expected to take us back to bigger ideas than guilt. Awe of creation and care for “the least of these,” are the old values that welcome (even prefigure) the most complicated climate science. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist who combines love of nature with love of God — and who’s been pitching American evangelicals on climate as a moral issue for years — will let us in on a faith-science alliance that’s well underway and ready to save all of us gas-guzzling sinners.

We hear the most bracing telling, not in the skeptical speeches of Rick Santorum, even, but in the doomsaying of Paul Kingsnorth, a former eco-activist who has lost his faith in the ability of people to change. Here he is on the broken myths of our society too late to change:

Tell us: are you waiting to hear what the pope has to say about the environment and justice next week? And what will it take to move the needle toward real collective action on climate matters?

Guest List
Naomi Oreskes
professor of the history of science, author of Merchants of Doubt and The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, and a participant in the Vatican Environmental Summit in 2014.
Dorothy Boorse
professor of biology at Gordon College, marine ecologist, and lead author of Loving The Least of These, a report on climate change for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Sally Weintrobe
psychoanalyst, fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London, editor of the recent volume Engaging With Climate Change.
Reading List
Naomi Oreskes: Environmentalism at the Vatican
Myrna Perez Sheldon, Cosmologics Magazine
In an interview last year, Naomi Oreskes — fresh from a Vatican conference on climate change and social justice — was optimistic that the pope is making the right climate connections. For her presentation, Oreskes argued that scientists should meet his church halfway:’s a new, and non-obvious idea that science should remain “pure” from policy recommendations. And scientists talk about this separation in a very absolutist, straight-forward way: as if they will lose their credibility if they give their opinions about policy. So in the paper, I begin with Niels Bohr, since Bohr’s open letter and his intervention with atomic technology is the most famous example of a prominent scientist coming forward to speak about the bigger social, political and existential issues that arise from his work as a scientist. But now we’re in a political context in which scientists have retreated from political recommendations; politics are messy and dirty, so they’ve pulled back.  
What would Jesus do (about climate change)?
Jennifer Weeks, Boston Globe Magazine
Last year, our guest Dorothy Boorse recounted her journey in the science academy and in a faith tradition — evangelical Christianity — that's often perceived as anti-science. Boorse told the Globe that there are two ways to read the apocalypse, and her crowd is following God by protecting creation:
Boorse recognizes that some evangelical Christians believe that the earth’s fate is already written and humans have no power to change it. But she disagrees. Even if you believe the world will end at a certain time, in her reasoning, that doesn’t dictate how you should act from now until then. And if you believe that God is sovereign and made the earth, “you should care about it even more,” she says. “Theology does not tell us to trash the world, although people can find ways to read it that way.”
Getting ahead of the spin on the pope’s environmental encyclical
John L. Allen, Jr., Crux
Allen, a long-time Vatican decoder, writes about what to expect when you're expecting a papal encyclical on the environment:
...Laudato Sii, the reported title of the encyclical (meaning “Praised Be”), will almost certainly be a work in moral theology. The chief concern will be the common good, asking how someone of conscience should behave both toward others and toward the environment… It will be a theological meditation taking its point of departure from biblical teaching on God’s creation, in which climate change is an important, but secondary, extrapolation.
Climate Change and the Catholic Church
Jeffrey Sachs, Project Syndicate
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, another Vatican climate adviser, lays out Francis's political task and calls out conservatives who say the pontiff should "stick to morality." Sachs says that the pope's opponents make a nonsense distinction; science and morality have always needed each other in order for either to do any good.
Francis’s purpose, of course, is to marry modern science, both natural and social, with faith and morality. Our hard-won scientific knowledge should be used to promote human wellbeing, protect the vulnerable and the poor, preserve Earth’s fragile ecosystems, and keep faith with future generations. Science can reveal the environmental dangers caused by humanity; engineering can create the tools to protect the planet; and faith and moral reasoning can provide the practical wisdom (as Aristotle and Aquinas would have said) to choose virtuously for the common good.

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  • Alexis M.

    I was so dismayed by the child in Boston at the beginning of the program warning not to “freak out about the planet” or “care more about animals and the planet than we care about humans.” It seems like such a cynical and limited view at such a young age. One of my favorite things about childhood is that you can be an idealist — you can hear about an injustice and truly feel that you have the power to make things better. In my view, our compassion and empathy should always be large enough to encompass humans as well as animals and the planet. We don’t need to pick and choose.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS discussion of the Pope on climate change and the “gravitas” this adds to the
    whole picture was excellent and very timely.

    What is lacking from all of these “monistic” analyses of the global situation is that “everything
    is causing everything else” and that the climate change discussion has to be “interleaved”
    into a world economy engine one with a “circumspective” understanding.

