Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Green Pope

A few weeks ago I suggested that we can best understand Pope Francis’s environmentalist encyclical by seeing him as an Argentinian leftist.

Yesterday, Joel Kotkin offered a better explanation of exactly what it means to be an Argentinian leftist, that is, a follower of Juan Peron.

In his words:

We are not talking here about not socialism, as some right-wingers suggest. Marxism, for all its manifest flaws, justified itself by promising to improve living standards; it was passionate about technology, which is one reason Marx called it “scientific socialism.” Instead, Francis seems closer to Peronism, the dominant state ideology of his native Argentina. Even before his most recent pronunciamento, Francis widely disparaged capitalism, which he equated with the cronyism dominant throughout South America.

Of course, Peronism is a form of socialism. One is happy to know that Marx was passionate about technology, but the experience of Communist countries, especially Mao’s China, suggests that the idea was “more honored in the breach than in the observance.” Castro’s Cuba has recently been touted as good for the environment: it has successfully immiserated its people by depriving them of the wonders of modern technology.

So, Pope Francis sees the world in Argentinian terms. What does that mean, more practically?
Kotkin explains:

 Since the last century, Argentina has been one of the world’s greatest economic failures, a country that despite a talented and educated populace and huge natural resources, has tumbled from rich country status to a second or third world country. In essence, replacing the American dream with an Argentinian one sounds less than appealing.

This morning Bret Stephens compared today’s financial crisis in Greece with the defaults that helped turn Argentina from a developed to a developing nation:

On Sunday, Greece became only the second country in history—Argentina was the first—to make the transition from membership in the developed world to membership in the developing one. 

For his part Kotkin is especially alarmed by the new alliance between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the anti-industrial, anti-economic growth green lobby:

With Francis’s pontifical blessing, the greens have now found a spiritual hook that goes beyond the familiar bastions of the academy, bureaucracy, and the media and reaches right into the homes and hearts of more than a billion practicing Catholics. No potential coalition of interests threatened by a seeming tsunami of regulation—from suburban homeowners and energy firms to Main Street businesses—can hope to easily resist this alliance of the unlikely.

As I have occasionally suggested, the movement seeks nothing more than to repeal the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, Pope Francis seems to possess very little accurate information about modern industry or capitalism. His is a knee-jerk opposition to capitalism.

Kotkin writes:

Capitalism, particularly during the early industrial revolution, often abused human dignity and engendered huge poverty. This still happens today, as the Pope suggests, but this system has also been responsible for lifting hundreds of millions of people—most recently in China and East Asia—out of poverty. Without the resources derived from capitalist enterprise, there would have been insufficient funds to drive the great improvements in sanitation, housing, and education that have created huge pockets of relative affluence across the planet.

The green movement wants to shut down economic growth. It touts the virtue of extreme poverty and misery as ways to save the planet. And it also, contrary to the views of Pope Francis, wishes to limit human reproduction.

Kotkin summarizes its more radical side:

Given their lack of faith in markets or people, the green movement has become ever less adept at adjusting to the demographic, economic, and technological changes that have occurred since the ’70s. Huge increases in agricultural productivity and the recent explosion in fossil fuel energy resources have been largely ignored or downplayed; the writ remains that humanity has entered an irreversible “era of ecological scarcity” that requires strong steps to promote “sustainability.”

And also:

The Church and Francis are now allied to the likes of Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, who has concluded that not having children is the most effective way for an individual in the developed world to reduce emissions, although he adds that he himself is a father. In the United Kingdom, Jonathan Porritt, an environmental advisor to Prince Charles, has claimed that having even two children is “irresponsible,” and has advocated for the island nation to reduce its population by half in order, in large part, to reduce emissions.


Ultimately the green platform seeks not to increase living standards as we currently understand them (particularly in high income countries) but to purposely lower them. This can be seen in the calls for “de-development,” a phrase employed by President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren for all “overdeveloped” advanced countries, in part to discourage developing countries from following a similar path. This way of thinking is more mainstream among European activists who seek to promote what is called “de-growth,” which seeks to limit fossil fuels, suburban development, and replace the current capitalist system with a highly regulated economy that would make up for less wealth through redistribution.

