Sunday, August 9, 2015

Chapter Four of "Laudato si": Integral Ecology

John Muir
John Muir once wrote, "Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".  (My First Summer in the Sierra, chapter 6)

This seems to me to be the central idea in the short Chapter 4 of Laudato si, whose title is "Integral ecology".  It starts out

Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected....We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

 In other words, for Francis, addressing the environmental crisis is not a merely technical matter - simply because the crisis is not just a crisis of "the environment", as if that can be thought of as a neutral stage on which the human story is played out, but also of society itself: "if everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment".  This leads him to speak of a cultural ecology which is local and specific to each place, and to decry forms of environmental exploitation, or even environmental "solutions", which level down local cultures in the interests of some supposed efficiency.  And in this context he calls for special care for indigenous communities who are "not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialog partners".

Francis then moves on to what he calls "human ecology".  I've already said something about the Encyclical's stance on gender, and I won't repeat that there.  In this section, human ecology moves on to a call for a "preferential option for the poor", an important theme in Catholic theology.  And the Encyclical then states an ethical principle which is hugely important as we think about climate change:
Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others....Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.
Francis does not treat the intergenerational question with facile optimism.  "We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth."  But this section concludes with a gleam of hope: perhaps taking up the intergenerational question may also inspire us to address more seriously the intragenerational question - the needs of "today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting".

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