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Laudato Si' - An Ecologist's Perspective - Part 2
A Message from The Editor Of Christian Life in London
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No One Is an Island

By Owen Williams

Part 2 of 3

This review of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and care for the poor (Laudato Si’) is written by an ecologist with over 40 years of experience in managing biodiversity and fostering public engagement in conservation. After 35 years as a government employee and community volunteer, he has continued in a leadership role in two regional/provincial scale environmental organizations. He is not a member of any religion, but is an active volunteer with the Catholic Church in London, Ontario, where his wife is president of the Catholic Women’s League of St. John the Divine parish. Owen’s personal response to the Pope's challenge is to promote Faith in Stewardship. See Faith in Stewardship pages. Contact Owen at

If you missed Part One - it is always available in the archived stories or by clicking HERE

The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis (Chapter 3)

This chapter looks at the current situation, both the symptoms and the causes. It starts with a reflection on technology, acknowledging its contribution to the enhancement of living conditions but condemning its misuse when it results in deterioration of the environment or the quality of life for some people. This chapter in particular blends and illustrates the Pope’s concern for the continuum that connects our relationship with small producers and rural workers, biodiversity and the network of ecosystems.
  • The key downside of technology gives "those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world." (104)
  • Need: a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.” (105)
  • It has been “easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth…[but that] is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods. (106)
  • The mentality of technocratic domination perceives reality (i.e. the ecologist’s natural world and laws of nature) as something that can be manipulated without limit, which in turn leads to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of people, especially the most vulnerable populations. "The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. ..The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economics and political life" (109), keeping us from recognizing that “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion”. (109)
  • Pope Francis points out that technological products are not neutral, for “they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities.” (107, and also from Laudato Si’ Summary for bishops)
  • Need: a new distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…To see only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system. (111-115)
  • The modern world is marked by excessive anthropocentrism (116), focussed on ourselves and our power. This results in a “use and throw away” logic that treats other people and nature as simple objects to be dominated. It leads to exploiting children, abandoning the elderly, forcing others into various forms of slavery, human trafficking, selling “blood diamonds” and of over-evaluating the capacity of the market to regulate itself. (116 to 123)
  • Our drift to anthropocentrism limits our ability to understand our place in the world and our relationship with nature. "The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes...An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. ..a Promethean vision of mastery over the world…Instead, our "dominion" over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship." (116)
  • "A misguided anthropocentrism 'which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests’ lead to relativism in practice. There is a logic in all this ‘whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay’ (122). ‘When the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.'" (123) (from Laudato Si' Summary for bishops)
  • Pope Francis is clear that he is not proposing an extremist environmentalist and protectionist approach that would be an equally imbalanced biocentrism, but instead he advocates an “adequate anthropology” (118) that keeps in first place “the importance of interpersonal relations” (119) and the protection of all human life.
  • Two important challenges for us: a) "any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour" (124), because “to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society" (128). b) there are limitations to scientific progress that need to be carefully considered. Pope Francis uses GMOs as his case example. He acknowledges that GMO use in some regions has helped to resolve problems, yet there remain a number of significant difficulties that should not be underestimated…starting with productive land being concentrated in the hands of a few owners.
  • Need:
    • a broad, responsible scientific and social debate, and
    • a cultural revolution to recover values

Integral Ecology (Chapter 4)

