The Encyclical “Laudato Si’” on “care for our common home” from Pope Francis is an urgent appeal addressed to every person living on this planet. Irrespective of whether or not the readers share the opinions of the authors of the Encyclical Letter and its moral dimension, one thing is certain: the economic, political and scientific sectors are called upon to face the consequences of their actions. Moreover, this gives rise to the key question of how to cope with the legacy of an “enlightened” development.
Primeval world? Symbiosis of man and the environment in the jungle of Odisha (formerly Orissa), India (Photo W. Wildi)
Modern-day science and technology is the product of an intellectual development, which – at least in the last millennium – combines Islamic influences, monastic order and discovery of the New World post 15th century. The seed for scientific research and development was thus laid long before the 17th century, prior to the time when the Age of Enlightenment paved the way to its breakthrough.
In Europe, the Enlightenment broke the neck of the spiritual and moral supremacy of the churches and aristocracy. It was a profound revolution of knowledge and awareness, claiming absolute scientific objectivity and truth by means of its methodological approach. It thus represented the antithesis to the authority of religious belief and divine order that had established itself with the fall of the Roman Empire. But could the enlightened social model actually redeem this claim on liberating mankind from ignorance and slavery throughout the course of history?
Besides the undisputed advantages and successes achieved so far, anyone observing objectively the current state of our planet will also see the downsides that go hand in hand with science and technology, two particularly effective tools (mis)used by the new economic and financial elites to exert and secure power and dominance. The extreme poverty in the world has not disappeared, billions of people still lack access to education and knowledge, and basic resources such as water and soil are being privatised and ruthlessly exploited by a historically established minority. Science and technology are no longer primarily used to gain knowledge and achieve progress, as formerly promulgated by the Enlighteners, but increasingly degraded to instruments of power by vested interests. It is therefore not surprising that the latter are enforcing their claims to power regardless of the thereby resulting effects and consequences – environmental problems as a classical dichotomy of control and dominance.
Few would dispute the fact that it is not particularly nice to damage and indeed “f…k up” the home of the future, and thus burden coming generations with our anthropogenic activities. The causes are basically the same, regardless of whether it is greenhouse gases, water pollution or soil contamination: it always concerns processes that generate waste discharged gratuitously into the environment – and especially passed on to future generations. In other words, the greater part of the equation is actually exported to the future, affecting our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, as already indicated by Karl William Kapp in his writings on the socialisation of production costs.
Nuclear technology and its residual waste are particularly hideous examples of the future export of anthropogenic activities. Just imagine: a technology that is now barely two generations old is looking to solutions for the burgeoning waste products that will remain highly toxic for untold thousands of years. In terms of lifetimes, one could speak of chains of tens of thousands of generations that could be affected, as impressively revealed by the 2013-2014 exhibition “Long-term and Final Repository” at the “Museum zu Allerheiligen” in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. If the current welfare of the planet is only achieved at the expense of future generations, there is something fundamentally wrong with the term “progress.”
Not so very long ago, perhaps a few hundred years, the scientific knowledge of Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei was contested by the so-called judicial system of fossilised religious institutions. With the new encyclical, the winners of yesterday, the enlightened science and technology and the underlying power and political elites are being pilloried for their ethics and morality by those institutions that opposed the advancement of scientific knowledge. The historic irony is that this is fully justified. The new science and technology sector of the post-war generations has caused, within just two generations, major detrimental impacts on our Mother Earth.
To solve the resulting problems of our time does not call for a return to the dark periods of the Augustine theocracy. Back to Nature – advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Ralph Waldo Emerson – is an oversimplification. Developments will take a different course than expected, as history is an open society according to Karl Popper, and contrary to the illusions of Francis Fukuyama.
Our era should certainly look back on the origins of Enlightenment and revitalise the then debated visions. This includes a questioning of the current power structures, which mercilessly fostered such chaos. Science and Technology should regain the rightful place they once held in the days of the Enlightenment, i.e. as tools for knowledge and genuine progress for all. In this sense, the encyclical letter of the Pope must also be understood as legitimate criticism against the current power structures of the financial and industrial world, urging them to finally deal with the negative legacies of their actions. Regarding our problems with nuclear technology and nuclear waste, our society should seriously and without delay start to tackle this dangerous legacy. Nota bene: by applying a preferably targeted, open and self-critical process, in conjunction with fundamental structural changes.
Original sources (undated)
- Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, Tableau philosophique des progrès successifs de l‘esprit humain
- Marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain
- Auguste Compte, Discours sur l’ensemble du positivisme
- Augustinus, Der Gottesstaat
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
- Karl Popper, Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde
- Francis Fukuyama, Das Ende der Geschichte
- Rohbeck, Johannes (1987): Die Fortschrittstheorie der Aufklärung. Französische und englische Geschichtsphilosophie in der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Campus
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- Mumford, Lewis (1977): Mythos der Maschine, Kultur, Technik und Macht, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag (empfehlenswert)