Pope Francis's eco-encyclical, issued to great fanfare this week, might be hyperbolic, anti-progress, and seemingly keen to bring the hotness of hell up to Earth. (How else do we explain its mad aside against air-conditioning, which the pontiff brands as one of humanity's "harmful habits"? Clearly he wants to heat us up in preparation for our eternal frying for all the eco-sins we've committed.) But we should nonetheless be grateful that, for all its dottiness, this humanity-lecturing letter has been published. For it shows in black and white—and green—what a colossal amount in common there is between environmentalism and Catholicism.
That Francis can so readily adopt eco-lingo, can read as fluently from the gospel according to Greenpeace as he does from those other gospels, confirms that God-botherers and eco-worriers share a serious agitation with the human urge to explore and develop—what they call our "hubris"—and long to make us live simpler, less stuff-filled lives.
Francis takes to eco-moaning like a duck to water. (Probably polluted water— yes, yes, we know.) He slams humanity's view of itself as "lords and masters" of nature, our belief that we can "plunder her at will." Such arrogance and greed will have "dire consequences," he finger-wags. Mother Nature has been "gravely damaged by our irresponsible behaviour," and all we're leaving to future generations is "debris, desolation and filth."
He warns that our avarice—by which he means our desire to live in big homes and drive nice cars, like he does—is propelling the world to disaster. We have become "self-centred." "The emptier a person's heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume," he says, from his vast, palatial home, which has so much art in it that if you spent one minute looking at each piece you'd be there for four years. Seriously, it's like being lectured about paying your taxes by Charles Rangel.
And what will be the end result of our wicked urge to own things? Mayhem, of course. All the pollution produced in the making of our things will increase "the threat of extreme weather events," he says, echoing in green-friendly language the Old Testament God's promise of floods as punishment for mankind's sinful antics. We should also gird ourselves for the "catastrophic consequences of social unrest," since "our obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction."
Shorter version: your material aspirations will destabilise the planet and cause people to kill each other. So lower your horizons. The meek shall inherit the Earth.
Francis is especially agitated by what he calls our Promethean delusions, our belief we can tame nature and use her resources to create a world of plenty and opportunity.
Humans are "usurping the place of God," says God's representative on Earth, "even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot." We think we have "dominion over the Earth." We are in thrall to a "Promethean vision of [our] mastery over the world," and it's high time we realised that we should be "responsible stewards" of this fragile planet, not "ruthless exploiters" of it.
He slams our "excessive anthropocentrism." We must "restore men and women to their rightful place"—that is, as humble janitors of the planet, whose only job is to keep Earth nice for future generations, not to dig at it, extract its innards, remake it in our own image.
If all this downbeatness about humanity and scaremongering about the future sounds familiar, that's because it echoes the eco-hysteria that has become so prominent in Western political life.
The Vatican is now a fully-fledged green institution. Which isn't surprising. The demonisation of human hubris and promotion of eco-meekness that is at the heart of the green ideology chimes perfectly with the asceticism of Catholicism.
The similarities between the pieties of environmentalism and the diktats of Catholicism are striking. Environmentalism rehabilitates in secular drag the stinging rebukes of humanity once delivered by pointy-hatted men of God.
Christianity's end-of-worldism is getting a new airing in the apocalypse obsession of greens, who warn of an eco-unfriendly End of Days. Its promise of Godly judgement for our wicked ways has been replaced by greens' promise that we'll one day be judged for our planetary destructiveness. A leading British green has fantasised about "international criminal tribunals" for climate-change deniers, who will be "partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths."
The Word of God has become the authority of The Science (greens always say "The" before "Science," to signal its definitiveness.) "Science has spoken," said Ban Ki-Moon last year, in a speech on why we should all obsess over climate change, just as Catholics insist the "Lord has spoken" so STFU. Greens breathe life back into Catholic guilt, too, urging us to feel bad about everything from flying abroad to eating strawberries out of season. Carbon-calculating, where people measure their every single production of carbon, is like Catholic guilt on steroids.
Of course, you can offset your carbon by planting a tree or something—what Catholics call penance. In the past, rich believers paid priests loads of money for an Indulgence, which absolved them of their non-mortal sins—today the eco-concerned wealthy spend their cash on offsetting their carbon farts, the modern equivalent of an Indulgence.
This is why Francis is so drawn to environmentalism: he sees it as a more acceptable, 21st-century way of pushing the guilt and meekness and anti-Promethean outlook that the Vatican has long been hawking.
Indeed, the most striking passage in his encyclical is when he celebrates environmentalism for potentially bringing to an end the era of progress: "Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature." The honesty here is refreshing: the Pope likes the green stuff because it winds back modernity; it reins in the moment in history when we believed in progress and human power.
He's talking about the Enlightenment, in essence. About that revolution in ideas when philosophers and scientists challenged the mysticism of the Church and said mankind should explore his surroundings, extract nature's secrets, dare to know, dare to discover. That radical moment which led to us unlocking the long-dormant sunlight in coal to power the Industrial Revolution: which allowed us to fly; which helped us discover the fantastic secrets hidden in uranium, which earlier generations only used to dye glass yellow but which we have used to create so much energy that even God was probably bowled over. He's talking about humanity playing God, which, as God's spokesman, he isn't happy about.
How striking that he now dons enviro-garb in order to hector hubristic humans and cheer the coming to an end of the "irrational confidence in progress." He instinctively recognises that environmentalism represents the greatest challenge to what he no doubt views as the error of Enlightenment. And he's right. Those of us who still believe in progress, and in humanity, and who think Prometheus had the right idea, will need to wage war on green thinking as determinedly as those Enlightenment greats stood up to the humanity-binding mysticism of their eras.