Having recently begun a journey of exploring already-trod paths contained within the multitudinous leaves of paper and ink resting on my bookshelf, I have so far read through several short books but this will be only my second report. I just finished rereading Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and don’t know how exactly to begin. Much like the ecology he describes, this encyclical is encompassing and interwoven such that one cannot isolate individual aspects without doing violence to the whole. Nevertheless, with all respect to His Holiness I will limit my focus, hopefully not inflicting too much violence on the text along the way.
The first thing I’ll say about this encyclical is that it’s challenging. Not in the way of readability; no, its style and content are quite accessible whether you’re erudite or simple or something in between. Laudato Si’ confronts us with the situation of global ecological degradation approaching a tipping point, largely caused or exacerbated by human activity impelled by ignorance and greed. It’s a call to conversion, plain and simple. Some of the pope’s diagnoses of our social and environmental conditions are bleak, albeit not entirely hopeless. As for accepting our portion of guilt in the systemic sins the pope astutely discusses, well, there’s some camels trying to squeeze their well-fed arses through a few non recyclable needles (Matt. 19:24).
What interested me the most is the pope’s discussion of what he calls “the technocratic paradigm.” It’s an epistemological paradigm wherein logical, rational man assumes a confrontational relationship with the rest of creation, using science and technology to overcome and mold everything according to his desires. This worldview, “which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society”, underlies many of the problems we currently face. Because we’re enslaved to this way of thinking, we foolishly go on believing our salvation lies around the corner with greater scientific discovery and technological advancement.
Technology itself, while neither good or bad per se, is also not morally neutral. Technological products “create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” Under the technocratic paradigm there are two unavoidable realities: First, technological development as an impersonal force has its own inertial movement toward the absorption and domination of everything else. Second, technological development is inevitably coupled with lust for wealth and power.
Put simply, mankind develops technology which in turn creates course deviations in society’s developmental path, bringing forth possibilities and conditions which influence the development of future technology and so on. Inseparable from the development and deployment of new technology is the reality that there will always be ambitious, shrewd people clawing their way to the top and profiting from society’s demand for better technology. The inevitable laws of supply and demand enable the vicious and ambitious among us to exert their dominance by influencing the moods and trajectory of society through the manipulation of products, market forces, and flow of information.
Given that technological development as an impersonal force always alters the flow of history in unpredictable ways, and is coupled with the inexorable element of human ambition and greed, it should be amazing that we could so delude ourselves into expecting humanity’s (and the planet’s) salvation to come through a proper application of science and economics. Yet, whether we’re conscious of it or not, such notions are deeply embedded in our thinking.
Compulsive consumerism and the illusion that we’re “free” so long as we’re able to consume as we wish, are results of the technological paradigm. But this is merely socially sanctioned enslavement to our passions, guided by advertisers who create and fulfill supposed “needs” and “desires” which drive the market for the myriad gadgets and doodads with which we distract ourselves. A way of life whereby consumption is assumed as the “common good” breeds selfishness and engenders a widespread sense of anxiety. Selfishness and greed potentiate one another, the eventual result being violence and societal instability. In such an environment lacking “a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society”, no political institution or cultural movement can hold things together and protect us from mutual destruction.
Trying to resist the technological paradigm is futile without first calling into question the beliefs and practices assumed to be foundational to our society. For example, peoples’ attempts at encouraging ecological responsibility at the grassroots level were merely organized and absorbed into the capitalistic market as a “going green” advertising campaign, because there wasn’t a radical rethinking of how our economy should operate. Marketers successfully used environmentalism as a ploy to placate customers while making token (read: ineffective) changes in their companies’ practices. Another example of tragic absurdity is Nike’s campaign to associate its brand with human equality, even as it continues to use sweat shops in its supply chains.
Of course, this all goes much deeper than simple advertising. Pope Francis insists the technocratic paradigm, which distorts nearly every aspect of our lives, must be resisted not just with a radical rethinking of society’s structures and worldviews, but with a subversive spirituality. But that is for the next post. I will conclude with an excerpt from the encyclical.
Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true, and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.Pope Francis. “Laudato Si’.” The Holy See, 24 May 2015. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html. paragraph 205.