Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Throwaway Culture" as Demagogic Slogan

Don't be a litterbug or kill people

Recently, Pope Francis has adopted "throwaway culture" as a sort of blanket term for everything that is bad. In a sense he has used it to replace that previous favorite of Christians and Catholics, "culture of death" (though, in fairness, Pope Francis had a few times used that term earlier).

In some sense, this is not surprising. "Culture of death" had a sort of reactionary, "who am I not to judge" air about it. One could imagine it being used by activists running over their neighbor's dog in their glee to get to the abortion protest on time, where they would then be shaking their Rosaries and dead fetus photographs in the faces of traumatized young women who would have benefited more from a kind word.

And "throwaway culture" gives a sort of earnest and respectable 1950's-ish tinge to the Pope's agenda. Not a tattooed hippy squatting in a treehouse, but a bow-tied sociology professor penning an essay for the New Yorker about how prefab houses were disrupting our sense of meaning.

Franboys have been singing arias over the phrase. It's a clever attempt (so goes the aria) to convert the  entire environmentalist movement to the anti-abortion side. It's a way to effectively brand the message of the new evangelization. And it sounds cooler than "seamless garment", which was getting a bit frayed anyway.

On the other hand, those in the the growing opposition to Francis have been making predictable snarks about how "throwaway culture" is in large part simply the latest attempt to put an anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist gloss on the teachings of the Church. (I'm part of that opposition, by the way, and most of my snarks are nothing if not predictable.)

But I wanted to comment here on something that I have rarely seen remarked upon by those on any side:

As used by the Pope, the term "throwaway culture" is incoherent.

Consider the things that the Pope has branded as examples of it:
  1. Not eating all the food on one's plate.
  2. Industrial pollution
  3. Man-made global warming.
  4. Not recycling paper
  5. Forced or coerced labor
  6. The sexual exploitation of children
  7. Ignoring or abandoning the elderly
  8. Being a partisan of "invisible hand" economic theories
  9. Slavery and human trafficking
  10. Being a relativist or against objective truths
  11. Wanting merely to satisfy our own desires or immediate needs
  12. Organized crime
  13. The drug trade
  14. Commerce in blood diamonds
  15. Trading in the fur of endangered species
  16. Buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation
  17. Abortion
  18. Euthanasia
  19. The desire to consume more than what is necessary
  20. Poverty in general
I could of course easily make the list twice as long but I think you get the point. Now with a few glaring exceptions, such as 8, I think we would agree that most of the items on the above list are bad things. In turn, many of them are sins or are often or in part the consequences of sin, though of course their gravity varies greatly (compare 1 with 17).

But I think it it is also obvious that many of the items above are different kinds of evils. They are in fact wildly different. They can be united as being symptoms of a "throwaway culture" only if the phrase is stretched to meaninglessness.

Consider an abstract hypothetical example involving slavery. Assume that I am a greatly evil and selfish person. I do not care one atom about the interests or rights of other people. If it pleased me or served my interests to eliminate someone permanently, as it were, I would do so. But instead I choose to make a few other people my slaves (imagine that I am for some reason in a position to do so). I do this of course, not to benefit them, but to satisfy my own needs and desires (at a lower cost to me than if, say, I hired them as employees).

It goes without saying that this would be gravely evil. But is it useful to look at it as an example of a throwaway culture or my throwaway attitude or whatever? I do not think so. After all, I am using people, not throwing them away. And I may even be said to be using them "efficiently" (in one sense of the term) in that my mansion is now going up faster than if I had paid a bunch of grumbling carpenters to do the job (they always work slowly and take too many coffee breaks anyway). Of course, if I'm even semi-intelligent, I'm probably not going to work my slaves to death on one project (because then I would have to buy more of them) but will treat them just well enough so that they will have a long and profitable (to me) life.

And don't say the evil here is due to profit per se. Imagine I am an anti-capitalist, socially responsible slave owner (it happens). I generally use my slaves not for my own personal gain but to improve the local infrastructure so that the poor don't suffer as much during downturns in the business cycle. Consider also that many of my slaves would otherwise (if they weren't slaves) be engaged in selfish and socially harmful pursuits--buying, selling and producing excessive amounts of silly consumer goods, for example.

Of course, modern slavery is evil not because it involves throwing people away, but because it involves using people in ways that people, well, shouldn't be used--however desirable the end might be (to someone), whether it is satisfying selfish desires or meeting the perceived needs of the community.

To proceed from the fanciful to the real and immediate. Consider the recent "sting" on Planned Parenthood. Pro-lifers feel that the grotesque actions revealed on hidden camera--buying and selling the "parts" of aborted children between munches of salad and sips of wine--will help in the battle against the current baby murder epidemic.  But what has heightened our revulsion in this case, and hopefully the revulsion of those who up to now were sitting on the fence, is not throwing people out per se but rather, almost the reverse of that. Planned Parenthood and their bio-tech customers want to recycle babies, or at least their bodies. They choose to treat them as just another inanimate thing such as a paper cup or bit of plastic that we should get as much use out of as possible lest society lose a valuable resource. Intact stem cells are valuable, after all. There are diseases to be cured.

