Thursday, July 23, 2015

Chapter Three: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

"It would hardly be helpful to describe symptoms", begins Chapter III of Laudato si, "without also acknowledging the human origins of the ecological crisis." Francis wants to show that the looming threats that he has delineated in Chapter I have cultural roots, deeper than physics and thermodynamics: roots in the way that we human beings understand one another and the world.

The title of the chapter is a nod to Lynn White, (pictured; picture from whose famous 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis", touched off an extended debate about the relationship between religion (especially Christianity) and environmentalism.  "What people do about their ecology", wrote White,  "depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things in their environment".   This is also the basic point that Pope Francis is making in this chapter.  White came to believe that the Genesis creation account (the subject of Chapter 2 of the Pope's encyclical) had prepared Europeans to believe in "dominion as domination"; when the Industrial Revolution put power into their hands, therefore, they were predisposed to use it in a "contemptuous" way. "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt", he said. "We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man."

(By the way, it is interesting that at the end of his essay White refers to Francis of Assisi as a paradigm for a different religious way of relating to creation, one in which all creatures are respected. This Pope, who has taken the name Francis, also points back to St Francis' example at the beginning of the encyclical.)

The Pope's response in this chapter is twofold:
  1. He would agree with White that the root of the "ecologic crisis" lies in a desire for domination: "an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [which] exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object."  Indeed, he goes further than White in a sense, pointing out that this desire for domination has found its expression not just in humanity's relationship to nature but also in human beings' relationships to one another.  "Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build."
  2. But he does not see this failure as originating from the special status that Genesis gives to human beings.  Indeed, "Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for 'instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God.' "  In the Pope's vision, the Genesis account acknowledges but also limits the scope of human "dominion", and therefore does not license arbitrary exercise of power; only that which works with the grain of reality.
Here is an extended quote making that second point:
Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.
One thing I find very attractive in this chapter is the continual insistence that there is a connection between out "Promethean" relationship to the natural world, and similar relationships of power and control of one human being over another.  ("What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." - C.S.Lewis, The Abolition of Man)  Thus: "There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself."  This leads, for example, to an extended discussion of the value of work, as vocation and as a component of stewardship, and of the value of small-scale production: "Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production."

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