Our Ecological Crisis and the Path of Renewal by Joseph Prabhu

In an influential 1967 article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” the historian Lynn White Jr. laid the blame for the degradation of the environment largely on Christianity, and specifically on its account of creation and its anthropocentric worldview, both of which legitimize human insensitivity and indifference to the natural world and our consequent exploitation of nature. Yet, precisely because the roots of the crisis are religious in nature, the solution must also be “essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.” White concludes his essay thus: “We must rethink and re-feel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose [Saint] Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.”

Some 50 years later, Pope Francis heeded Lynn White’s call for an “alternative Christian view” along Franciscan lines that might ground and empower a healthy natural and social ecology with the publication of his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. In an early paragraph, he writes:

I do not want to write this encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology . . . He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace. (#10)

In his exegesis of the two creation accounts of the Book of Genesis, Francis is at pains to show how they have been incorrectly interpreted to imply dominion over the earth and nature. He emphasizes the injunction in Genesis 2:15 where we are enjoined to “till and keep the earth,” where “tilling” refers to cultivating and ploughing, and “keeping” implies caring, preserving, and sustaining. He then concludes this biblical reflection with the words: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism. Everything is related.” (#92)

Francis buttresses this “integral ecology” of interrelatedness with what I might call an “integral theology.” What we call the Divine cannot be separated from the human and the cosmic, or else we fall into the dualisms of the divine and the human, and the human and the natural—dualisms which, theologically speaking, are precisely those which have enabled the ecological crisis.

But while the Divine, the human, and the cosmic should not be separated, it is not entirely clear how they should be related. Traditional Christian theology has usually seen the Divine as ontologically preeminent, first in the order of being. To the extent that humans are created in his or her image, some of that ontological preeminence rubs off on us humans, with nature being relegated to third place, as it were. This, in turn, leads to the human domination of nature. Metaphors of “care” and “stewardship” still carry an anthropocentric and hierarchical charge, and however much such anthropocentrism might be tamed in asking us to “till and keep the earth,” we have not yet arrived at a truly integral theology.

A more promising candidate for such an integral theology is the cosmotheandric vision of the Catalan-Indian Catholic priest (and pioneer in the field of Hindu-Christian relations) Raimon Panikkar. In this vision, the Divine, the human, and the cosmic exist in co-constitutive and non-hierarchical relationality and have no individual and independent ontological status. As Panikkar puts it: “There is no matter without spirit and no spirit without matter, no World without Man, no God without the universe, etc. God, Man, and World are three artificially substantivized forms of the three primordial adjectives which describe Reality.” Cosmotheandrism is a modern reworking of the old theological tradition of “theandrism” based on the synergism implied in St. Paul’s statement, “We are God’s co-workers” (1 Cor. 3:9).

Allied with that theological weakness in Laudato Si’ is also a limited cosmological perspective. Metaphors of “care” and “stewardship” acquire context and depth, and are themselves questioned, when placed within the histories of the earth and the universe. The modern form of homo sapiens has only emerged in the last 200,000 years; human history has to be placed within the 14 billion years of the universe’s, and the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s, existence. Modern industrial civilization is a mere 200 years old, and yet has managed to destroy in that short time-interval many of the life forms and much of the biodiversity built up over the lifespan of the universe.

The account of the interplay between human and evolutionary history provided by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in The Universe Story, and the “deep history” of homo sapiens given by Yuval Harari in Sapiens (to provide just two examples of what is becoming a fast-growing field), allow us to see and to understand more vividly our human place in nature and our belonging to it. This body of important research is relatively neglected in Laudato Si’—an understandable omission given its already sizable length, but nevertheless research which might call into question both our anthropocentric tendencies and our hierarchical theology.

While I am not an unqualified admirer of the pope’s theology, I am, however, a strong supporter of his notion of integral ecology. “We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision,” he writes. “Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.” (#141)

There is a tendency to see the environmental crisis as a largely scientific-technological one having to do with reliance on different forms of energy, and questions of poverty and wealth inequality, by contrast, as a largely sociopolitical—and separate—crisis. The pope shows clearly the error of this way of thinking and demonstrates how both the social and environmental crises are inextricably linked. This perception is clearer to a person from the Southern Hemisphere, because much of the extraction of oil, gas, and coal, and much of the deforestation required to feed modern industries, has come either from the Global South or from areas previously under colonial control. In particular, it is important to see how a rapacious capitalist economic system, which relies on the accentuation of desire and on consumerist lifestyles for its profits, drives the relentless extraction of resources and the exploitation of the earth which most severely affect the poor.

As I was reading Francis’s critique of the modern industrial system, it brought back memories of a remarkably similar critique put forth more than a hundred years ago by Mahatma Gandhi in his 1909 tract Hind Swaraj. Like Francis, Gandhi saw the modern techno-economic system as materialistic, soulless, and fundamentally violent toward both nature and human life. This system mistakes material comfort for progress, constant motion for purposeful movement, restlessness and distraction for vitality and dynamism, speed for efficiency, and consumerism for an improved quality of life.

In Gandhi’s analysis, the ones who pay the highest price for these mistakes are the earth and the poor. In a similar vein, Francis writes:

Once more we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. (#190)

Much has been said about the need for cooperation between science and ethics as part of an integral ecology, but it seems to me that what the analyses of both Gandhi and Francis reveal is the shared responsibility of modern economists, who increasingly see their discipline as part of the mathematical and natural sciences instead of the social and moral sciences where it truly belongs. The very word economics comes from the Greek words oikos (“household”) and nomos (“law” or “rule”), and from Aristotle to John Maynard Keynes, economics was seen as a moral science. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, was a professor of moral philosophy; his most famous book, The Wealth of Nations, which describes some of the workings of the market as an institution, depends heavily on The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a previous work that emphasizes the importance of trust and cooperation in society.

Both economics as a discipline taught in the modern academy and contemporary economists who advise governments, corporations, banks, and other institutions which help to shape policy have had a negative effect on modern society for which they have not been held accountable. The corporate capitalism that is the reigning ideology in the West, with its worship of the market and its priority of profits over people, has largely driven our present ecological crisis. One hopes that Laudato Si’ will inspire a long overdue critique of such corporate capitalism and its distorted priorities. “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed,” Gandhi once said.

Any thoughtful person looking at our world today cannot be filled with much optimism. Violence, poverty, ecological devastation, and profound unrest mark our situation, and it is tempting to succumb to despair. It is therefore especially valuable to encounter a text which is both clear-eyed and sober in its analysis, and yet manages to be hopeful. Laudato Si’ has served as a rallying cry and an urgent summons to contemplation and action. It seems fitting to let Pope Francis have the last word:

Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal. (#202)

Joseph Prabhu is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles, and the author of books on Raimon Panikkar and Gandhi.

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