Against the modern or beyond the modern?

by Fr. Massimo Lapponi

My “anti-modern” choice – I prefer to use this Maritainian expression, instead of speaking of “environmentalism”, because ecology at that time was still in the pipeline – dates back to fifty years ago and was not a question of words, proclamations, processions or lectures in some palace of the power. It was something much more demanding: the abandonment of everything to choose a life of commitment in a rural environment, near the remains of a traditional civilization to which no one believed anymore, so much so that the few companions I found there were – and it can be said that still are – a few elderly monks, among them many disappointed. So one can well believe that my intervention is not motivated by denial of the environmental problem, nor by the defence of modern economics and industrialism all-round.
I must say, however, that the path of long decades has led me to meet with positions starting from opposite assumptions and that listening attentively to those positions has proved very fruitful and has led me to modify in a way I would say substantial my initial attitude. I could see, in fact, that the anti-modern could too easily bend to Malthusian myths, while they were opposed in an effective and constructive way, even if insufficient, just by an opposite perspective.
From this experience arose the conviction that it is necessary to take very seriously, indeed as a fundamental basis, some concepts developed in the anti-anti-modern area – in a time when by now the anti-modern was represented mainly by ecology and environmentalism – and then correct them rediscovering, in a new way, the issues of the anti-modern.
In this perspective, positions such as that of Riccardo Cascioli (see: http:///Æ5817) – if l have understood it well – even if it offers a solid base, it is not enough, but must be corrected with substantial additions. In turn, the position of people like Serge Latouche or Greta – if I have understood them well– although being the expression, perhaps sometimes unbalanced, of real needs, must be radically rethought starting from completely different foundations. To deny that there is an environmental problem would be like to deny that there is a workers’ problem. But not because there is a worker’s problem I feel like asking Marx for enlightenment! I prefer to set the problem in a whole other way.
Here it is worth mentioning a very authoritative economist, to whom many anti-anti-modern Catholics, such as Cascioli, refer: Bjorn Lomborg. Below is a recent article of his, which I find of exceptional interest, both because it sets out with perfect clarity the anti-anti-modern position to which I have referred, motivating it with very solid arguments, to which it is difficult to counter, and because, at the same time, it reveals its “weak point” – that is the aspect that necessarily requires clarification and deepening, which is resolved in a finding, on a different and original plane, of the anti-modern arguments.

(Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School)

Speaking at the United Nations, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said that if humanity really understands the science of climate change and still fails to act, we’re “evil.” This is because climate change means “people are dying.” Helpfully, she also told us what we must do to act correctly: In a bit more than eight years, we will have exhausted our remaining allowance for carbon emissions, so we must shut down everything running on fossil fuels by 2028.
While this claim is not uncommon, it is fundamentally misguided. Yes, global warming is real and human-caused, but her vision of climate change as the end of the world is unsupported. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by the 2070s, the total effects of climate change, including on ecosystems, will be equivalent to a reduction in average income of 0.2 to 2 per cent. By then, each person on the planet will be 300 to 500 per-cent richer.
We don’t emit CO2 with malign intent. Indeed, it is a byproduct of giving humanity access to unprecedented amounts of energy.
Just a century ago, life was back-breaking. Plentiful energy made better lives possible, without having to spend hours collecting firewood, polluting your household with smoke, achieving heat, cold, transportation, light, food and opportunities. Life expectancy doubled. Plentiful energy, mostly from fossil fuels, has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty in just the past 25 years.
That is not evil – it is quite the opposite.
Ms. Thunberg believes that climate change means people are dying, but the fact is that weather-related disasters just a century ago killed half a million people each year. Today, despite rising temperatures but because of less poverty and more resilience, droughts, floods, hurricanes and extreme temperatures kill just 20,000 people each year – a reduction of 95 per cent. That is a morally commendable achievement.
Ending global fossil-fuel use by 2028 is a flawed plan because green energy is simply not in a place in its development where it can take over what fossil fuels leave behind. A hard by-hook-or-crook transition would cause a real, global catastrophe, sending most of us back into back-breaking poverty. That’s why developing countries, especially, want more fossil-fuel power, not less; they want to lift more people into comfortable lives.
What we need is low-CO₂ energy that can outcompete fossil fuels – which would make everyone, including China and India, switch. This means dramatically increasing global investment into green research and development, something that we have conspicuously failed to do these past decades, exactly because activists have consistently demanded solutions before they are ready.
Finally, Ms. Thunberg tells us that if we don’t cut off fossil fuels by 2028, the young generation will never forgive us. This, however, is reflective of a blinkered first-world view. When the United Nations asked 10 million people around the world what they prioritize, they highlighted five issues: health, education, jobs, corruption and nutrition. In sum, they care about their kids not dying from easily curable diseases, getting a decent education, not starving to death.
Climate came last of 16 choices. That’s not because it is unimportant, but because for most of humanity, other issues are much more pressing.
The problem is that climate is increasingly trumping all other issues. A third of all development aid, for instance, is now spent addressing climate, in direct defiance of the priorities of the world’s poor.
While we should address climate through higher investments in green-energy R&D, it seems truer to say that most of the world’s young will never forgive us if we prioritized climate above our duty to tackle poverty, health, education and nutrition.

