The Deep Ecology of Pope Francis

pope francis in congress
Pope Francis addressing Congress

Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Dominion Over Nature

The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”

As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands them:

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Genesis 1:26-8]
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature

As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.

The Pope’s ecological insight

Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, 67]

The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]

Reverent guests of nature

What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature
Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature

Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]

Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.

The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:

It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all thingsall creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All thingsand I mean all thingshave their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.

In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:

  • The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…

Structural issues of monotheism

My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.

However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.

Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.

Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.

These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.

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A Price on Carbon: It Will Work Because It Doesn’t Change Everything

Less than three months to go before the COP21 climate conference in Paris, and the emissions targets submitted by countries – the basis for a new global climate treaty – are grossly insufficient. This chart says it all. The blue shows current policy projections; the pink shows the aggregate emissions targets submitted so far – a slight improvement. The green shows what we need to stay within a 2°C rise in temperatures – in itself barely enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, but depressingly far from the current targets.

Graph_shows_countries_urgently_need_to_strengthen_2030_emission_targets_before_Paris_climate_summit_–_emissions_gap__19Gt_CO2___Bits_of_Science

Put A Price On Carbon

What can be done? I’m convinced that the most effective way to avert global disaster is to put a global price on carbon. We live in a global market economy, and a global price on carbon (starting at say $15/ton then rising steadily) would have an immediate and far-reaching effect on everything else: consumer choices, investment  in renewable energy, fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and virtually every other aspect of our global economy.

A price on carbon, collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port), is different from the cap and trade approach which has had mixed reviews. Under the “fee and dividend” structure proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby for the U.S., the revenues would be rebated to American households equally. Because not everyone uses the same amount of carbon, the majority of American households (about 66 percent) are estimated to earn back as much or more than they pay in increased costs.

What’s more, a price on carbon has appeal across the political spectrum. Mainstream economists such as William Nordhaus, veteran Republicans like George Schultz, and that mouthpiece of global capitalism, The Economist, all call for it. Even Big Oil is asking for it.

If the price is set correctly (a big “if” admittedly) it would lead within 20 years to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels. So what’s not to like?

This Changes Everything… or Does It?

Well, it’s crucial to remember that while climate change is probably the most dire threat facing our world right now, it’s not the only one. It’s more like the canary in the coal mine: an early warning sign that something is going drastically wrong with the way humanity relates to the natural world. In addition to climate change, there’s a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting crises, such as  deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and a massive extinction of species. We’re overshooting our planetary boundaries. This is all the result of the rampant growth obsession of the modern global economy, dominated by mega-corporations that enrich their billionaire owners by turning the earth into a gigantic resource for consumption.

Naomi Klein: author of This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein: author of This Changes Everything

There’s a growing worldwide movement to fight against this devastation of the natural world and the gaping inequalities it’s created. The threat of climate change has massively increased public awareness of the pending global disaster arising from corporate control of the earth’s resources. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein has pointed out the revolutionary power of climate change, when it’s seen as a battle of cultural worldviews:

The culture that triumphed in our corporate age pits us against the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live—to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world… that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.

By harnessing the public outrage over the damage being done to our world, Klein argues, and focusing on the underlying structural flaws of our global system, we have a unique opportunity to effect structural changes in the world system that has held us in a chokehold for generations.

Putting The Canary On Life Support

Putting the canary on life support
Putting the canary on life support

And there we have the reason why voices like Schultz, the Economist and Big Oil are supporting a price on carbon. By using the levers of capitalism to avert the worst outcomes of climate change, they hope to keep the whole system running with barely a bump in the road. Offshore wind power? Who is better equipped to deal with the heavy infrastructure and big politics than the oil companies? Before too long, Big Oil becomes Big Wind. Massive grids transporting solar energy across the continent? Who better than big utility and engineering companies to handle them?

That’s why I believe a price on carbon will happen – with surprising speed. I’m hopeful for a better than expected outcome on climate change. And along with that, I’m even more anxious about the rest of the devastation being wrought on Mother Nature. A price on carbon is akin to putting the canary in the coal mine on life support: it might keep the canary alive, but it merely masks the catastrophe that is continuing to take place around us.

Changing Our Worldview

What are the implications of this? The threat of climate change is so dire that we need to get behind whatever works best, even if it enables the global capitalist system to stay on the rails. And at the same time, while the world’s attention is focused on this crisis, we must frame the narrative to highlight what really needs changing – everything, as Klein puts it.

We must make people aware of the underlying causes of the climate change debacle. As long as a country’s success is measured by Gross Domestic Product, as long as corporations have the sole objective of wealth management and financial return for their shareholders, as long as the natural world is seen as nothing more than a resource for human consumption, the devastation of our world will continue, even with renewable energy.

Ultimately, to turn around our civilization’s trajectory, we need nothing less than a Great Transformation in values. In place of the root metaphors that drive our civilization such as Nature as a Machine and Conquering Nature, we need a new worldview that recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and sees humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

What values would arise from this worldview? Three core values emerge. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. In place of the global obsession with defining progress in terms of economic output and material wealth, we must begin to prioritize progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we must base political, social and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we must build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.

A price on carbon may save us from the worst depredations of climate change. But it won’t get us any closer to the Great Transformation. For that, there are no silver bullets – just the profound realization that the future wellbeing of humanity and nature is at stake, and the revolutionary power that comes with sharing that realization with millions of others.