“Environment,” as Pope Francis explained in “Laudato Si’,” also includes social institutions, whose technocratic corruption may damage the whole “ecosystem.”

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “A Good Environment for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on June 5, 2022, World Environment Day.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on June 14th, 2022.

Giotto (1266–1337), “St. Francis’ Sermon to the Birds,” Assisi, Upper Basilica. Credits.
Giotto (1266–1337), “St. Francis’ Sermon to the Birds,” Assisi, Upper Basilica. Credits.

On May 24, 2015, two weeks before the World Environment Day of that year, Pope Francis published “Laudato Si’,” the longest encyclical letter in the history of the Catholic Church. “Laudato Si’,” “Praised be You,” referred to God, are recurring words in the “Canticle of the Sun,” a poem Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) composed in 1224. When he wrote the poem, Francis was already in poor health. He died two years later, singing on his deathbed the poem with two companions, after he had added to it a verse praising God for “Sister Death” as well.

Pope Francis mentioned that the poem, which praises God for “Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us,” is widely regarded as the first text on ecology and the environment in human history. However, the Pope said, the word “ecology” today covers many different ideas and theories. The “Canticle of the Sun” too has been read as an expression  of what the Pope called “naive romanticism.”

In fact, both Francis of Assisi and Pope Francis favored an “integral ecology,” one that, the Pope said, “transcends the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” “Laudato si’” mentioned three dimensions of ecology: environmental ecology, cultural ecology, and ecology of daily life.

Cultural ecology reminds us that, “Together with the patrimony of nature, there is also an historic, artistic and cultural patrimony which is likewise under threat.” The ecology of daily life “includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life.” Where we live “influences the way we think, feel and act. In our rooms, our homes, our workplaces and neighborhoods, we use our environment as a way of expressing our identity.

We make every effort to adapt to our environment, but when it is disorderly, chaotic or saturated with noise and ugliness, such overstimulation makes it difficult to find ourselves integrated and happy.” The Pope mentioned as examples the ugly architectures and the chaotic traffic of some of our mega-cities.

Cover of the encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
Cover of the encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

Environmental ecology itself expresses our love and care for nature, but “nature, the Pope said, cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.” “Everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life.” The environment as an “ecosystem” also includes society and institutions. Bad institutions create a bad environment.

An important part of Francis’ encyclical was devoted to a criticism of “technocracy.” The word “technocracy” should not be confused with “technology.” “Technocracy” is the idea that “experts” in various fields, including science and economy, are more reliable than politicians. They should be put in charge of whatever is important in society and freed from the control of the politicians. The idea, but not the word, was developed by a French esoteric thinker, Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre (1842–1909), in the 19th century. The word “technocracy” was coined in 1919 by American engineer William Henry Smyth (1855–1940).

Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre.
Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. Credits.

It may look like a good idea, as we all want those who govern us to be competent, but as Pope Francis explained the “technocratic paradigm” is inherently non-democratic. In a democratic society the government may be bad, but we can always vote it out of power. Technocrats, i.e., experts who rule not because they have been elected but because they are supposed to be more competent than anybody else, cannot be replaced through elections. Their power may easily become absolute and tyrannical.

“Technocrats” may be academics but they are often government bureaucrats. While the career of politicians can be short, and they always run the risk of not being reelected, most bureaucrats remain there for life. They all have the “technocratic” tentation of prevailing upon elected politicians and citizens, claiming they have a superior expertise. This is also, or perhaps particularly, true, for tax bureaucrats. Tax law and regulations are complicated, and they may claim that only bureaucrats really know and understand them.

That this is a non-democratic and dangerous application of the “technocratic paradigm” is demonstrated by the Tai Ji Men case. Tax bureaucrats ignored the directives of the judiciary and of politicians, and managed to successfully escape any form of control, including the one by the Taiwanese institution created precisely for controlling governmental officers, the Control Yuan. Claiming they knew taxes better than anybody else, they exerted a tyrannical power and violated the human rights of Tai Ji Men.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

The World Environment Day is a good opportunity to consider that natural and social environments cannot really be separated. As the Pope wrote in “Laudato si’,” institutions are a necessary part of the environment. “Anything which weakens those institutions has negative consequences, such as injustice, violence and loss of freedom. A number of countries have a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness, which results in greater problems for their people while benefiting those who profit from this situation. Whether in the administration of the state, the various levels of civil society, or relationships between individuals themselves, lack of respect for the law is becoming more common. Laws may be well framed yet remain a dead letter.”

Tai Ji Men dizi have a painful experience of how true these words are. Their fight for justice is also a fight for a good environment, in the broader sense of the word.