    In 1984 and after, my co-authors and I published several books in Japanese showing how
    the ecological surround and the world economy problem are two sides of a coin. (This
    is not the same as the “sustainable development” kind of analysis, a la Prof. Sachs.)

    President Obama has a vague and inchoate sense of these linkages and tried to push for a feasible
    globalization structure in 2009 but was paralyzed and dragged down and even derailed by the Israelization
    of American and hence global policy.

    China’s recent establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a “straw-in-the-wind”
    that the development baton could pass to China with America mired in endless neocon-driven wars. This would then lead to a “post-American world” a la Fareed Zakaria. Furthermore, technical developments such as fracking or the ‘second machine age” (ie. “new brilliant technologies”. See ROS discussion with Sloan School exponents of this trend) fit into the global development frame and do not, as Americans want to think, “subsume” it.


    ‘World Economy/Big Prediction’

    (Kappa Publishing, Kobunsha, Tokyo, from 1984)

    “As in their previous work, ‘World Economy/Big Prediction’ (Kappa Publishing, Tokyo, from
    1984), the authors base their long-term view on the assumption that
    modernization of the developing world will be the engine of world economic
    growth in the future.”

    The CFG perspective is that global imbalances are
    themselves caused by deeper “plate tectonics” which will lead to “seismic
    shifts.” A reviewer of some of our Japanese-language CFG books from the 1980’s
    says of our analyses of these tectonics and seismic shifts:

    “As in their previous work, ‘World Economy/Big Prediction’ (Kappa Publishing, Tokyo, from
    1984), the authors base their long-term view on the assumption that
    modernization of the developing world will be the engine of world economic
    growth in the future.”

    (for the full review and our forecasts from as far back as the 1980’s, see:

    These books argue that setting in motion a new world economic engine allows real
    climate change policies by not blocking growth.

    In other words. the “Pope and the Planet” discussion has to bring in the “adjacent” problem, world economic structure and the engine or locomotive for it. As before: “everything is causing everything else” and one has to grasp the whole nettle and without escaping into “technologism,” ie. the technology drives all view.
    Global politics is the key and not robotics.
    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    A bravo! for the Pope! We should have had this Pope 30 years ago.

    Pete I’ll mount the soapbox.

    As ever, human societies will only learn after being unable to deny or after having tested limitations and it’s too late. Today I heard on the radio that some are saying that the Pope should mind his own business. There is or has been a great wall between religion and science; they have been at odds, with religion on the defensive and now, with science, unfortunately for us, in retreat. Those scientists are not equipped to deliver the message forcefully enough. Religion can, does, should, connect with stewardship of the Earth. It’s interpretation of scripture that has gone astray. And too people are selfish and myopic. As long as they, those that have, and their children have theirs, the rest don’t matter. And the great rest are too weak to be heard. So the Pope is speaking for us all, or leading, or trying to lead. When it’s the planet and about us all, collectively on this one oblate spheroid people will listen. From the translation you link, Pete, God says: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though… every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

    But we might do it ourselves.

    These sacred passages can be interpreted anew and should be. The Pope, a powerful authority, has an important role to play as do all religious leaders. They might be enlightened by his forceful message. I hope the Pope elaborates on it and keeps repeating it. I agree this encyclical is not going to be enough but it may have reverberations.The Pope matters. He has embraced climate science, the cause of climate change being human induced. Then he relates climate change to morality. This is, sad to say, revolutionary. And as well, sadly, it’s really a no brainer,very overdue. One very brave and not well heard or discussed idea is his criticism of our economic system: that that we cannot keep growing endlessly, growing economies by more consumption. What about repairing? We must live more frugally. I don’t hear from economists anything but growth growth, growth and development. We cannot grow the way we have been on a finite ecologically sensitive Earth. How finite, how sensitive? Must we learn through disaster pain and suffering? So this is an appeal to our moral sense. We need conservation badly immediately and universally. And we need acts of repair to be catching on. We need rejection of consumption which will come along withmore individual well being and appreciation for our Earth. I’ll step off the box.

    • Pete Crangle

      Hello Potter. Nice response and observations. I am less sanguine about this matter, but I am rooting for your perspective and against mine. Keep that inner light of optimism burning.

      • Potter

        I forgot for a moment about population control and how important birth control and contraception as well as leadership on that is to the issue of climate change. So this was a glaring hole in the Pope’s message. Others are pointing that out now. Jack Beatty went on about it this morning on Ashbrook’s “News of the Week” which I heard as I was driving ( on fossil fuels). I don’t count myself as so optimistic. I am just saying that I/we don’t really know the power of us working together on this; it might save us. I think it’s uphill and there will be suffering for some and then for us all..(all of).our grandchildren and their children. I am very sad about that. I love my grandchildren but what kind of world are we sending them into? I felt this 45 years ago. My son feels it now. Squawk.