This Chapter brings into focus the social relationships that need to be addressed in concert with conservation of biodiversity. This is the chapter that develops the familiar environmental concept that people are a part of Nature not a part from it. Pope Francis phrases it as “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live” (139). "Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, and of how individuals relate to themselves” (141). It is “essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are not face with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental" (139).
  • Need: "an 'economic ecology' capable of appealing to a broader vision of reality"..."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." continue to build our understanding of the "interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction" (141), involving institutions because "the health of a society's institutions affects the environment and the quality of human life”. (142)
  • "'Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity'..."Culture... cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human being and the environment."(143) in the broadest sense. “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, that the disappearance of a species of plant or animal." (145) It is necessary to integrate the rights of peoples and cultures with the proactive involvement of local social actors from their own culture, with 'particular concern for indigenous communities''(146)' (from Laudato Si'i' Summary for bishops)
  • The encyclical places a useful focus on urban settings, urban planning and everyday life. Pope Francis acknowledges the admirable capability and adaptability of people to respond to environmental limitations. However, authentic development requires an integral improvement in the quality of human life, with an emphasis on the importance of urban infrastructure.
  • A key section recognizes the "the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment." (155). "Our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God's gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.” (155) This can be an interesting point that ecologist would like to see discussed, about the laws of nature that apply to us all. As an ecologist, the message I hear is for people to take ownership for their bodies, their behaviour and their circumstance...but not discount or ignore the realities of the Laws of Nature.
  • Integral ecology "is inseparable from the notion of the common good." (158) Pope Francis uses this definition of the common good: "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment." (156) (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council Gaudium et Spes, 26)
  • Need: to work for a common good that provides "a preferential option for the poorest" (158), to push back against a world where "injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable". (158)
  • The common good also considers future generations. "We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity." (159) That must be done with adequate consideration for equality within this generation. (162)...that is, consideration for the poor.

Lines of Approach and Action (Chapter 5)

This is the chapter that the environmental/biodiversity conservation sector has been waiting to hear about...what tangible action can be taken, globally and locally. Need: proposals “for dialogue and action which would involve each of us individually no less than international policy" (15), to “help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us" (163) Dialogue is essential since practical proposals cannot be developed in an ideological, superficial or reductionist way. "There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. [...] the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I want to encourage an honest and open debate, so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good". (188) As a retired government ecologist, I was happy to read that analyses and strategies are not enough. And political posturing must give way to constructive, collaborative action. Pope Francis is refreshingly blunt about the irresponsible approaches and lack of results at World Summits. "Recent World Summits on the environment have failed to live up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment." (166) Pope Francis makes several references to the 1992 Earth Summit and the subsequent failure to act on it and similar global environmental agreements. (167) He notes that the “Conference of the United Nations on Sustainable Development, "Rio+20" Conference (Rio de Janeiro 1012) issued a wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document." (169) Need:
  • "a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth" (189) “The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy…but the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria" (189)
  • See that "a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development . Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term”. (191) "redefining our notion of progress" (194), linking it to improvements in the real quality of people's lives.
  • "an agreement on systems of governance for the whole range of the so-called 'global commons'" (174) knowing that "environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces". (190, citing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church)
  • "Essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions...urgent need of a true world political authority". (175) It should not only act to avoid bad practices, but promote best practices, stimulate new creativity and encourage individual and group initiatives (177)
  • "mutually agreed means of averting regional disasters" (173)

It is interesting as an ecologist to note that Pope Francis seems to intentionally not make reference to ecosystem goods and services. Need:
  • Recognition of our interdependence, thinking of ourselves in one world with a common plan
  • Honest, transparent decision-making processes that enable people to discern which policies and business initiatives can bring about "genuine integral development" (185).
  • Solid urban and regional planning with strong environmental impact assessment…that includes social impact following the integral ecology concept
  • Political leaders who can avoid "a mentality of 'efficiency' and 'immediacy', who are courageous enough to "leave behind a testimony of selfless responsibility". (181)
  • "Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan" with solutions "from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries". (164)
  • Collective voices of community-based individuals and groups, who "able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity" (179 - and also 181) and a deep love for one's own land. Politics and economy need to abandon the logic of short-sighted efficiency, focused on profit alone and short-term electoral success.
  • The Pope's recurring theme of the need for dialogue is repeated in this chapter with a call for dialogue among religions “for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity". (201) Dialogue among the various science sectors is similarly needed to overcome disciplinary isolation. “An open and respectful dialogue is also needed between the various ecological movements." (201) Dialogue requires patience, self-discipline and generosity. (Laudato Si' Summary for bishops)

Next month: the conclusion - tangible action that can engage all of us.

The Encyclical - from the Holy See
Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace - an excellent website providing thoughtful articles and links to additional resources. Carolinian Canada Coalition