Christianity and sustainability – Reflections on Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment

By Chris Ives

The majority of people living on the planet profess to be believers of some kind. As sustainability scholars, it’s critical then that we engage with issues of spirituality and religion. In May last year, Pope Francis released an Encyclical (a formal teaching document of the Catholic Church) on the ecological crisis, titled “On care for our common home”. Far from being only relevant to church-goers, it is a remarkable articulation of systems thinking, and in my opinion brilliantly integrates science with philosophy and theology. Francis presents the ecological and social dimensions of global problems as fundamentally interconnected and expressions of a deeper ethical and spiritual crisis. He outlines the need for a comprehensive “ecological education” that incorporates science and spirituality in order to bring about personal and systemic change. And he presents Christianity as carrying a message of hope and the moral resources needed to challenge today’s self-centred culture that perpetuates ecological and social injustice.

While there have been many writings on the theme of eco-theology within the Christian faith, this is a significant document because it outlines the official position of the Catholic Church and has potential for great influence politically and practically. Its title “our common home” is poignant, since Francis speaks against the rampant individualism in western consumerist culture and argues that we must consider other people and other species. The document is freely available for download here, but I thought a shorter summary would be useful for those who haven’t got time to read all 180 pages. By way of synthesising its content, I’ve structured this review into four sections: (1) The complexity of the problem; (2) The inadequacy of past solutions; (3) The challenge of an ethical revolution; and (4) The contribution of the Christian message.

(1) The complexity of the problem

One phrase that Francis reiterates is “everything is connected”. Although it’s not written as a scholarly document, the encyclical is one of the best articulations of the complex relationships between the ecological, social, ethical issues that face the world today. It provides some well researched science on the state of the planet, spanning issues of pollution, climate change, water security and biodiversity. (I won’t review this here, so download the encyclical if you’re interested in reading more about the science). Yet Francis also delves into social and philosophical issues such as the intrinsic value of non-human species, global economic inequality and spiritual poverty. He argues that they are all intimately related and that we are therefore “faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (p104). Below I outline some of the specific links that he identifies.

Environmental problems with social causes (human roots of the ecological crisis).

Francis argues that “[t]he human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (p33). One example of this is the throwaway culture that is so prevalent today, reflecting a fundamental disconnection from the natural systems that provide resources and absorb wastes, and an insatiable desire for consumption. He highlights that current economic systems only encourage and reward throwing away goods, which leads to increasing environmental harm.

Social problems with environmental causes

Many if not most of the environmental problems in the world have significant social implications. This is especially the case with the extraction of resources from developing nations and the effects of environmental degradation being more pronounced in these countries. Environmental migrants are becoming increasingly common as places become increasingly inhospitable. This opens up environmental degradation as a moral issue, since it relates to issues of justice for the poor.

The ethical and spiritual roots of the crisis

Francis argues that “[o]ur relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God” (p89), and for this reason the environmental and social crises can be understood as products of an underlying ethical and spiritual problem. Christian teaching is that humanity’s broken relationship with God results also in a rupture or distortion of relationships between people and the earth and amongst one another. The lack of adequate political and personal responses to social and environmental crises reflects the loss of a sense of responsibility towards people and the planet, and a state of spiritual poverty.

(2) The inadequacy of past solutions

Pope Francis is scathing when it comes to technocratic solutions to the present environmental crisis. Although he doesn’t find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with technology, he argues that those with access to it have power, and highlights that it’s the unequal distribution and misuse of power that is at the root of so many environmental problems. While technology is intimately linked with economic development, Francis cautions technological advancement should not be confused with progress. He argues that “the technocratic paradigm promotes finance at the expense of the real economy. It doesn’t consider the negative impacts of technology on society [nor] account for the true value of the environment” (p139). The real problem then is that technological advancement has not been “accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (p78). Techo-fixes to environmental issues are therefore inadequate since they don’t go to the root of the problem. Similarly, the notion of balancing nature protection with financial gain is equally misguided, since this logic operates within the same system parameters that created the mess we’re in and “simply delay the inevitable disaster” (p142). Instead, Francis identifies an urgent need to contemporary society to redefine our notion of what true progress is, and to develop “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded restraint” (p78)

(3) The challenge of an ethical revolution.

