In June, the Vatican released Pope Francis’s much anticipated encyclical letter Laudato Si on the environment and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. The encyclical is worth exploring for those interested in global catastrophic and existential risks (GCE-risks) because the particular environmental problems the Pope discusses are placed in the general context of the many GCE-risks that humanity faces.
I’ll summarize the relevant information into four points: 1) in general, science and technology have greatly benefitted humankind, 2) technology has empowered humanity to the level where GCE-risks are now serious threats, 3) the Catholic Church must protect humanity from these risks, and 4) the Catholic Church should make common cause with all people of good will for the sake of reducing these risks.
1) In General, Science and Technology Have Greatly Benefitted Humankind
Laudato Si is broadly concerned with global catastrophic and existential risks, and these ideas are further embedded into a philosophy, theology, and ethics of technology. While the environment and human dependence on it are the primary concern of the document, it also has a crucial discussion of human technological power and particularly the historical progress of technology, which has undoubtedly greatly benefitted humankind, and contemporary emerging technologies. Pope Francis expresses gratitude for these technologies and all who have helped to develop them:
102. Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us… Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?
2) Technology Has Empowered Humanity to the Level Where GCE-Risks Are Now Serious Threats
However, he notes, these technologies make humankind – and in particular, a few decision-making humans, whether technologists, business leaders, politicians, or military leaders – extremely powerful, and we lack the ethics and institutional structures to properly control these powers. As CS Lewis noted in 1943 in The Abolition of Man “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Technological power can be dangerous for all of us, who are more likely to be among the “exercised-over” than the “exercisers-of”:
104. Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare.
These deadly arsenals make war more dangerous than ever and therefore more important than ever to avoid. Pope Francis states:
57. …War always does grave harm… risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons… Politics must pay greater attention to foreseeing new conflicts and addressing the causes which can lead to them.
In a trend that has increased over the last few decades, the Pope uses “risk language” throughout the encyclical. Discussing the panoply of risks humanity now faces, Francis begins by invoking Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris which sought multilateral nuclear disarmament (one “thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls,” 113), then proceeds to quote Pope Paul VI [in Octogesima Adveniens] on ecological risk:
4. In 1971… Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”.
By 1971, the specter of extinction had loomed over humanity for 25 years in the form of nuclear weapons and concern was beginning to spread into environmental issues. Indeed, the Vatican opposed nuclear weapons from the very day after their first use (see “Vatican Regrets Inventors Did Not Destroy Bomb,” Miami Herald, August 7, 1945). Now we have added numerous further concerns to our GCE-risk inventory, including synthetic biological, computer (AI, viruses), and nanotechnological knowledge, to name just a few. Pope Francis notes the generally dire circumstances we are in, saying: “An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive” (55), and that we need to “escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.” (163)
3) The Catholic Church Must Protect Humanity from Self-Destruction
Given this recognition of the realities of GCE-risks, the Pope sets himself and the Roman Catholic Church squarely against them. This is nothing new (after all, as mentioned above, popes have been encouraging multilateral disarmament and environmentalism for decades). But he makes a few further statements that are of interest to ethics of technology and GCE-risk. In paragraph 79 he states, quoting Pope Benedict XVI, that:
79. …The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction”.
That is a tremendous statement coming from the leader of a religion with over one billion members. The Roman Catholic Church is now officially in the business of protecting humankind from extinction, including stopping global catastrophic and existential risks.
Pope Francis challenges Catholics and “all people of good will” (62) to do something about the risks that we face. This includes not only technological solutions to the problems created by our technology (indeed, the Pope encourages those working to re-power our energy system away from fossil-fuels – 23, 26, 265), but also, ultimately, a change of heart. The Pope argues that we need to learn to control our destructive powers, and that ethics should play a crucial role in this control:
78. …A fragile world… challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.
105. …we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.
136. …a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.
As I say to my students in every course I teach, formerly human action was constrained by weakness, but now that we are more powerful we must learn to be constrained by our good judgment. This is a lesson humanity needs to learn before it is too late.
Ultimately, Pope Francis hopes that the efforts we put into researching and developing dangerous technologies could be re-directed towards “healthier” technologies.
112. …We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.
4) The Catholic Church Should Join in the Common Cause against GCE-Risks
Lastly, Laudato Si is addressed not only to all Catholics, but also to everyone willing to listen (3, “all people of good will” 62). Pope Francis knows that even if all one billion Catholics in the world not only listened, but also acted (which they won’t), even that would not be enough to protect the world from the risks it faces. We need to work together. And we must not put our heads in the sand to ignore this problem:
59. …As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.
We cannot continue to fail to react to the signs of danger around us. Pope Francis is calling on all Catholics, as part of their mission for God and the Church, not only to protect the environment, but also to work against all types of global catastrophic and existential risks. He hopes that anyone willing to listen will help join in this work, and for those outside the Church already doing this work, he expresses his sincere gratitude. In common cause, he hopes Catholic and non-Catholics can work together for the survival and flourishing of humanity and the natural environment.