Integral Ecology in the Papal Encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’): A Critical Appreciation

By mzimmerman

According to some people, humankind’s current influence on the biosphere has become so extensive that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This incipient temporal frame is said to displace the Holocene, the epoch that commenced after the end of the last Ice Age almost 12,000 years ago. Although the idea of the Anthropocene remain controversial among geologists, many environmentalists have embraced it for emphasizing that human population growth and related economic activity is bringing about massive changes to the biosphere, including accelerating loss of species and a warming climate.[1]

The new term is useful for gaining media attention, but concerns about humanity’s influence on the biosphere have been growing for decades. At first, academic research about environmentally damaging human activity was largely confined to certain branches of natural science. In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, a few philosophers began to argue that their discipline could shed light on environmental issues and recommend how to address them. Resistance to the very idea of “environmental ethics” was widespread among professional philosophers, who generally restricted the study (and practice) of ethics solely to inter-human relations. The idea that trees or even biomes could have moral standing was regarded as absurd. Like all other humanistic fields forty years ago, philosophy still sharply distinguished between mind and body, freedom and necessity, historical human processes and merely natural events. Although accepting Darwin’s hypothesis that humans arose from the same evolutionary processes that shaped the rest of life on Earth, humanists typically had little interest in nature as studied by the natural sciences. The humanities were devoted to studying and assessing human products, primarily texts and art works.

New generations of humanists, including those who helped to develop eco-literature in the 1990s, increasingly recognized that the traditional humanity vs. nature dualism was no longer tenable for many reasons, including the prospect that human activity would lead to an environmentally grim future. Humanists of various stripes began asserting that their fields offer important perspectives for making sense of and improving the humanity-nature relationship. Leaving environmental research primarily to the natural and social sciences was no longer viewed as a viable option. Increasingly, scientists, policy makers, and humanists alike agreed that environmental issues are enormously complex, exhibiting many different facets that are often visible only from the perspectives at work in various methodologies. Integrative or integral approaches to characterizing and solving environmental problems were called for. Multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research modalities were taken more seriously than ever before, although such modalities have a long way to go before reaching their potential.

In Integral Ecology, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and I described a multi-perspectival, developmental approach to environmental issues.[2] According to this approach, a host of different, complementary perspectives must be called upon to make sense of environmental issues. Branches of natural science and technology are crucial, but scientific assessments alone cannot be used to justify action. Doing so amounts to technocracy, the rule of experts. A version of this ideology was widely used by elites during the 1950s and 1960s to legitimate the imposition of urban freeways that destroyed neighborhoods of minorities or others who had no voice in such decisions. Opposition to such practices led to the very idea of stakeholder meetings, in which individuals can share their first-person concerns about projects or environmental issues that affect them. Likewise, collective value considerations–religious, philosophical, cultural, communal–are important when weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a project, such as a dam that would affect long-standing access to and aesthetic appreciation of a free flowing river. Very important as well are economic, policy, and political perspectives that reveal crucial aspects of a project or problem that would otherwise remain hidden from view.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of such multi-perspectivalism, integral ecology maintains that such perspectives are inflected by different levels of cultural development. For example, carrying out a massive hydroelectric project was relatively uncontroversial for many people whose personal/cultural “center of gravity” is modern. Modernity not only makes human concerns paramount, but also denies that non-human entities have any value other than instrumental value. For many traditional peoples, such an attitude can be deeply problematic, insofar as it denies the inherent goodness of Creation, as affirmed by God in Genesis. Likewise, post-modern Greens regard the modern view of nature as arrogant anthropocentrism, which has led to many environmental problems. The same smoke-stack industry can show up to moderns who work there as crucial for making a living, and can show up to Greens both as an environmental problem and as affront to the sacred biosphere of which humans are merely one species among countless others.

I have outlined some key aspects of integral ecology, because the Papal Encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si), says that it is informed by integral ecology, and in fact devotes an entire chapter to it.[3] The Pope’s intervention is important for several reasons, one of which is that it shows the extent to which religious and spiritual concerns can shed light on environmental issues, both with respect to their origin and to their possible resolution. Religion is a cultural domain that–much to the surprise of social scientists who predicted in the 1970s that it would soon be relegated to the dustbin of history–retains great importance. Indeed, the great majority of the world’s population may be characterized as religiously fundamentalist, which is a long way from modernity, much less from post-modern Green. Although the Pope is understandably concerned about the plight of the world’s poor, his encyclical so emphasizes the link between poverty and ill-advised and exploitative treatment of the natural world that he may be justly regarded as the first Green Pope. In what follows, I describe important aspects of the encyclical, and also assess the extent to which it lives up to its own claim to be informed by integral ecology.

In the press, the encyclical had been anticipated as the Pope’s statement on climate change. In fact, however, that issue takes up only a small portion of the lengthy document, which argues that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is an important symptom of attitudes and practices of a morally unconstrained global capitalism. The gist of the encyclical is this: Armed with the ideologies of private property rights and anthropocentrism, along with the innovative power of modern technology, a relatively small class of individuals has created enormous wealth for some at the expense of the many, including not only humans and but also other members of biotic Creation. The proposed alternative to planet-destroying capitalism is the Pope’s Christian, Left-Green polity, which emphasizes local, indigenous values, community-generated work and products, care for humans and non-humans, and obedience to God’s loving plan. Sobriety, humility, kindness, inclusion, and financial generosity–these are the kinds of virtues called for by the eco-theology of Pope Francis, who frequently mentions the Creation-affirming, live-simply attitude of his beloved namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. In criticizing “consumerism” as a major impetus for exploiting nature, the Pope adopts a standpoint similar to Buddhists, according to whom craving and ignorance lead people to seek happiness in all the wrong places, by purchasing material goods that go far beyond reasonable needs.

