Sunday, June 21, 2015

Nothing is Isolated: Thoughts on Laudato Si, Chapter IV



In Chapter IV, the Pope discusses the integral ecology. While some readers with preconceived notions may think that the term sounds like some kind of new age “we are all one” pantheism, this is not the case. This is said in the Catholic sense that what we do has a farther reach than we anticipate and, in finding solutions, we have to look at the full sense of the impact. It seems to me that a number of critics must have skimmed this chapter, because the Pope deals with a number of topics that they say he never considered—especially the impact on people.

Again, this is no innovation. It has long been a part of Catholic moral theology that the consequences of an act can involve far more than what people consider. So let’s look at what he has to say in this section.

Integral Ecology means Considering All Aspects

The Pope says (¶137) that when dealing with solutions, we have to consider all aspects—which includes the human and social aspects. This will be important because the Pope rejects what many impute to him—that he would let people suffer in exchange for the environment. Indeed, he says that fragmentation of knowledge and isolation of bits of information can actually become “a form of ignorance" (¶138) and need to be integrated into a broader view of reality. In fact, he insists that the environment is “is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.” Solutions cannot be aimed at specific symptoms but have to be comprehensive (¶139).

In reading this, I am reminded, of all things, about a passage from the Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park:

They’re both technicians. They don’t have intelligence. They have what I call ‘thintelligence.’ They see the immediate situation. They think narrowly and they call it ‘being focused.’ They don’t see the surround. They don’t see the consequences. That’s how you get an island like this. From thintelligent thinking. Because you cannot make an animal and not expect it to act alive. To be unpredictable. To escape. But they don’t see that.”

“Don’t you think it’s just human nature?” Ellie said.

“God, no,” Malcolm said. “That’s like saying scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast is human nature. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s uniquely Western training, and much of the rest of the world is nauseated by the thought of it.”

[Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park: A Novel (p. 317-318). Random House Publishing Group.]

By being focussed on only one thing, without considering how that thing interacts with other things can lead to creating something when something good is intended. This can happen when proposing something or cleaning up after it.

Hearkening back to a theme he referenced in chapter 3, the Pope says that looking at the whole means recognizing the intrinsic value independent of usefulness. For example, considering the aspects of how the ecology regenerates in sustainable use. He says that economic ecology needs a broader view than simplifying procedures and reducing cost (¶140). The environmental analysis cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family work-related and urban contexts. Nor can we consider the environment apart from relationships with the self and others.

He speaks of the fact that the health of a society’s institutions impact the environment and the quality of human life. In this he stresses the family as the “primary social group,” (and it should be remembered that the Pope has been strongly defending the family against “gender ideology.”) He says that whatever weakens these institutions will have a negative impact on the other aspects (¶142).

Indeed, he stresses the fact that any ecological solution must respect the culture involved, and sees the consumerist views as leveling the variety which is the heritage of peoples. Uniform regulations can overlook the complexity of social issues, so the imposition of an outside framework can be a problem. Merely technical solutions (refer back to chapter 3) risk addressing only the solutions. But quality of life considerations must be understood with respect to the rights of people and cultures (¶144).

He also discusses the fact of how exploitation can exhaust resources and undo social structures, and even goes so far as to say that the disappearance of a culture (which, as we saw earlier, fits in with the discussion about relations with God, neighbor and creation. This is, of course a rejection of the anti-human view that many environmentalists take, and shows the accusations that he does not care about the effect on human beings is false. Indeed, he points out (¶144) that authentic development seeks to improve the quality of life. This leads to a discussion of homes and transportation and their impact on this quality of life.

Human Relationships and Moral Law

When it comes to human ecology, it involves the relationship between human life and moral law (¶155). Indeed, building on his many statements on gender ideology, he says we have to respect our own bodies instead of thinking we have absolute control over them. This respect means accepting the masculinity or femininity it comes with and respecting the differences between male and female. This is something timely in light of the recent Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner case.

One aspect that some might misinterpret as political buzzwords is the fact that he says that the common good cannot be separated from the human economy (¶156). It starts with recognizing that the person has basic, inalienable rights and the welfare of society—beginning with the family. Society has the obligation to provide this common good. Moreover, this common good extends to future generations and we need to ask ourselves what sort of world we leave to them? (¶159). We cannot view these things in a utilitarian way. The changes we want must begin with the question of what sort of world we want to leave behind (¶160).

He finishes up this chapter by pointing out that...

162. Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family. Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development. Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting. Hence, “in addition to a fairer sense of intergenerational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intragenerational solidarity”

Because we tend towards individualism today, we tend to focus on instant gratification in a way which is wasteful and are unable to think of how our actions exclude or harm the poorest.


Chapter IV actually sets a moral framework for our consideration on all issues—not only for the environment. In pointing out the moral considerations we need to make, we see he advocates nothing that his detractors allege. He rejects the idea of imposing an attempt to cure the situation that does not consider the impact on all aspects of life. Going along with the previous chapters, we see that the forms of environmentalism that his detractors claim he is advocating are actually rejected.

Whether we are choosing a to do a thing or choosing to correct the damage, we have to think about the impact it will have on different groups—including human groups, and especially the family. It’s when we refuse to do this that we cause harm. We use the home of a people as a nuclear testing ground, we develop efficient ways to produce a thing without considering how the materials will effect people and the environment in the future (asbestos as a flame retardant) on one hand, and we develop environmental policies that are harmful to communities to repair the damage, never considering how they impact people or how people might respond to them when considered a threat.

Like every other aspect of moral theology, we need to consider the harm our actions can do, and not simply focussing on a technocratic, “thintelligent” way of looking at things.

Next time, Chapter V—Lines of Approach and Actions 

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