Integral Ecology Is Key to Our Well-Being


By Marian Glenn (Transcript from Interfaith Dialogues, July 30, 2016)

Marian Glenn: This forum, for those of you who are new, is a response to Pope Francis's invitation to all people.  This invitation comes by way of an encyclical.  What is an encyclical?  This is the Pope's vehicle for teaching, for preaching, and for 'reaching.'  It's a comprehensive lesson on how we can live well together, which is one of the major concerns of religion. 

Pope Francis's encyclical is the first in church history that is focused on the environment as its main theme.  And it does this within the context of Catholic social teaching.    
Since there's no 'me' without 'us,' the goal of human society is to promote the common good -- now and in the future.   This leads to the concept of integral human development:  the idea that personal well-being can only be achieved in the context of a thriving environment and a just and peaceful relationship.  So the encyclical addresses environmental challenges as an issue of peace and justice.    

In this case it's the poor as well as the Earth itself who suffer the most from environmental degradation.   So a just solution to climate change that addresses the suffering helps all of us live well together in peace and with dignity, which, again, is the role of religion.

Pope Francis introduces the concept of 'integral ecology,' which includes humans among the living organisms of the environment.  By analogy with integral human development, integral ecology encompasses all aspects of human communities, all of economics; integral ecology is about housekeeping in our common home.  Integral ecology is one of those themes that is woven throughout the encyclical. 

Francis writes:  

    We're faced not with two separate crises -- one environmental and the other social -- but rather with one complex crisis, which is both social and environmental.  Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.  [Paragraph 139]

You can begin to understand from that short excerpt Francis's conviction that 'everything is connected,' which is another of the recurrent themes in the encyclical. The ethics of care for the vulnerable extends to all of life -- present and future -- and even the air, the oceans, the oil, the coal, the rare earth minerals that we have in our cell phones.  

And we gladly bend ourselves to this care, not as a duty of stewardship, but as an outpouring of familial love -- love as a recognition of our relatedness to all of creation.  This is a new way of thinking about 'care for our common home'; this is where our planetary family is living. 

It's an awesome understanding that our common home is a 14 billion-year-old universe that has been at work building the complexity that has made life possible for us, and our ardent desire to preserve it for our children.   This understanding dignifies our humble housekeeping.   

However, we also know from the news that there are millions of others who are now called "climate refugees," who have no house at all. 

Pope Francis calls for a bold cultural revolution to usher in integral human development, and integral ecology, and the common good.  This common good refers to justice in our relations among those living now, and justice between the generations.  

He writes: 

    The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.  [Paragraph 161]

By placing the issue of climate change in this moral landscape, Pope Francis makes clear the difference between choosing to focus on adapting our current lifestyles to buffer the effects of climate change, which leaves millions vulnerable to worsening climate disasters, rather than moving toward our own integral human development in balance with nature's regenerative capacity. 

These are bold moral challenges.   The Pope asks for forthright and honest debate to enrich the questions about causes of this disorder in our common home, and the value of various remedies. 

So here we are, gathered to continue our dialogue, to reflect upon our relationship with the environment, with our local neighbors and with our planetary family, including millions of our brothers and sisters who are already caught in the jaws of environmental collapse. 

Dr. Marian Glenn is a professor of biology at Seton Hall University.

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