After rejecting the notion of technological advancement as the solution to the global environmental crisis, Francis gradually outlines the alternative: an ethical revolution that encompasses both individual transformation and a shift in societal values. Advancement in scientific knowledge will not be enough. He suggests that “unless we struggle with these deeper issues [of meaning and values], …our concern for ecology will [not] produce significant results” (p119). This is where forms of knowledge and wisdom that derive from religion and philosophy must contribute.

One particularly interesting perspective that Francis brings is connecting both the individual and society. It is not just de-personalised systemic change that is needed. It’s also a change in us as individuals. “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume” (p150). The state of one’s internal world influences the state of the world around us. It’s our experience of inner peace that enables us to live at peace with the planet.

The solution is found in ‘ecological education and spirituality’. But the education that Francis outlines is not simply communicating scientific facts about the state of the planet. He argues that education needs to also critique “individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market” (p154). It needs to incorporate an “ethics of ecology” and help people grow in “solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care” (p154). We need “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” (p157). And this new mindset must be coupled with a reclaiming of virtues such as self-restraint and humility, which have been greatly neglected in contemporary society. Indeed, “once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment” (p163)

Francis highlights the importance of environmentally responsible behaviour if we are to address the ecological crisis. Indeed, “an awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” (p153). But how can this be done? He notes that “the existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct… Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment” (p154). The kind of commitment Francis presents is one that starts with small actions, such as car pooling, planting trees, and turning off unnecessary lights, for “they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread”. He argues that grassroots social change will eventually apply pressure on those who wield political, economic and social power. (Interestingly, in Leverage Points thinking, this would suggest intervening at shallow leverage points in order to build momentum for a shift in deeper leverage points over time).

(4) The contribution of the Christian message

As is expected for a document of the Catholic Church, a large part of the encyclical discusses Christian theology. If a moral and ethical rejuvenation is what’s required, the Christian message has much to offer. Contrary to popular belief, Francis argues that Christianity does not present a licence for humanity to exploit nature. Instead it offers a moral foundation for environmental stewardship, upholds the intrinsic value of nature, and provides a hope for the future. Below are a couple of themes that emerged in the letter.

Humanity’s position in Creation

The Christian doctrine of creation (that the universe exists because of an intentional act by God) has two profound environmental implications. First, it recognises that since humans and non-humans are created, humanity is part of the natural world, looking at it ‘from within’ (p160). This, Francis argues, endows us kinship with the rest of creation since we are “joined in a splendid universal communion” (p160) and God is “intimately present to each being” (p161). In addition to this, being made in God’s image, humanity also has a “vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork” (p159). The second implication of creation is that “each creature reflects something of God” (p161) and therefore has intrinsic value apart from any direct benefit that human receive from it. The Biblical scriptures emphasise that “every creature has its own value and significance” (p56). But it’s not only individual creatures that are of importance: “the universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God” (p63). For the Christian then, “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion” (p159) since loving God is expressed (in part) by loving His creation.

A new life and a new hope

Francis argues that true Christian anthropology does not see human beings in Promethean mastery over nature (p87). Instead, humanity’s role “should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (p87). For Christians, the moral resources for this stance come from the person of Jesus Christ and the hope of the Christian story. As Christians look to Jesus as a picture of the nature of God, they are reminded that God is deeply concerned with the physical world since he “entered into the created cosmos [i.e. as Jesus], throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross” (p73). This is a reminder that “he does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth” (p177). God’s concern for nature is also highlighted in Jesus’ teachings on God’s care for the birds of the air and lilies of the field, as context for God’s love for humanity (Matthew 6:26-30).

Perhaps the most powerful contribution of the Christian message for tackling the ecological crisis is that it presents an alternative understanding of what fullness of life really means. “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life…one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption” (p164). Indeed, Jesus teaches that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Instead, “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack” (p164). The message of the love and acceptance of God results in a freedom to live generously and self-sacrificially. Further, the Christian future hope is that “all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast” (p177), meaning that none of the efforts towards environmental sustainability will be lost upon Christ’s return.

Conclusion

In summary, it is clear that the “On care for our common home” is a significant document for Christians, environmentalists and anyone interested in Christianity’s stance on environmental issues. To me, it has much to contribute to current debates about how environmental degradation and social justice ought to be tacked in our generation. Francis does not shy away from identifying the systemic nature of these problems and he digs to unearth their moral and ethical roots. The true impact of this Encyclical however will be shown in its ability to raise the profile of spirituality and religion in public discourse on these issues, and the response of the Christian Church to take heed of the moral and practical challenges set before it.

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