I shall not dwell on the soundness of Lomborg’s arguments. What it is important to draw attention to is what I have called the “weak point” of the position he stands for. It is revealed by one of the last sentences of the article: «they care about their kids not dying from easily curable diseases, getting a decent education, not starving to death».
We note that one of the priority issues indicated in the text is the need for the « kids» of those who are concerned about their future can gat « a decent education». So let us ask ourselves: what is meant by “a decent education”? This is not said, but from the articles of Lombrog and most economists, as well as from international documents on the problems of “sustainable development”, one can easily infer that education – without taking into account the disquieting sexual education programmes in accordance with the “gender doctrines” and with the so-called “reproductive health” – is reduced to a technical-scientific training that is able to exploit natural resources to ensure, as far as man is concerned, growth in economic well-being and, as far as nature is concerned, the development of knowledge useful to safeguard the environment, also through the exploitation of alternative sources of energy – ie “green-energy”, as expressed by the author.
What is the flaw of this program? That, even from an economic point of view, this model of education is not only insufficient, but ruinous. In fact the author, and those who follow his own approach, show that they are completely insensitive to the moral aspect of human factor – and this in a perspective which claims to value man to the maximum, defined, against an economy strongly tending to Malthusianism, “the ultimate resource”.
The moral wisdom of humanity has always looked with fear upon the accumulation of power in the hands of man, for if on the one hand it gives him the possibility to exploit all his potentialities, at the same time it is for him a dizzying temptation to abuse, as more exaggerated as greater are the energies made available to him. This temptation, and the punishment reserved for the man who does not know how to resist it, was represented by the myths of Prometheus and Pandora’s box. All self-destructive vices are unleashed for the world when man is seduced by the prospect of increasing his capacity for enjoyment, appropriation and self-exaltation.
Thus the energies and riches procured for the well-being of man are, to an uncontrollable extent, diverted to satisfy his thirst for pleasure, possessing and prevailing, with the consequence of destroying what study and work had laboriously accumulated. And what will be the effect of all this disorder on the waste of energy and the degradation of the environment? Should not the economist, therefore, take into consideration, alongside the raising of millions of people from poverty, also the sinking of youth– and not only– in a sea of vices, from sex to alcohol, to drugs, to the unreality of electronic excess, to the feebleness of an ever more comfortable and voluptuous life, to the tip of commercial pseudo-music and the thrill of speed, and thus to the breaking up of family and social ties – to give some eloquent examples?
A truly adequate education of youth, also in view of the protection of the environment, cannot be limited to technical-scientific training. And moreover, if the Nobel Prize for Medicine Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), in one of his famous volumes, already in 1935 warned, also from the point of view of medicine and science, that the path taken by civilization was damaging the consistency of human being, it means that it is not only moralists and theologians who are warning economists about the damage of an irresponsible human formation. Note that the title of the famous volume of Alexis Carrel was “Man the unknown”. How, then, can economists who proclaim man to be “the ultimate resource” content themselves, in their analyses, with an absolutely banal and superficial knowledge of man?
What can we propose, therefore, to correct this position, which we have defined as “anti-anti-modern”, effectively represented by Lomborg? It is not possible now to complete this subject, on which of course there was no lack of reflection. I can refer to a text that, even if it is not exhaustive, in some way represents the end point of a path of reflection of fifty years and more: