Thoughts on Laudato si', Part 4: This Isn't Rational

July 9, 2015

There is no way to solve a problem unless it is recognized that there is one, but it shouldn’t be hard to see that atmospheric pollution is a problem in today’s world. Indeed, as Pope Francis tells us in Laudato si’ [1], some “forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience,” and have produced “a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and” have caused “millions of premature deaths.”

Of course, the concerns of this world’s poor are often ignored, since they have no access to political power. That is tragically true even in a supposed democracy like the United States. But when it comes to atmospheric pollution, it is not only the poor who are affected, for there “is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and agrotoxins in general.” Pollution of this kind cannot be inflicted solely on the disenfranchised, and so, perhaps, the self-interest of those in power can be invoked to inspire remedies. 

Remedies are indeed suggested, but these are of a technological nature, the kind that is “linked to business interests,” and which serves those interests. Countermeasures which do not serve those interests are deemed out of court at the onset. Thus, technology “is presented as the only way of solving these problems,” but “in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” Catalytic converters, for example, “have proven to be reliable and effective in reducing noxious tailpipe emissions,” but “they also have some shortcomings and adverse environmental impacts in production,” in that while they “are effective at removing hydrocarbons and other harmful emissions, they do not reduce the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced when fossil fuels are burnt,” and carbon “dioxide produced from fossil fuels is one of the greenhouse gases indicated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be a ‘most likely’ cause of global warming.” [2] Moreover, catalytic “converter production requires palladium or platinum; part of the world supply of these precious metals is produced near Norilsk, Russia, where the industry (among others) has caused Norilsk to be added to Time magazine’s list of most-polluted places.”  

Waste pollution presents another concern, “including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources.” As a result, the “earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”      

This certainly has detrimental aesthetic outcomes, but the problems associated with waste go further than that. Bioaccumulation is the “increase in the amount of a substance in an organism or part of an organism which occurs because the rate of intake exceeds the organism’s ability to remove the substance from the body.” [3] “Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.” 

The manner in which we have been dealing with our waste is contrary to the example of nature, where “plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores,” and “these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.” But our industrial system “has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.” It is evident that we need to “adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.” Unfortunately, “only limited progress has been made in this regard.” 

These things are well-known, and they are impossible to justify except with reference to the assumptions of the prevailing economic model. But an economic model that results in the destruction of our environment cannot be rational, because the economy ought to further human flourishing rather than sickness and death. The question must, therefore, be asked: what causes us to continue in this manner? Or who?          

Jack Quirk