I am a Catholic and an ecomodernist. The former means that I like (in no particular order): the Pope, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, kids, the Holy Trinity, wine and Latin. The latter means that I believe that, in order to accommodate the continued flourishing of humans on our planet, we need to accelerate the many technological developments in energy, agriculture, urbanization and transportation that are already taking place. I believe that God and history have placed the keys to the spaceship in our hands. Refusing to drive is not an option.
Anyone who has read (or more likely, heard about on BuzzFeed) the Pope’s newest encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, will likely see a contradiction in these, my two most core beliefs. The purpose of this series of essays, written during Lent of 2016, is to examine various aspects of the tension between these two positions. The Holy Father mentions several times in his letter that the Church encourages debate on the best way to approach these problems, since She is not an expert on technology or economics. Consider these essays to be my contribution to this debate.
The first subject of examination is one close to my heart: agricultural intensification. The intensification of agriculture is, in many ways, the continuation of the Green Revolution, which saw the introduction of industrial fertilizers and mechanization into agriculture. Make no mistake, this Revolution helped save humanity from perennial catastrophist predictions of famine and is an excellent example of the application of human creativity to our most wicked problems. The agricultural intensification now occurring is the continuation of this Revolution by other means, first by genetic modification to make more robust crops and second, by using information technology to optimize agricultural processes.
The net result of agricultural intensification is that we can now grow more food, more consistently, on less land, using less water, wasting less fertilizer and emitting fewer greenhouse gases. Furthermore, no credible scientific evidence has appeared to support the claim that produce farmed in an intensified manner is less healthy than produce from traditional farms.
All of these appear to be unmediated goods. Yet, Pope Francis specifically points out the dangers of agricultural intensification in his encyclical, taking aim in particular at GMOs. How can we resolve this apparent tension?
The Holy Father’s first concern regarding intensive agriculture is the possibility of harm to the environment in the form of monoculture. As we know, the presence of a monoculture raises the risks to food security and the environment, since a single pathogen can negatively affect a larger portion of the food supply. Which is to say; if everyone grows the same kind of banana, a single banana flu (a term I just made up) can endanger the lives and livelihood of a great number of people.
That agriculture intensification can tend toward monoculture is, of course, a fact. We should not forget, though, that reduction of biodiversity is the whole point of agriculture. Make no mistake, there is nothing natural about picking one variety of plant, breeding it, irrigating it, protecting it against the elements and harvesting it for human consumption. If we did not intervene, nature would not magically yield unlimited kale. This is, after all, the point of the expulsion from Paradise.
The risk of monoculture is very real, but it is present in all agricultural societies. This is something best accomplished through governance, both political and corporate, but the right application of technology can also help. The use of information technology, coupled with precision seeders and harvesters, for example, can allow for mutually beneficial crops to be grown together; bringing to scale farming insights that were employed as early as the Mayans.
Pope Francis also expresses concern that traditional agriculture employs many people, especially in the developing world and that eliminating these traditional methods in favor of a more industrial method would put many people out of work and threaten their traditions.
As Francis points out, the Catholic Church places a great importance on the social and spiritual function of work. For us, work is not merely an exchange of labor for money, but rather a way to deepen our understanding of Creation, encourage comradery, self-esteem and creativity. Work is fundamental to human dignity.
Does this mean that we must argue for employment at all costs? This would lead us to the uncomfortable place of arguing against all efficiency that would threaten employment. This is transparently untenable.
A nuance that needs to be taken into account is the distinction between the Catholic view of work and the political-economical view of work. From the raw political economic point of view, we are led to believe that, if there were no economic need, there would be no work. But from the Catholic view, we can claim that eliminating need will in fact increase people’s freedom to engage in work that is primarily a means of self-improvement (spiritual or otherwise) and secondarily a response to a need. It is in this context that ora et lavora, or the monastic mixture of contemplation and work is meant to be understood. When you drink a Trappist beer, you are financing a monk’s contemplation.
I would thus posit that the moral thing here is to intensify agriculture and use the monetary and labor benefits to further efforts on retraining and education, so that farmers don’t jump from the frying pan of subsistence farming to the fire of destitution and despair. Freeing people from subsistence farming will allow them to contribute toward the further improvement of their own communities.
To put it anecdotally: My uncle has a small vineyard in Eastern San Diego county. While my family has ties to agriculture, my uncle has not always been a farmer; he worked for most of his life as a high-school Spanish teacher. The fact that my uncle does not need to farm for his own subsistence (since our modern food system provides for his immediate needs) allows him to farm his land as he sees fit and without undue anxiety. Farming is for him a chance to be with nature, to contemplate and to constantly learn. Would the spiritual benefits of farming be somehow realer if he was farming for his survival? I doubt it.
To be clear: given demographic trends, a failure to further intensify the world’s agricultural production will lead to hunger and ecological collapse. People will clear more forests to produce less food using more water and more fertilizer, all while emitting more greenhouse gases. Intensifying agriculture brings its own dangers, certainly, but they can be abated through governance and technology. While it is certainly facile to believe that “things will work themselves out” absent evidence, blindly asserting that all new technologies are evil risks falling into the trap of denying the poorest among us great improvements in living standards simply because we want to avoid being put to the moral question. This is certainly not what Il Papa would have of us.