Nature Rebounds!

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, is sure to invoke all sorts of reactions from its readers.  Having just finished it, I would even dare to suggest that each reader may experience a range of responses, section by section and even sentence by sentence.  It is a combination of pastoral lecture and harsh rebuke, with a sizable dollop of climate science and sideways economics tossed in.

As I wrestle with what I consider to be hyperbolic descriptions of the “immense pile of filth” and “constant schizophrenia” I have to admit the real dangers of a throwaway culture that relies on technology as a substitute for moral choices.  As a westerner living in the richest country in human history, it’s easy to overlook the advantages we enjoy; as the saying goes most of us didn’t hit a triple, we were born on third base.  I do agree that our fallen nature extends to our treatment of other humans as well as the natural world, in a constant battle of temptation and will.  Nonetheless, overall I found the document to be a joyless romp filled with accusations of the ill motives of mysterious unnamed “many who,” ruthless exploiters who see only a profit motive in their daily life.  I’ve never met an entrepreneur who was as completely superficial and despicable as this.  But I’m sure a few of them are out there.

Tone aside, the Holy Father presents as truth a lot of the climate change tropes that are hardly settled science, of anthropogenic warming and polar ice and lost forests.  He specifically calls out carbon credit schemes, but more as a danger toward financial speculation (which it is, to be sure) rather than a ruse to formalize climate change rhetoric into our daily discourse.  Then there’s the riff of “global governance,” which emerged controversially in Caritas in Veritate under Benedict.  These elements of socialism and pseudo-science serve to underpin the hopelessness of his message because they’ve been used for decades by schemers who prey on fear and class division.  I certainly don’t consider our pope to be a schemer, but his Christian-centered alarmism goes, ironically, hand in hand with the secular elites using the same rhetoric to get rich and powerful.

So what’s a conflicted Catholic to do?  Fortunately just as I was completing the encyclical amid a lot of sighing and head shaking I ran across an online interview with Professor Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York.  Dr. Ausubel has written a recent essay entitled Nature Rebounds, in which he presents data on the utilization of certain key resources, peak use of these resources within the last few decades, and how as usage rates decrease (largely as a result of technology advances and declining overall demand) we are able to “give back” large swaths of nature to the planet (or, Sister Earth if you prefer).

The information shared in the interview mirror very closely Dr. Ausubel’s paper, so those interested can’t go wrong with either format.  Ausubel is no toady of the corporate world, having organized the first U.N. climate conference in 1979 when he worked in government.  According to his bio in the essay, “he is closely associated with the concepts of decarbonization, dematerialization, land sparing, and industrial ecology.”  Recently, he won something called the Paradigm Prize for “work on harnessing technology to lighten the human footprint.”  In the online interview he talks about being at Woodstock and in the essay he mentions that he marched on the first Earth Day in 1970.

Dr. Ausubel’s essay is in no way an intentional refutation of the claims in Laudato Si’ (the essay came before the encyclical, by the way); however, the data therein presents compelling counterbalances to the bleak view of the ongoing interaction between humanity and nature.  In the very first few paragraphs he opens with a strong statement that forms his thesis.

…about 1970 a great reversal began in America’s use of resources. Contrary to the expectations of many professors and preachers, America began to spare more resources for the rest of nature, first in relative and more recently in absolute amounts. A series of decouplings is occurring, so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water, and minerals. American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted, but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production. Changes in behavior and technology liberate the environment.   Ausubel, Nature Rebounds, 2015, p.1

A few other examples serve to further illustrate his point.  The “decoupling,” as he calls it, of corn production and cropland usage is astounding:  since 1940 the production of corn has quintupled but the acreage used to grow this corn has decreased, as has the use of fertilizers and pesticides.  This kind of decoupling is a result of the application of better crop science and precision farming.  Similar magnitudes of “land sparing” are happening around the world.

Rebound is already happening.  Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has released at least 30 million hectares and possibly as much as 60 million hectares to return to nature… Thirty million hectares is the size of Poland or Italy.    ibid, p. 5

Worried about losing forests and other green space?  Ausubel isn’t.  He points out that both supply and demand for wood has led to a transition from losing forest acreage to gaining it.  Better understanding and control of harvesting and replanting, as well as the lowering of demand for wood for things like railroad ties, telephone poles, paper and fuel means forests have increased in the U.S. and abroad.  In addition, the so-called “greening” of the planet is proceeding as carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere; far from endangering our world, this is boosting plant life.

Top-down forces are also at work, and together the forces are causing global greening, the most important ecological trend on Earth today.  The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by 2 billion tons or even more… global greening is the most important ecological phenomenon on land today.    ibid, p. 7

Finally, Ausubel describes the phenomon of “dematerialization,” as advances in technology allow fewer, smaller devices to replace those used by our grandparents, parents and even our younger selves.  He points out that a smart phone can easily replace a dozen or more larger and material-intense implements (telephone, radio, newspaper, camera, etc).  The result of this advancement is that usage of mineral and metals that are costly to extract from the earth and can then go on to pollute the land and water, has peaked in western countries in the last decade or two.  One aspect of dematerialization that I wouldn’t have thought about, is that emerging countries such as China and India and those in Africa will leapfrog past production of the cathode-ray television and other bulky electronics and go right to hand-held devices or at least to more cost effective and efficient versions of the oldies.

In contrast to the dour and disapproving tenor of Laudato Si’ Dr. Ausubel paints a hopeful, if secularized, version of our future in unity with the environment.  His point of view is not without questionable facets, but it at least gives us confidence that we can co-exist with the natural world.  Although we owe our Holy Father deference in his teaching, especially when he is challenging our moral decisions, we also owe ourselves and one another a rigorous intellectual review of all the factors that go into this relationship.

Whether into the woods or sea, the way is clear, the light is good, the time is now.  A large, prosperous, innovative humanity, producing and consuming wisely, might share the planet with many more companions, as nature rebounds.   ibid, p. 14

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!


One comment

  1. Didymus says:

    Thank you for linking the refreshing article from Dr. Ausubel. Zealotry is one of the chief enemies to rational decision making on the environment, and I agree that the hyperbolic statements in the encyclical are not helping to cut through the noise. A couple of examples from my own past experience in the world of recycling and timber harvesting –

    1. At a national recycling conference in the early 90’s, I saw a presentation from an engineer on why it is better for the environment to burn certain heavily contaminated, low-grade mixed waste papers for energy than to recycle them. He showed the energy balances, along with pollution statistics for air, water and solid waste for the various alternatives, and all I remember is that he almost got booed off the stage. The mindset of the crowd was “if it can be recycled, it must be,” as opposed to “is this really the best alternative for the environment?”

    2. Also in the ’90’s a landowner showed me the stump from a tree that had just been harvested. He pointed out on the growth rings the exact point at which some selective harvesting of trees had previously been done in his woods about 10 years earlier. Before that harvesting, the growth rings were so tiny that you could barely differentiate them, but after some trees in the area were thinned out the growth rings exploded – 1/2 inch, 3/4 inch per year. However, try telling the average environmental activist that if we want to dramatically increase the overall biomass of trees that we should cut some down. It doesn’t go over well.

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