Viewpoint

Fracking and the sour Franciscans

Pope Francis’s encyclical was too cynical about technology, progress and work.
Pope Francis’s encyclical was too cynical about technology, progress and work. AFP/GETTY

Pope Francis is one of the world’s most inspiring figures. There are passages in his new encyclical on the environment that beautifully place human beings within the seamless garment of life. And yet overall the encyclical is surprisingly disappointing.

Legitimate warnings about the perils of global warming morph into 1970s-style doom-mongering about technological civilization. There are too many overdrawn statements like “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Hardest to accept, though, is the moral premise implied throughout the encyclical: that the only legitimate human relationships are based on compassion, harmony and love, and that arrangements based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.

The pope has a section on work in the encyclical. The section’s heroes are St. Francis of Assisi and monks – emblems of selfless love who seek to return, the pope says, to a state of “original innocence.”

He is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.

Moral realists, including Catholic ones, should be able to worship and emulate a God of perfect love and still appreciate systems, like democracy and capitalism, that harness self-interest.

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

You would never suspect, from this encyclical, that over the last decade, one of the most castigated industries has, ironically, produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains. I’m talking of course about fracking.

There was recently a vogue for polemical antifracking documentaries like “Gasland” that purport to show that fracking is causing flammable tap water and other horrors.

But a recent Environmental Protection Agency study found that there was no evidence that fracking was causing widespread harm to the nation’s water supply. On the contrary, there’s some evidence that fracking is a net environmental plus.

That’s because cheap natural gas from fracking displaces coal.

Pope Francis is a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person. But if we had followed his line of analysis, neither the Asian economic miracle nor the technology-based American energy revolution would have happened.

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent – the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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