Cardinal Peter Turkson challenges Silicon Valley on the digital revolution

On Tuesday Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave the keynote address at Santa Clara University’s two day conference on “Laudato Si’”: “Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis.”

Much of Turkson’s talk restated the fundamentals of Pope Francis’ thinking in “Laudato Si’”—“the implications of living together in a 'common home;”; climate change as a global problem requiring action from everyone– “No walls, no gated community, can keep the environment at bay”; the call “to develop those deep-rooted ecological virtues necessary for healing, protecting, and preserving our planet” and to avoid “short-term-ism—the politician subject to the electoral cycle, the business executive or investor putting short-term financial return over long-term sustainability." (The full text is now available from the Vatican news network.)

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But some of the cardinal’s most striking comments regarded a more integral development of technology. Turkson acknowledged the uniquely important role that Silicon Valley plays in the contemporary world, and praised the “digital revolution” for “engag[ing] the imagination, the most sensitive of the human facilities.” But he noted as well the pope’s concern that “the more that people live through their digital tools, the less they may learn ‘how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.’”

“How can new media bring attention to what is worthwhile, rather than obscure it?” he asked. “Can it engender ‘true wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons…’?”

Turkson underscored the pope’s concern about technological progress unmoored from ethics: “We lag in ‘development in human responsibility, values and conscience,’ so we advance in technical power without understanding its consequences and limitations.” So for instance he wondered about the proliferation of drones today: “Who considers the grave moral questions about techno-warfare, human rights, and international humanitarian law?”

The goal the church hopes for, he made clear repeatedly, is not an end or diminishment in technological development, but rather a concurrent growth in reflection and wisdom. “Here in Silicon Valley, I think he [Pope Francis] might say that, in the midst of so much creativetechnological thinking, there is far too little critical thinking about technology.” Quoting Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, he argued, “Man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

Turkson challenged Silicon Valley “to ask bold and avant-garde questions about the future,” saying that is what “the world is expecting” of them.  “How will the digital divide and the data gap be closed, to give all people access to information for a better quality of life? How will the Internet get beyond rampant consumerism and become a space of discussion, production and solidarity? Moreover, how will Silicon Valley spearhead the right cultural, technological and economic environment for a carbon-free civilization?”

In questions afterwards, Turkson also reflected on the continued debate over the reality of climate change, the Vatican’s policy on carbon trading and the situation of climate change in his home country of Ghana.

Speaking about the climate change debate, Turkson acknowledged that “the result of the research work of eight hundred [U.N. sponsored] scientists is still not considered by some to be exhaustive enough, that you could still widen the pool. I wonder how wide can we go?” But he noted, “At a certain point I don’t think people should be convinced about climate change because they can feel it where they are. Sometimes that’s the problem,” in other words, that while we might speak of climate change as a worldwide phenomenon, some parts of the world aren’t necessarily experiencing it. For him, belief becomes less relevant than basic human solidarity. “If someone living in Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu is saying his island is getting underwater, just out of solidarity and human concern it might be good to listen to what he’s saying. You may not have that experience here, but another group of people is having that experience.”

On the matter of carbon trading, director of Santa Clara’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, David DeCosse, pointed out that California has a very successful cap and trade policy, and that many in the state and university think highly of the idea of carbon taxes. He wondered if the pope’s critique of carbon credits in “Laudato Si’” constituted a rejection of such policies, or just a warning not to overrely on them. Turkson explained, “the point is, if we all agree that carbon is a polluting source, then it is wise to gradually wean ourselves away from it. If carbon taxes are ways of persuading, [okay], but ultimately [the goal is] to further replace all of these polluting agents with less polluting ones.”

Finally, speaking of Ghana Turkson noted the dangers that deforestation and mining are posing. “Ghana to a large extent is still a country that depends on wood for fuel,” he explained. “When I was a child and we used to go for firewood, I came back with planks of trees on my head. But today the same child who does that comes back with twigs. The trees don’t have a chance to grow to the size that we had in the past." This is particularly dangerous, he notes, because the Sahara keeps creeping down. “If we don’t have a culture of forests and tree growing, we’ll all end up in the Sahara.”

Indiscriminate mining also poses problems, eliminating forests, plantations and risking water sources. “We see a lot of gold in Ghana, but we need some priorities about where you can mine and where you cannot mine. I grew up in a manganese mining town. It was surface mining, so now it’s all bare there, a huge crater filled with some water and a warning not to get close.”

The cardinal called on the United States to recognize its role as a leader in talks on climate change and to support the upcoming Paris talks. “Having received nature from God the Creator as a gift, let us bequeath it to those who come after us, not as a wilderness, but as a garden.”

 

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