As we see in today’s California, when wealthy tech titans and trustifarians support these programs, they happily shield themselves from the consequences. Of course, China and India are more than happy to watch Western civilization self-deconstruct because these efforts will help to usher in a new Asian century.

In the West, those who will suffer the most are the lower and middle classes:

Given the reluctance of still poor countries to further impoverish themselves, the burden of the Catholic-green alliance will necessarily fall on the middle and working classes. As we can already see in California (the state with the most draconian environment laws), long-term economic growth has been tepid, despite the occasional tech and property bubbles. At the same time, the state suffers not only among the highest unemployment rates in the country, but the highest level of poverty, when cost of living is addressed, and has become home to one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients.

Kotkin adds:

What matters little to the green movement are the economic ramification of their preferred policies, such as forcing a large percentage of the population into “fuel poverty.” Loss of jobs in trucking and manufacturing would hit blue-collar workers and neighborhoods hardest, according to most studies. How this jibes with meeting the high welfare and retirement costs with an urban population increasingly dominated by immigrants, their offspring, and other poor children, seems problematical at least.

None of this is inevitable. Kotkin’s alarm about a new feudalism may be more a wake-up call than a prophecy.

But, today, in a world where political leadership is exercised by the likes of Barack Obama and where spiritual leadership has fallen on an Argentinian Peronist, things look bleak. But, they have looked bleak before. Perhaps the West will wake up before it follows the path of Greece.

Kotkin concludes:

This confluence of private interest, public power and the clerical class is suggestive of a new feudal epoch. Bankrolled by inherited money, including from the oil-rich Rockefellers as well as Silicon Valley, the green alliance has already shown remarkable marketing savvy and media power to promote its agenda. Now that their approach is officially also the ideology of the world’s largest and most important church, discussion of climate change has become both secular and religious dogma at the same time. 


David Foster said...

Claire Berlinski draws an interesting parallel between certain aspects of the "Green" ideology and a flavor of Christian heresy that has periodically surfaced from 560 AD through the present day. See the discussion of Crop Worship and Malbouffe in my review of her book Menace in Europe:


Anonymous said...

Over 60% of housing units are occupied by the owner in the US. Owning a home (or car or other assets) make you a capitalist of some type. During the last recession, the news reported that people wwhere cashing in thier 401K's to make ends meet. A lot of businesses started where the owner mortgaged or used the equity in his home to finance an idea to make money. It still happens.

Just because you work somewhere and get a paycheck from a non profit, or a government entity (public service?) doesn't mean you are not a capitalist if you are using the proceeds to stockpile assets.

Sam L. said...

Anon, be sure to tell such people that directly, as they will be horrified to hear that.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Perhaps the West will wake up before it follows the path of Greece.

The phrase "wake up" is a fun metaphor, implying some of us are asleep and others are awake, while most philosophers would probably say all of us are asleep most of the time, experiencing complacency seeing what we want to see if its a good dream, and panic when we see other people doing the wrong things when its a nightmare.

Comparing the West to Greece is interesting, and what lessons are we to take from Greece? I assume the lesson is "too much debt", but really its more "too much nonsovereign debt", but remember captialist J. Paul Getty said "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem."

But its true, if you're a pensioner in Greece, you may be in trouble. Retirement is a nice capitalistic dream, that every can put all their savings into distant investments and collect interest and live off that interest, while market failures can steal all those investments a million times faster than meager inflation. And now Greece has to learn how to be a local economy again and make things for themselves, and what sort of money will they use?

I've had troublesome discussions with my local pastor who believes in Social Justice, and I'll agree like the pope, he doesn't understand capitalism, although he might understand better than me for all I know, but when people hear the word "capitalism" it seems to be a codeword for "magic creation of wealth" or "power of the wealthy to exploit the poor" depending on who is talking, and both can be equally wrong.

