3 More Climate Concepts from Catholicism



With the crucial UN Climate Conference taking place in Paris, 30 Nov–11 Dec 2015, it is fitting to look at some alternative ideas that have been published partly in an attempt to influence it. In a previous article I introduced Pope Francis’ environmentalist manifesto, Laudato si’, as a radical social justice document, and noted that recent papal writings have developed four concepts on debt, waste, ecology, and poverty. In that article I focused on Francis’ concept of ‘ecological debt’, so here I will overview the remaining three: ‘the culture of waste’, ‘integral ecology’, and ‘the earth as the poor’.

1. ‘The Culture of Waste’

This concept is targeted at the global socio-economic system and the prevalent culture of consumerism engendered by it. Criticism of these builds on familiar environmentalist and anti-capitalist themes including:

  • Our pernicious obsession with acquiring, and pride in, possessions. (Laudato si’, §209)
  • The unsustainable volume and nature of the waste generated by both businesses and homes. (§21)

  • The scandal that about a third of food is wasted while starvation is a still a reality for many people. (§50)

  • The decline in the lifetime which commodities are produced to have, and the increased frequency at which consumers are persuaded to upgrade and discard them. (§26)

  • The unsustainable exploitation of natural resources such as oceans and forests, exacerbated by the tragedy of the commons. (§195)

Also related to the tragedy of the commons is the aspect of the system Francis gives the greatest emphasis to, namely, the triple failure of markets, democracies, and technoscience (§105) to respect the environment. He describes the root problem here as “collective selfishness” (§204), the lack of collective responsibility meaning that particular individuals and groups tend to escape the duty of care. Markets fail by narrowly focusing on “the maximization of profits” so that the common good is treated as an externality: “businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved.” Even democracies have shown “little concern… about whether [this] is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment”, “as long as production is increased”. (§195) This is because democracy too is prone to being determined by short-term thinking, and hence is powerless to make up for that failing in the market. In the words of philosopher Giles Fraiser, democracy has “become a way of aggregating desire rather than challenging it.” Any moral quality to our consumer choices are also treated as externalities. And while cleaner technologies can lessen the environmental impact of our addiction to immediate gratification, “with the increasing power of technoscience, [in Fraiser’s interpretation] more of the world becomes subject to human will and desire, so more wants can be realised. But again, science [like the economy and the government] does not distinguish between wants and needs.”

Furthermore, the void left empty by all this collective inaction is itself significant, because it creates more space for climate change denial to expand like a polluting gas. Its clout, and the attraction of its lies appear all the stronger in the absence of coherent action. But as an editorial in The Tablet points out, we must remember that “it is not insignificant that those critical voices denying that climate change has a human cause are most often closely associated with a free-market ideology which is opposed to state regulation of almost any kind.”

From these intoxicating aspects of consumerism grows the critical problem of the “culture of waste”, or “throwaway culture”. (§22) Outlined in Francis’ speech for the 2013 World Environment Day, this idea is that excess and waste have become normalised in the case of food and other commodities, and that the mentality surrounding this has then spread and been applied to human relationships also. In this mentality, those of us who are not economically useful become seen as disposable, like last year’s smartphone. The culture of waste is perpetuated by the consumerist system. Primary value is given to consumption–i.e. to profit–instead of care and respect for human life. The Pope continues:

“A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash. … Many say, yes, that’s right, it’s true… but the system continues as before, because… Man is not in charge today, money is in charge… [Yet] God… did not give the task of caring for the earth to money, but to us, to men and women: we have this task!”

Francis’ proposed solution is for us to reinvigorate the “culture of care” (Laudato si’, §231) by attending to every person, especially those excluded on an economic logic, and by promoting practices of solidarity and ‘encounter’ with the earth as well as with each other. This begins with things as simple as visiting the elderly and sick, and spending time out in nature.

2. ‘Integral Ecology’

Sustainability requires a science of the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings, one which integrates not just the biological environment, but all the interconnected aspects of life: economics and politics, (§§141-2) culture, (§§143-6) spirituality, (§§147-8) and everyday life (§§149-55). Francis contrasts this integral ecology with “the technocratic paradigm”, (§§106-20) which the theologian Leonardo Boff summarises as the dominant “belief that all ecological problems can be solved with technoscience. This is a misleading endeavour [he continues, quoting the Pope] because it implies ‘separat[ing] what is in reality interconnected’. (§111)” The paradigm is also characterised by “the fragmentation of knowledge”, and by “loss of appreciation for the whole” more generally. (§110) Examples of this thinking which Francis opposes as counter-productive are the trading of carbon credits and geo-engineering, but he has given tentative support to GMO crops.

