The “Green Pope” Loves Science and Is Cautious of AI – The Health Care Blog


By all accounts, they were mutually supportive. He was three years older and the chief scientific adviser to the world’s most powerful religious leader. The Scientific American called him “the greatest scientist of all time,” and not because he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry a decade earlier for explaining the nuts and bolts of ozone formation. It was his blunt truthfulness and ecological advocacy that earned the organization’s respect.

Paul Crutzan is no longer alive. He died on February 4, 2021 in Mainz, Germany at the age of 87. What attracted the 86 year old “Green Pope” to Paul were three factors that were lauded at his death in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – “the disruptive advancement of science, the inspiring communication of science, and the responsible operationalization of science.”

It didn’t hurt that Crutzan was pleasant – or as the The Royal Society in its obituary simply described him: “a warm hearted person and a brilliant scientist.”

In 2015, he was Pope Francis’s right arm when the Catholic leader, who had purposefully chosen the name of the Patron Saint of Ecology as his own, was briefed on the Anthropocene Epoch. Crutzen had christened the label five years earlier to brand a post-human planet that was not faring well.

Crutzen was one of 74 scientists from 27 nations and Taiwan who formed the elite Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2015. Those selected were a Who’s Who of the world’s scientific All-Stars including 14 Nobel recipients, and notables like Microbiologist Werner Arber, physicist Michael Heller, geneticist Beatrice Mintz, biochemist Maxine Singer, and astronomer Martin Rees.

On May 24, 2015, they delivered their climate conclusions to the Pope, face to face. The Pope heard these words, “We have a collection of experts from around the world who are concerned about climate change. The changes are already happening and getting worse, and the worst consequences will be felt by the world’s 3 billion poor people.”

The next month, with his release of the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis began by embracing science, with these words, “I am well aware that in the areas of politics and philosophy there are those who firmly reject the idea of a Creator, or consider it irrelevant, and consequently dismiss as irrational the rich contribution which religions can make towards an integral ecology and the full development of humanity. Others view religions simply as a subculture to be tolerated. Nonetheless, science and religion, with their distinctive approaches to understanding reality, can enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both.”

Further along, he celebrates scientific progress with these remarks, “We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us”

But then comes the hammer: “Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well.”

Laudato Si and the Pope’s personal intervention in climate deliberations in 2015 are widely credited for the successful December 12, 2015 draft Paris Agreement. The final draft was signed four months later by 126 parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21).

Now eight years have passed, and Pope Francis has decided that “enough is enough.” This week he released a condensed update of the original 180-page Environmental Encyclical, now just a 12-page apostolic exhortation.

In the piece, titled Laudate Deum, Pope Francis was especially critical of the U.S. and other developed nations, writing, “If we consider that emissions per individual in the United States are about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries, we can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact.”

Paul Crutzen’s spirit quite obviously was still stirring in the aging Pontiff’s soul. He raised again the mischief that man had unleashed in triggering the unprecedented ecological Anthropocene Epoch, and suggested worse times lay ahead if humans do not course correct. Specifically he sees humankind, now amplifying our mistakes with new AI technology, in dangerous territory. Specifically, to “increase human power beyond anything imaginable,” he says, is “a failure of conscience and responsibility.”

Those who know Pope Francis well, like fellow Jesuit priest David McCallum SJ say his brand of  direct and confrontational “servant leadership” is just what the world needs at this moment. McCallum, is a professor of business and leadership, and expert on “restorative justice” at the Jesuit’s LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

But for now he is based at the Vatican building a leadership curriculum that he says “is intended to create space for diverse people to participate in the church, listen to one another’s needs, and then discern a way forward together with the bishops – but not the bishops alone. In church terms, it is a call to synodality. In business terms, it would be like a flattening of the organization with less hierarchy, more teamwork, and more consultation.”

The Green Pope remains controversial, especially among deeply conservative Catholic bishops. But in him, admirers like McCallum see “a servant leader, (who) has to let go of immediate satisfactions, and might even have to embrace failure to accomplish a greater, long-term goal…people at times experience leadership in terms of sacrifice and a certain amount of loneliness. Those are two of aspects about leadership that can be a little bit challenging…This requires living, loving, and leading in a spirit of hope, with a sense of possibility for the future.”

We need all hope for his success.

Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor to THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex. (Grove/2020)

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