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Bill McKibben, Climate-Change Opportunists, and the Pope’s Encyclical

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I recently enjoyed a brief back-and-forth with co-founder Bill McKibben in which he claimed that I accused him of lacking religious faith. That most assuredly was not the case. I told him so, but also stood by my initial assertion that he and other environmental activists are cherry-picking Pope Francis’ Laudato Si for religious and moral firepower on climate-change while ignoring those elements that are core Roman Catholic teachings with which they disagree.

Let’s look at Mr. McKibben’s religious background, shall we? In his essay, “Doing the Math: The Scale of Global Warming and the Urgency of Self-Restraint” (in Sacred Commerce, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2014) he expresses his religion thusly:

 The highest I ever rose in the ecclesial hierarchy was a Sunday school teacher at our backwoods Methodist church. It’s such a small church that the only qualification for being a Sunday school teacher is if on Christmas Eve you can take a dish towel and turn a third grader into a Palestinian shepherd for the pageant. So that’s the degree of my theological qualification. On the other hand, these are questions that I have thought about and written about a good deal.

Of course, McKibben tells me in our conversation that he has authored a book on Job, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, to boost his religious bona fides. He also mentions he’s taught college courses on the Bible – not that either requires one to be religious, mind you, but only somewhat adept at background reading.

But he misses entirely the point I was making – and that is Pope Francis adheres to settled non-negotiable Catholic doctrine on issues regarding human life in Laudato Si while straying into prudential questions such as climate change and public policies to mitigate global warming. McKibben (and the majority of the media reporting subsequent to release of Laudato Si) latches on to the latter without mention of the former. It is just these teachings on the sanctity of life to which we Catholics are morally bound by our faith. But within the parameters of Catholic Social Teaching we Catholics can and do have any number of opinions about the benefits of free markets and technological progress. That’s where the prudence (and empirical evidence) comes in.

At least eco-warrior Naomi Klein groks the inherent contradictions in supporting the Pope on climate change while disagreeing with him on nearly everything else related to Roman Catholicism. In the most recent New Yorker, Ms. Klein acknowledges accepting her invitation to speak at the Vatican press conference is opportunistic on her part:

As usual ahead of stressful trips, I displace all of my anxiety onto wardrobe. The forecast for Rome in the first week of July is punishingly hot, up to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Women visiting the Vatican are supposed to dress modestly, no exposed legs or upper arms. Long, loose cottons are the obvious choice, the only problem being that I have a deep-seated sartorial aversion to anything with the whiff of hippie.

Surely the Vatican press room has air-conditioning. Then again, “Laudato Si’ ” makes a point of singling it out as one of many “harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.” Will the powers that be make a point of ditching the climate control just for this press conference? Or will they keep it on and embrace contradiction, as I am doing by supporting the Pope’s bold writings on how responding to the climate crisis requires deep changes to our growth-driven economic model—while disagreeing with him about a whole lot else?

Points to Klein for intellectual honesty, who also admits the Vatican did indeed power up the soul-sucking air conditioner so maligned by Pope Francis himself in Laudato Si. McKibben, however, hides behind Job – as if the Old Testament fellow hasn’t suffered enough.

It’s okay for McKibben to admit he’s only partying with Pope Francis to forward the climate-change policy agenda. It really isn’t necessary to default to feigned offense that someone (me, specifically) doubted his religious faith. Whether McKibben is genuinely Christian or simply a pantheist, it’ll be awkward when he finally breaks it off with the Pope because the Catholic component is too much for him to take.

This isn’t conjecture inasmuch it’s based on what Pope Francis writes about population growth contrasted with another book authored by McKibben, Maybe One. From McKibben’s own website:

The father of a single child himself, McKibben maintains that bringing one, and no more than one, child into this world will hurt neither your family nor our nation—indeed, it can be an optimistic step toward the future.

Maybe One is not just an environmental argument but a highly personal and philosophical one. McKibben cites new and extensive research about the developmental strengths of only children; he finds that single kids are not spoiled, weird, selfish, or asocial, but pretty much the same as everyone else.

McKibben recognizes that the transition to a stable population size won’t be easy or painfree but ultimately is inevitable. Maybe One provides the basis for provocative, powerful thought and discussion that will influence our thinking for decades to come.

While McKibben can ride high on Laudato Si while embracing climate-change as reality and government efforts to mitigate it a necessity for the time being, eventually, he will be forced to contend with Pope Francis’ very direct statement concerning population control:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.

So there you have it, McKibben. Ball’s in your court. How will you reconcile your views on procreation and human life with some of the most profound non-negotiables of Catholic doctrine?


Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.


  • billmckibben1

    So, first rule of serious discussion: read the book you’re critiquing, not a 3-paragraph summary (which actually says nothing at all about population control). ‘Maybe One ‘pointedly does not call for ‘population control,’ and in fact says government efforts at such are wrongheaded. It calls for serious reflection by parents on how many children they wish to have, which I do not think is out of line with Catholic doctrine. If I’m correct, Humanae Vitae said “responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for series reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” I believe, in fact, that the current occupant of the Holy See has commented on this (with some reference to rabbits) and he’s not the first. Paul VI discussed the “physical, psychological, economic and social factors” that might go into deciding how many children to have. One of the main purposes of my book, if you were to someday read it, was to reassure those who have a single child that they need not worry that that child would be defective in any way. As the parent of a quite wonderful only child, I think that’s a useful point to make.

    In the larger sense, my response to your initial piece was merely to answer your charge that I found ‘religion’ awkward. You now, I think, mean to say that I find Catholicism awkward. I don’t–I’m not, as I pointed out, Catholic (instead Methodist, and yes, only a Sunday School teacher) but that doesn’t keep me from finding much to admire in other traditions. It’s a pleasure to me to see many faiths uniting to fight climate change, poverty, and inequality for instance. I know that for some–including some in my Methodist tradition–the instinct to cling to the precise positions of the past is strong, especially when they favor the powerful and wealthy in our societies. But it is always a pleasure, as with Laudato Si, to see the Holy Spirit hard at work.

    Readers interested in my longer take on the pope’s encyclical will find a lengthy essay (I, um, read the whole thing) in the next issue of the New York Review of Books.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      So, if you’re unhappy with the summary of your book as it appears on your own website, perhaps you should do something about it. There are many reasons to not have children or to limit having children to one, I agree with both you and the Catholic Church on this. But to do so for environmental reasons is refuted in Laudato Si (yes, I read it as well), as noted in my post above and conveniently ignored in your response.

      We can go around in circles on your second graf for as long as you’ve the time to do so, but I never said, wrote or implied you found religion awkward, only that you and Ms. Klein find it convenient to champion Laudato Si because it indicates Pope Francis agrees with you on anthropogenic, catastrophic climate change, but most assuredly disagree with him on many matters Catholic, which, I might add, has done more to assist the poor than any government over the past 2000 years. Yup, awkward in commonly understood as well as contemporary parlance. Ms. Klein acknowledges this freely. You do not. More’s the pity.

      Let’s go back to the Church and charity — disparaging “the powerful and wealthy in our societies” as you state above ignores what those segments have done for the poor in the past and continue to provide in the present and foreseeable future. Taking away affordable and plentiful energy from the poor won’t do them any good, and, in fact, will harm them immeasurably. As well, I highly suspect those who support alternatives and renewable energy sources also are “powerful and wealthy.” The alliterative phrase “crony capitalism” comes to mind.

      I look forward to reading your NYRB piece on Laudato Si, and writing a rebuttal.