Five thousand max

As so often on the Internet, G.K. Chesterton has come up with the best comment on Papa Francis’s environmentalist encyclical:

“The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To Saint Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

But of course we should not slap her about. That is not how it’s done in a good family.


Among the three co-presenters of yesterday’s rather solemn encyclical on the environment, was Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Remember that name. I attribute to him and to his like the encouragement the pope received, to break with received Catholic teaching, by blaming human-created environmental problems on market economics and finance, and the private ownership of resources. Whereas, true son of the Church, the pope himself might be inclined to blame sin.

Kishore Jayabalan, once the leading Vatican policy analyst on “sustainable development,” now head of the Instituto Acton at Rome (and former denizen of the Greater Parkdale Area), makes this signal point after the usual respectful preamble in which the pope is praised for bringing the issues to our attention. He, along with innumerable other critics with groundings in economics and trade, recalls what free markets have achieved. Without them, the world’s poor would have starved to extinction, as they have tended to do wherever markets, except the black ones, have been suppressed by central planning authorities.

Which might perhaps have pleased Herr Schellnhuber, the German atheist, who is a major figure in the United Nations’ IPCC, and founder of the hairy-scary Potsdam Institute. He is notoriously of the view that the Earth’s carrying capacity is less than one billion human souls (we have now more than seven), and the author of various dark-humoured remarks about how climate change will at least reduce us to the more sustainable number. Among his proposals, echoed in Laudato Si’, is that carbon emissions be reduced to zero. Herr Schellnhuber gives the USA until the year 2020; he gives China until 2035. Best not to make him master of all he surveys.

As many faithful Catholics, I am now asking: What is my Church doing in bed with such creatures?

I am myself appalled by the current arrangement in which the biomass of humanity is exceeded in weight six times over by our gas-guzzling cars. I’d rather kill the cars off first, given the position of Planetary Captain; but that would reduce the carbon emissions by less than half. We’d still have to move things about, such as food, and while I’m a great fan of sail boats and bullock carts, I foresee a continuing role for powered freighters. I would flag the bullocks, too, as emitters of CO2; plus CH4 (methane), which is more efficient at trapping radiation.

Windmills and solar panels are nice, in principle (in practice they are vile and intrusive), but as several realists have pointed out, the amount of energy currently generated by each rounds out to zero percent of the world’s supply. They also require significant carbon emissions to manufacture. But then, I should like to preserve some carbon dioxide, on which the life of the Amazon rainforest depends.

As more generally with life, my attitude is “let’s chance it.” Often it ends badly. But then I remember a remark I once made on television, that got me rubbed off the air. It was in response to one of those leftwing sob-sisters — a voluble pro-choicer — hypocritically lamenting the loss of young lives in Iraq, and blaming everything on “Bush.”

“It is blood for oil!” she shrieked. This struck me as odd, coming from an advocate of blood for lifestyle.

My reply concluded, “If we didn’t have all these abortions, we could afford to lose more in wars.”

From the look on the producer’s face after, it appeared I had set a new benchmark for political incorrectitude. (He expressed relief that the programme was pre-recorded.) Yet I would defend the remark to this day.

For all we know our works will end in disaster: yet I would rather our little ones had the chance at life, if only to the age of nineteen, than that they be coolly exterminated in their own mothers’ wombs.

God comes into this, of course. He usually does, up here in the High Doganate. Yet we’ve been set loose on this planet, to arrange things as well as we can, and I am not indifferent to questions of public policy. Even on this, I am influenced by the received teaching of the Catholic Church, which I only wish had been better reflected in Laudato si’. It is there, but as I have noted previously, it gets mentioned only in passing. I’d have preferred it were made front and centre, and that the pope had devoted his formidable communication skills to explaining why Catholic social and economic thinking might be more relevant to the solution of “environmental problems,” than the murderous ramblings of the IPCC.


Against the policy wonks of this world, whose instinct is the bigger the better, we should make a particular point of subsidiarity. This is the organizing principle that matters should be handled by the smallest, lowest, most immediate competent authority, rising only by necessity to any higher level, and then only as high as it needs to go.

The family is that lowest level, and the Church is now almost alone in respecting it. The members are biologically related, as father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, and so forth. Orphans may sometimes be taken in, and step-fathers or step-mothers may occur — the world’s heritage of fairy tales attests to the nightmare, of step-mothers especially — but biological integrity is normative. Recent attempts by legislators to “redefine the family” are an unambiguously evil invasion of an order that nature has ordained. Pope Benedict was right to make this an issue of “human ecology,” and to see that it gave the lie to every grand leftist “ecological” scheme. How do you restore the natural order, on the “mega” scale, when you are systematically undermining it at the cellular level?

