Pope Francis’s Land Ethic, Part 1

Theological and philosophical reflections on the situation of humanity and the world can sound tiresome and abstract, unless they are grounded in a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity. So, before considering how faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world of which we are a part, I will briefly turn to what is happening to our common home.

Pope Francis, Laudato si’, opening of ch. 1

It’s nice to know that even popes can find theological reflections tiresome and abstract. Pope Francis seems to have done his level best to make Laudato si’, his opus on environmental ethics for the modern Catholic Church, accessible. The science seems solid, and its integration with the ethical concerns is thoughtful and often bold. And in large part, it is not so much a document about or for Catholics, but a meditation rooted in secular science and secular ethics about the relationship of humans to our natural world.

Indeed, there are passages that almost echo Sagan. “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise,” he writes, in a passage that vividly explains why scientists do what we do, why science teachers do what they do, why a lot of Jesuits (including Pope Francis) do what they do, and why St. Francis left a piece of untended wilderness in his friary’s garden.

To gladness and praise, Francis later adds love, as well. The Pope celebrates the fact that his namesake “felt called to care for all that exists. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour.” He adds:

If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Pervading the letter is a powerful concern for how the degradation of the Earth affects the most vulnerable in global society. Early on, the encyclical argues, “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” Later, there’s a fascinating segue from a discussion of the abstract importance of contact with nature to a careful dissection of the way that class and economics segregate access to nature:

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

Throughout, the letter is careful to keep its focus on humans, even as it discusses the tremendous threats that wild animals and plants face, the threats posed to coral reefs and the seafloor, to fresh water and glaciers. For better or for worse, the analysis is fully centered on humanity and the effects of these degradations on human well-being.

Sometimes, the focus on humans seems to create a blind spot. There’s a powerful theme in the Bible (drawn out wonderfully in Bill McKibben’s The Comforting Whirlwind) that takes the emphasis away from humans, particularly in the oration from the whirlwind in Job. In these passages, it is clear that God revels in nature for its own sake, with humans as mere interlopers. Adopting such a perspective would be politically more difficult, but would resolve some of the less plausible elements, like the encyclical’s unconvincing dismissal of population growth as a key contributor to these environmental problems. Francis argues that calls to limit population growth are inequitable, shifting attention away from efforts to address poverty and denying poorer nations the chance to grow as other nations did. But this elevates the human desire to procreate above the needs of the natural world, let alone the collective well-being of humanity. I couldn’t help feeling that the Pope’s own words dismiss this blinkered view, when he writes in a different context: “Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

In other contexts, this focus on humanity allows a refreshingly integrated approach, one which ties together science and sociology, environmentalism and justice:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality.

This passage is as good a summary as any of the encyclical’s perspective, an approach which I’ll call Pope Francis’s land ethic. To understand why, I’ll need to talk more about one of the great heroes of conservationism, Aldo Leopold, and that’s a matter for Part 2.