Pope Francis, Our Energy Addiction, and the Socially Disruptive Virtue of Temperance

“People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive” (Laudato Si #55).

Pope Francis was lambasted in the American press for this claim. Rich Lowry at Politico said that Francis had gone “off the rails.” Shubhankar Chhokra, writing for National Review said, “If he’d like to help industrializing populations that benefit the most from air conditioning, he should find a different crusade,” especially because air conditioning has a number of beneficial uses including preserving artwork and even preventing heat related deaths. And Matthew Schmitz, a deputy editor at First Things, writing for the Washington Post, said, “Pope Francis wants to roll back progress.” There is a remarkable similarity between the response to Francis’ claim about air-conditioning and the equally vehement response to Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech about energy policy in which he asked the American people “to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices.” For this exceedingly reasonable demand, Carter was also ridiculed by the press.

The response, in both cases, is indicative of a general absence, among the American people, of what the Greeks called sophrosyne, which can be translated as moderation or temperance. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, describes temperance as “a mean with regard to pleasures.” At one point in the Phaedrus, Socrates says, “When opinion by the help of reason leads us to the best, the conquering principle is called temperance; but when desire, which is devoid of reason, rules in us and drags us to pleasure, that power of misrule is called excess.” For both philosophers, temperance describes the demand for excess, the unwillingness to accept a limit. In 2012, the United States accounted for 18% of world energy consumption despite housing less than 5% of the global population. The American demand for excess is probably most tangible during summer when public buildings are chilled to the point where many people don jackets or sweatshirts. The opposite occurs in the winter, when there is a tendency to heat buildings to the point of discomfort. Given this discomfort, it is unclear why this excess even occurs, unless it is based on an unrelenting desire for more regardless of the consequences.

What the critics of Francis and Carter fail to appreciate is not only the reality of this demand for excess but also its unsustainability. The insatiable American demand for energy is an obstacle to efforts to develop a sustainable energy policy at the global level. Because of this, we face an even greater risk of an ecological catastrophe. But we also face a world that is increasingly unstable as a result of various governments’ efforts to satisfy the growing demand for energy. While it is impossible to untangle the myriad causes of most contemporary conflicts, concern over preserving or gaining access to energy resources has certainly been a key factor in various conflicts. America’s collective lack of temperance, meanwhile, has shaped relationships—confrontational and friendly— with resource-rich states in a way that has likely led to greater violence and injustice.

What can be done? One response to Laudato Si, favored by some on the right, focused on the role of personal virtue as a means of preventing ecological disaster. Many conservatives were leery of Francis’ call for “enforceable international agreements” and “global regulatory norms,” seeing these as a call for even more “big government.” They called for a renewed focus on personal responsibility as the primary means of promoting sustainability. But this response fails to appreciate the role of public policy in shaping individual character and behavior, especially with regard to energy use.

Arguably, politicians’ unwillingness to be cast in the role of Carter or Francis, asking Americans to reign in their excessive desire for energy, has exacerbated this problem. Jonathan Elkind, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the Department of Energy, argues as much. He says, “At present, energy prices completely fail to place a price on the environmental and security costs – the ‘externalities’ – of current energy use.” One way that current policies distort prices is through subsidies to oil companies. Currently, subsidies total roughly $4.8 billion annually, with half of this amount going to the five largest oil companies. This artificially lowers the price of gasoline and fails to allow the market to signal to consumers its actual costs, leading to ever-greater levels of fuel consumption. In an age of increasing free market fundamentalism, American politicians have been unwilling to establish a market for fuel that captures its true costs to society.

Elkind goes on to say, “Not the least obstacle to climate legislation is the fact that it will result in higher energy prices; in fact that is exactly the point.” Removing subsidies and internalizing costs, especially the environmental impact, would result in rising energy prices and would demand that Americans “make sacrifices,” in President Carter’s terms. Since Carter, no US president has been willing to make these demands on the American people. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that temperance, under current social conditions, is actually socially disruptive. This is particular true concerning US energy policy. In this sense, conservatives are correct; there is a need to cultivate personal virtue in an effort to curb energy usage. But that is just part of the story. Cultivating temperance, resisting excessive energy usage in order to develop sustainable patterns of energy usage requires reform and political action at both the state and federal level.

In order to cultivate temperance, consumers must understand the true costs of energy consumption, costs not reflected in current prices. In order to correct the market’s ability to signal these costs, subsidies – primarily tax breaks – for oil companies should be phased out; other costs could be internalized through taxation. In the absence of other measures, rising fuel prices would create an intolerable burden on lower income individuals and families. To address this problem, tax credits could be provided to this demographic. In addition, massive government investments in reliable and sustainable public transportation infrastructure would create jobs and provide other transportation options for families facing rising energy costs. Only a radical and socially disruptive appropriation of the virtue of temperance that addresses structural problems within energy markets can set the United States on a new course of sustainable energy usage.

Caleb Bernacchio has a B.Phil from the Angelicum and an MBA from LSU; in the fall he will be a PhD candidate in management and business ethics at IESE Business School.