I'll accept the position that power corrupts, and capitalism's power corrupts, and also promotes short term thinking, and when combined with fiat money, promotes malinfestments, like China's ghost cities where the middle class invests in places they'll never live, on a fool's idea they can sell it for their retirement.

The big middle class lie I see now is that retirement by saving huge sums of money will give you a comfortable life in 10 or 40 years. Its certainly true for many now, but how do we protect our investments for decades when we're depleting natural systems in the short run with long term unknown costs?

There I have no problem with the Pope's concerns.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

After all that's gone in with Pope Francis thus far, it may be wise to take a step back. Like St. Pope John Paul II, Francis doesn't fit into clean ideological containers.

The pope's off-the-cuff witticisms have created agida in many of the faithful. But in exploring his remarks in the context of the wider conversation they appear in, they make sense.

The silence the pope delivered on homosexual "marrriage" in the USA was disconcerting, all while he has been so colorful with recycling programs and global "warming." His coziness with the likes of Naomi Klein is unimpressive, as is his gaggle of neo-Malthusian experts who worship our planet like a deity, and at the expense of humanity... their own and others.

Furthermore, his rapprochement with some of the more noted liberation theologians certainly is worth wary attention. Marxism is Marxism, whether in a cassock or in Red Square. Call me ideological if you like, but the Marxist demand for worldwide revolution of the proletariat still only falls on the ears of overly-educated elites who continue to be its most loyal followers. Subjugation of the individual to the collective may sound swell to some, but it always takes an unprincipled, vicious authoritarian to make it stick. And the workers fare no better.

But the Peronist thing doesn't wash. Pope Francis has had cool relations with Cristina Kirchner, and he was a particular foe of her husband. Kirchnerism is an outgrowth of Peronism, with the egos along with it.

Pope Francis' most disappointing stand is his belief in man's temporal power to deliver a just economic, political, social and ecological result. In that sense, perhaps he is corporatist in his approach, seeking counsel from all stakeholders, rather than following the capitalist or communist model. This intention to find a "third way" would make him no different than JPII. Many Catholics bristled at JPII's Polish sensibilities for how the Roman Catholic Church should be and operate. I suspect Pope Francis is bringing an Argentine flair to the conversation, and how can't he? He's Argentinian!

There's a long history of corruption in Latin America. It is unjust. Milton Friedman often pointed out the cozy relationship between the bureaucratic socialists and the corporations they were regulating. It's the same corporate welfare and crony capitalism that's expanded with Obamanomics.

The Greens and the Obamatrons are troubling actors. Just like JPII united with Reagan and Thatcher to bring down the Soviet Empire, I hope Pope Francis isn't fashioning some kind of Vatican alliance with the Obama Administration and the Greens. THAT would be alarming, because you're combining bureaucratic Chicago thugery with pantheistic anarchism. Neither group thinks highly of Roman Catholicism except as a institutional "useful idiot," to use Lenin's terms.

So I don't know where Pope Francis is going with all this, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in the near term. The Catholic view on the social order is more aligned with my own sensibilities than that of unbridled capitalism or totalitarian communism. Somewhere in between is the more balanced economic approach -- a "distributist" outlook with a more sound use of resources and a decentralization of power. Some right-wing ideologues want to call that "feudalism." But my own great fear is, and always has been, centralized temporal power. Everyone loves it, everyone wants it. The problem is that it always ends up being one person or one party in charge, and nobody wins in that arrangement. I hope Pope Francis sees that, and I suspect he does. He is quite adept at seeing the temptations of the Evil One.

Pope Francis is a beautiful man in terms of how he leads his own life of humility. I just hope he's seeking true conversion of souls, and not putting his hat in with materialist lunatics who will convert you at the end of a gun barrel. We shall see.

Anonymous said...

"Pope" Francis is a heretic (in that he has made heretical statements) and therefore an Anti-pope (1st Vatican Conference).

Anonymous said...

Anon, please outline his heresies. Being that the Catholic Church seeks to engage the modern world since the 2nd Vatican council, I'm not sure why he should be burned at the stake. His way of approaching these subjects is different, but his content seems to follow church teaching.