In the normal order of things — all cultures, all times, until recently — the family decides what is good for the family. It is amazing that this has become controversial, yet contraceptive practices that detach sex from reproduction have made it so, and all the predicted consequences have followed. It is a miracle that the Church is, even on paper, still holding the front line.

But what is the next level of authority above the family? As I am constantly reminded, both locally and universally, there is then a great leap. Through the last century and more, central authorities have been obsessively merging local authorities, for the sake of some plausible (but false) “efficiencies,” or economies of scale. For even on such shallow material terms, the tax load increases as the governments grow larger, the ambitions of politicians increase, and the ability of the citizen to observe relations between cause and effect progressively disappears.


This is a squib, and I must keep the long story short. The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.

Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.

This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.

In the Greater Parkdale Area, my “municipal” government also serves more than two million souls. The wards into which it is divided are mere constituencies. They have fluctuating boundaries, and the councillors each represent around one hundred thousand souls. A very small number of people who have learnt the ropes thus control it: permanent department heads perhaps more than politicians. They make a show of consulting us, in public meetings which a few dozen people may attend (if the issue is big enough). These busy-bodies or “activists” may have an influence wildly disproportionate to their numbers. But the “input” of the common taxpayer is nil, rising to derisory on the eve of an election. In my neighbourhood, for instance, I listen to jackhammers all summer, and horribly amplified ice cream truck jingles (identical to the music loops played in Hell). There is absolutely nothing I can do about either, that would not involve terrorism. Whereas, if my neighbours were consulted, some permanent carbon savings could be achieved.

According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.

Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.

What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.


As I say, this is a vast topic, on which I’m merely touching. It will be seen that I have largely bought into “small is beautiful,” and the Distributist tradition in Catholic political thought. I do not deny that central authority has its place, of necessity, in the larger order; but I do think a pyramid should be wider at the bottom. In particular: taxes should pass up the levels, rather than down (as traditional tithing in Holy Church).

Now, Pope Francis has the beginnings of a point about large “private corporations” (note the oxymoron), which in their wealth may grow (though only temporarily) to a size rivalling the smaller national governments. And I would add, they become nearly as centralized and monopolistic (through “regulatory capture”), and faceless and bureaucratic as the agencies of State. Whenupon, unlike the self-perpetuating agencies of the State, they begin to disintegrate from their own lack of enterprise.

It is not enough, as the libertarians suppose, to leave them to their fate, in the knowledge that if they are inefficient they’ll be gone tomorrow. For new large corporations rise to take their place, and at every moment the great majority of people are reduced to wage-slaves of one large corporation or another. Indeed, part of the power of large corporations comes from their scale as employers. A democratic government which tries to stand up to them will quickly relent, and switch to subsidies instead, when they threaten to create mass unemployment.

The question must be asked: What makes vast, morally obtuse, centralized corporations possible? And the answer should be easy to see. It is vast, morally obtuse, centralized governments, which command regulatory regimes that are consistent over huge areas. That has actually become our model for global “free trade”: making regulations and taxation consistent not only across nations, but across continents. This creates an order which large corporations, and only large corporations, are well-equipped to exploit.

Imagine instead they were to face different regulatory regimes, parish by parish. They could still operate, but would have to adapt each franchise to local conditions, as defined by the sovereign local authority. This immediately flips the onus, and gives the local merchant or producer the advantage over his multinational competitor, in being on the spot. It reduces that competitor’s economy of scale, while also imposing upon him a new model of corporate governance, as network, that must of necessity become decentralized and responsive (just as creatures in nature) to every single environmental niche.

The re-focusing on what is local, and what is doable locally, would have tremendous ramifications on “the environment” at large — overwhelmingly positive, given some time. Yet it would also have the happy effect of disempowering the ecological whack cases.


My modest proposal is, to my mind, Catholic and Christian. The genius of our religion from its beginning was in opposition to “one size fits all.” Christ’s teaching is universal and unamendable, but the interpretation of it in human life is exquisitely nuanced. It is not imposed from the top, as a Shariah. The hierarchy it sustains is spiritual not pragmatic, and it concedes political action to the civil sphere.

The Church has nevertheless acquired practical experience, not only through many countries but over twenty centuries of time. She has “seen it all,” and makes her non-binding suggestions on that basis. Where she has failed, she has been taught and taught again the value of human freedom — of the need for actual persons and not impersonal agencies and corporations to take responsibility. She has all along been suspicious of “collective action,” in which moral responsibility is diffused.

It is in this light that I think the Catholic notion of “subsidiarity” should be credibly advanced — not as a tip of the mitre, or passing rhetorical gesture from above. It should be at the heart of every Catholic proposal to make improvements in the way we do things in this world. That is our radical idea — the very opposite direction from this encyclical’s neo-Marxist excursions.