THR Web Features   /   July 6, 2015

Pope Francis and Humane Ecology

Steven Knepper

Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro (2013). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis’s new encyclical calls for a holistic ethic, an “integral ecology” that insists on the dignity of both human and nonhuman nature and on the shared roots of ecological and social problems. This ethic holds that “everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” Many responses to Laudato Si’ have focused on Francis’s treatment of particular issues, such as air conditioning or carbon credits. Yet the call for an integral ecology is what makes the encyclical truly distinctive.

In an interview for Vatican Radio, Patrick Deneen claimed that Laudato Si’ develops “a Thomistic and Aristotelian theme: ‘how human beings live in and with and through nature, in ways that do not fall into what Pope Francis calls, again and again, the twin temptations of, on the one hand, viewing human beings as separate from nature in our capacity to dominate nature, [and] on the other side, a kind of anti-humanism which regards human beings as equally foreign to nature, but now as a kind of virus that has to—in some ways—be eliminated.”

Francis’s integral ecology thus challenges some tendencies on both the right and the left. It does so by staying resolutely focused on the poor. The encyclical recognizes that among those most affected by climate change in coming decades will be the poorest populations in developing countries. Yet some approaches to development and climate change policy, it warns, might ultimately aggravate these populations’ trials rather than solving them. Therefore, it claims, “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

While it does not dismiss the generative power of markets, Laudato Si’ challenges neoliberals on the right who argue that the only path to development and higher living standards is the familiar (and often still colonial) pattern of resource extraction, trade liberalization, industrial agriculture, and “throw-away” consumerism. It is critical of how this model writes off environmental degradation and social and cultural dislocation as the inevitable costs of progress. The encyclical instead claims that “caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.”

And while Laudato Si’ recognizes that many natural resources are finite and that much biodiversity has been irrevocably lost, it is also critical of neo-Malthusian environmentalists on the left, since the costs of their policies would likely fall hardest on the poor and weak, even though they consume far less per capita than the rich and powerful. The encyclical claims that “to blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

The encyclical is particularly wary of how such ideologies might be imposed on developing countries without giving their most vulnerable populations a say. Norman Wirzba claims, “One of the most striking things about Laudato Si' is that Francis is saying the days are over when we could consider policy primarily from the point of view of the powerful. All people, especially the world's poor, need to have an equal voice at the table of political deliberation.” This is not only a matter of respecting their agency and dignity but also of drawing upon their wisdom and local knowledge: “The local population should always have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest. We need to stop thinking in terms of ‘interventions’ to save the environment in favor of policies developed and debated by all interested parties.”

The encyclical endorses international agreements and echoes Benedict XVI’s call in Caritas in Veritate for global political authority, but it also seems to be aware of the danger in what James C. Scott calls “seeing like a state,” of the unintended consequences that often accompany centralized planning and one-size-fits-all solutions. This is a key reason why local populations should be involved in decision making, and it should temper R. R. Reno’s fears that the encyclical endorses a technocratic approach to environmental problems. One of the central concepts of Catholic social teaching is “subsidiarity,” which holds that problems should be addressed at the lowest appropriate level of authority. Reno is correct that the word itself is strangely under-used in Laudato Si’, but the spirit of subsidiarity still pervades the encyclical. It can be seen even in Francis’s use of documents from bishop conferences, when he turns, for instance, to the Latin American and Caribbean bishops for insight into Amazonian deforestation or the bishops of the Philippines for insight into the loss of coral reefs.

The need for consensus-building, situational judgment, and attention to local conditions means that there is no single technological or political fix for our ecological crisis. The encyclical gestures at a number of promising practices and technologies, from cooperatively owned businesses to solar energy, but its main contention is that we need a new set of assumptions and values. Reigning orthodoxies tend to see the achievements of modernity as an all or nothing game, as if we couldn’t have modern dentistry without deforestation or nuclear weapons. They can’t conceive of a different path through modernity, of alternative configurations of society, technologies, and markets. Against this way of thinking, Francis claims, “It is a matter of openness to different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels.”

Likewise, reigning orthodoxies prize utilitarian calculations and efficiency, but Francis’s integral ecology holds that the hegemony of such reasoning is part of the problem, since it can ultimately see little value in either humans or nature other than their immediate economic usefulness. The encyclical cites the German bishops, who claim that we need to insist on “the priority of being over that of being useful.” We need to see the inherent value in humans, animals, plants, and the natural world, to recover a sense of wonder and of gratitude.

It is no coincidence that Laudato Si’ draws on St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. A truly integral ecology needs religion in particular, but also art, literature, philosophy, and traditional cultures. They can help us to see the inherent dignity and wonder of Creation, and they can help translate these perceptions into patterns of behavior, into “ecological virtues.” They can provide us with substantive ends beyond the “whirlwind of buying and spending,” of multiplied desires and fleeting satiation.

Christianity can provide a rich framework for an integral ecology, not only through the example and teachings of saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross, but also its core doctrines. The doctrine of the Incarnation leads to a sacramental view of reality. As Francis puts it, “The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with [Jesus’s] radiant presence.” The doctrine of the Trinity can likewise lead to a deeper appreciation of ecological interrelationships: “The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships.”

Celia Deane-Drummond points out that Laudato Si’ is ultimately a hopeful encyclical. Francis acknowledges the human capacity for evil, but he also insists on the human capacity for doing good: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning.” Francis calls on us to change our patterns of consumption by “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transportation or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.” As Jana Bennett explains, it is a call to asceticism. But it is a call to a joyful asceticism, “a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle,” one that substitutes care for and communion with God, others, and nature for rampant consumption.

Indeed, Francis suggests that this consumption, while a mark of material prosperity, might also be a symptom of inner impoverishment. He quotes Benedict XVI’s aphoristic claim that “the external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast” (158). Francis ultimately argues that “we must not think these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness, which albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (155). Francis calls for individual ecological conversion in the hope that this will give way to wider, societal conversion.

Francis offers a hopeful, humane ecology. As John Murdock argues, anyone looking for good companion reading for Laudato Si’ should consider the works of Wendell Berry, who has spent the past half century articulating his own Christian integral ecology. The title of Berry’s most recent essay collection is Our Only World, while the title page of Laudato Si’ defines its subject as the “care of our common home.” At the end of one essay Berry writes, “To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against each other and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human being perhaps to the end of human time. This would be work worthy of the name ‘human.’ It would be fascinating and lovely.” Laudato Si’ suggests that Pope Francis would agree.