According to the theologian Matthew Shadle, Francis’ rejection of the technocratic paradigm is a rejection of “reductive science as our only way of relating to the natural world.” For Francis, the natural world is not something outside of or opposed to us–as technocratic solutions assume–but something we are inextricably related to, evolving as and remaining parts of it. (§§111-39) Our biological nature is something we must be mindful of if we are to put this relationship with nature right. (§68) This relationship is the “human ecology”, (§5) a concept introduced by Pope John Paul II, who declared that “respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.” John L. Allen Jr. has pointed out that while the idea of natural law has been mostly expurgated from the relativistic public sphere, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI “believes that environmentalism is leading people back to the idea, …because it proves that limits on what human beings can do without paying a price aren’t just arbitrary but absolutely, objectively real.”

Consequently, Benedict developed the concept of human ecology as a source of moral responsibilities, revealing for Shadle, that “the mistreatment of the natural world” involves “the denial of our true being”.

Pope Paul VI, (1971), Octogesima Adveniens, §§416-417

Pope Paul VI, (1971), Octogesima Adveniens, §§416-17. 

Francis has further developed the concept as one part, alongside environmental and societal ecology, of integral ecology. Contrary to the hysteria of some conservative critics, he does not believe that reversing industrial development is the solution to the current crisis. Instead, we need to bring the various systems of society into continuity with nature’s biological and geological systems, a task that positively requires human ingenuity and technological development. Francis cautions that a society enacting such a synthesis must respect ‘the common good’, ensuring that individuals have access to all that is necessary for them to seek fulfilment as human beings. (§156) An ‘integral ecology’ then,  should facilitate our transition towards practices harmonious with the natural cycles of the environment; practices “capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.” (§22)

The moderation of consumption is the crucial point here; Francis describes the solution as “sobriety” in the face of the intoxicants of consumerism. Part of the aforementioned culture of care, sobriety is a perspective aimed at life with greater moderation and reflection. Fraiser comments that “a sense that there is such a thing as having enough, and finding contentment with enough… is far from a counsel of despair. There is an enormous personal freedom to be discovered in being content with not having everything.”

Sobriety is essential because technological or economic changes ultimately cannot achieve sustainability without individuals making inner improvement at embracing lower consumption. (§§222-7) As an editorial in The Guardian put it, “this is a moral problem, which demands a moral solution”. This mindset, along with the science of integral ecology, must become embedded throughout lifelong education, promoting an “ecological citizenship”. (§§203-11) Such ‘education for transition’ tells us to be mindful of the ways in which we “directly and significantly affect the world around us”, and of the “nobility” of caring “for creation through little daily actions”, for example, “using public transport or car-pooling”. (§211)

3. ‘The Earth as the Poor’

This is a simpler concept, yet one that is brings coherence to the rest through the underlying theme of integrating “questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (§49) Burdened, maltreated, and abandoned, the environment is identified with the poor, with all outcasts. (§2) This has profound consequences in the context of Catholic thought because “Jesus identifies with the poor of every kind and makes active love towards them the condition for entering the kingdom.” (Catechism, §544, cf. Matt. 25:31-46)

The implications of this are not confined to mystical approaches to God through service, however. Responding to the Latin American Bishops’s Conferences at Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), Catholic social theory emphasises the ‘preferential option of the poor’. This principle is related to the view of prioritarianism in philosophy, which was part of John Rawls’ reasoning the first part of his difference principleFor Rawls, prioritarianism led to the belief that an addition to the inequality permitted by the basic institutions of society is only justified if it results in improving the welfare of the worst off. The option for the poor, by contrast, is the belief that they should be the first that we reach out to help, and the first to be considered for the impacts of any public policy- this also functioning as a criterion by which to judge such policies. This principle is pertinent when the poor claim they are not being heard at current climate negotiations. It also takes us back full circle to the concept of ‘ecological debt’, a moral debt accrued by the rich world to meet the costs of resisting climate change in the poor world and elsewhere.

To include the earth itself among the poor is to insist that justice cannot be done for the worst off in society at the expense of the environment, or vice versa. Rather, we need an “integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature.” (§139)



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  1. Pingback: Papal Environmentalism’s “Ecological Debt” | Vibrant Bliss

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