Or to take an historical example, what of that ultimate 20th century manifestation of evil--the intentional and in the end mechanized extermination of millions of people by Nazi Germany? Was this an earlier case of throwaway culture? Before answering, note that here again, what adds the final note of horror are the stories (some very true, some not) of the desire on the part of the murderers to, so to speak get as much use out of their victims as possible. Lets' put the strong ones to work in the factory. But in the end, don't forget their hair and gold fillings.

A man who described the Holocaust as a manifestation of the Nazi's environmental incorrectness or their excessively consumerist attitude or their short-term perspective or whatever, should rightly be labeled mad, or more accurately be branded a sociopath. He would seem be at the least implicitly thinking of people as mere things. Which in a sense, of course, is exactly what the Nazi's did.

Has the Pope described the Holocaust in those terms? Not to my knowledge. But why shouldn't he? He has described abortion in those terms. In the last fifty years, fifty-five million people have been exterminated in the United States alone, and as many as a billion throughout the world. See, the Pope has actually said: this is an example of our throwaway culture. For their part, the Nazis murdered perhaps six million Jews, as well as millions of additional Catholics, homosexuals and others. Of course, the Nazis were amateurs compared with Abortion Incorporated, but surely they had a little mini-throwaway culture thing going on there.


The Pope's blanket use of the term "throwaway culture" is not only incoherent but insidious. It mis-describes things in a harmful way. Moral virtue--at least when it pertain to our relations with other human beings--has nothing essentially to do with the the proper use or conservation of resources. Rather, it's primarily about treating people not as mere resources--to be used, recycled, conserved or whatever it is you want to do, perhaps even in the interests of society or the "greater good"--but as people. Conversely, moral evil is about mistreating people, not wasting them.

Men and women were created in the image of God. Paper cups, plastic toys, the peas I don't want to eat on my plate, earthworms, trees, lions (even those) and a million other inanimate and animate-but-non-human things were not. Men and women have rights. Their value, our value--whether it directly benefits the earth, society or indeed anyone else--is, from the moral point of view, infinite.

The last two sentences of the above are a truism, not only for good Christians and Catholics but for any civilized human being. Yes, many good atheists believe it, too.

If a Catholic wants a word or phrase to cover everything that is bad, or at least everything that is bad from the point of view of human intention or human action there is obviously one already available. What is that word? Wait for it...


By the way, in Laudato Si, the word "sin" is used only four times. That's one fewer than the five appearances of "throwaway culture". And three out of the four uses are in quotes by others. The only original use is in the context of linking sin with "wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature."

I want to cut down on sin too, but that's not exactly what I had in mind.

Or if a Catholic wants a phrase that covers some of the worst sins of a particular sort, there is still "culture of death".

"Throwaway culture" is a demagogic slogan. It's not used by the Pope to get secularists to oppose abortion. It's used by the Pope to get secularists to like the Pope.

Is it also used to confuse Catholics, to mislead them or to sew doubts about their Faith?

I think so.


  1. "Planned Parenthood and their bio-tech customers want to recycle babies, or at least their bodies."

    Very well put. The Pope's "throwaway culture" line does not clearly oppose applying "reduce, reuse, recycle" to humans.

    Clearly, a woman thinks to assuage her conscience by signing a consent form to donate the "products of conception" to medical research that will "save lives". It is very much in Planned Parenthood's interests to frame the donation that way. One life tragically ends, but it holds the key to saving other lives... cue swelling music, camera pans up to blue sky...

    There was an outcry last year in Oregon when it came to light that a power plant was burning biomedical waste from British Columbia to generate electricity, and the waste contained miscarried and aborted babies.

    This year, we find out that scientists in every state in the union are processing aborted babies from Planned Parenthood to generate advances in medicine. Outcry is being suppressed.


  2. It is insidious - - as I find his whole papacy basically.

    You could kill me today and save maybe 3 people with my organs. Maybe I'm being selfish and a part of the "throwaway culture" by not offing myself so my body parts can be harvested for others.

    Contrast Bergoglio's vague, insipid statements against abortion (always coupled with references to far lesser evils) with that of JP II early in his papacy:

    "We will stand up and declare that no one has the authority to destroy unborn human life."

  3. I believe Francis is wrong about many things, but throw away culture describes anti-Christian utilitarian nihilism quite well.
    The biggest problem with Francis is his inability to understand the meaning of sin. The most revealing paragraph in Laudato Si lamented how environmentalists are indifferent to abortion. Francis can not grasp how we often form our beliefs in order to compensate for a repressed conscience. Environmental fanaticism exists because of the myth of overpopulation used to assuage guilt over supporting the mass murder of abortion.