As a Catholic and an environmentalist, I find much to affirm in the Papal document, although I have reservations about it as well. That we have a Green Pope remarkable, even though his encyclical offers few if any novel proposals within Christian eco-theology, which has been a going concern for four decades. The encyclical speaks of the potentially devastating social and environmental consequences of unconstrained economic “development,” while emphasizing–as one would expect from such a document–the importance of theology for balancing a modernity’s account of the cosmos as a complex totality of material processes without meaning, direction, or purpose. At times, the document hints at post-modern “new cosmic narratives” that attempt to restore a sense of significance to the universe, but such narratives are (understandably) rephrased in ways that depend on Scripture, not modern science.

In line with his preference for consultation, Pope Francis has made liberal use of a Church documents and position papers, many of them prepared by the Council of Bishops in one country or another. As a result, the encyclical sometimes reads at times as if composed by a committee. In contrast, more than 20 years ago the brilliant Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether published her ground-breaking Gaia and God: Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, which covers much of the same ground as the encyclical, but in a single voice and with a more coherent historical narrative.[4] Moreover, Ruether covers important topics overlooked by the encyclical, including the connection between exploiting nature and oppressing women. Omission of this connection is not surprising in view of the Catholic Church’s patriarchal attitude, arguably one of the most visible indications of the traditional Church’s on-going resistance to modernity.

Another topic that Ruether explores, but that is barely touched upon by the Encyclical, concerns evolutionary theory as it applies to cosmic development, to the rise of organic life, and to the historical unfolding of animal and human consciousness. The Church long opposed the idea–proposed in the mid-19th century by Charles Darwin (and Alfred Lord Wallace)–that all life has evolved, even though this remarkable idea has become one of the cornerstones of many branches of natural science. Only in 1950 did Pope Pius XII affirm that there is no “friction” between evolutionary theory and Church doctrine. Today, Pope Francis emphasizes more than any predecessor the extent to which humankind must be understood as a part of nature, not as something alien to. Having asserted that humankind depends on a well-functioning biosphere, however, the encyclical turns away from the neo-Platonic otherworldliness that long inflected Christianity. Evolutionary theory has also had a profound influence on cosmology. Big Bang theorists hypothesize that the universe had a beginning and has evolved over billions of years, rather than being eternal and static, as many scientists and philosophers had once supposed. In the late 20th century, a growing number of cosmologists began to use Big Bang theory as the basis for what Brian Swimme has called “new universe narratives.”[5] As philosopher Steve McIntosh has argued, the universe is a generative matrix that over the course of 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang has brought forth in sequence matter, life, sentience, and self-consciousness.[6] As an alternative to 20th century existentialism, which despaired over a meaningless and thus absurd cosmos, many new cosmic narratives ask about the possibly deep significance of the fact that the universe gives rise to beings like us, capable of asking about “meaning” in the first place.[7]

In his classic book, Environmental Ethics, Holmes Rolston III offers a compelling account of cosmic evolution in its material, biological, sentient, and self-conscious dimensions. Deploying an evolutionary scheme with a hierarchical component, Rolston argues that everything (including the material constituents of the cosmos) has a basic level of inherent value, but that such value becomes deeper and more significant as material phenomena evolve, as in the case of terrestrial life, sentience, and consciousness. Rolston’s book, foundational for integral ecology, argues that human individuals have greater inherent worth than do organisms and species, even while the book also argues that humankind is dependent on the non-human world in all its complex levels. Although ascribing great significance to humankind, Rolston makes clear that humankind has arisen from and thus is indebted to not only to other terrestrial life forms and planet Earth itself, but also to the cosmic creativity that made it all possible.

A close reading of Rolston’s text reveals developmental theistic views, aspects of which are also to be found in integral thinker such as G.W.F. Hegel, Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and leading integral theorist Ken Wilber, among others, who have extended the idea of evolutionary development to culture.[8] Evolution, including individual and cultural evolution, is the conceptual heart of integral theory and thus integral ecology. The Encyclical depicts integral ecology as crucial for describing and alleviating current environmental problems and related social justice issues. The present author can be expected to applaud the Pope’s judicious assessment. Nevertheless, his encyclical does not adequately address the cultural evolutionary component of integral ecology, even though those who assisted him in writing the document were surely aware of this developmental aspect of integral ecology. Instead, the encyclical’s author chose to focus primarily on integral ecology’s emphasis on the need for including multiple perspectives–scientific, political, economic, cultural, and individual–in depicting and finding resolutions to complex environmental problems. In paragraph 139, for instance, we read:

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. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems.

Given that the Pope is aware of the importance of religion in human affairs, it is perhaps surprising that culture is not explicitly included as a major factor in describing and resolving environmental problems, along with social, economic, and behavioral patterns. To be sure, publishing the encyclical presupposes that religion and other cultural determinants matter. Nevertheless, if it had been more firmly aligned with integral ecology, the encyclical would have emphasized that human culture has undergone major developments over the millennia. One reason the encyclical handles this issue gingerly if at all is because Green post-modernism regards discourse about cultural development as an instance of the hierarchical thinking that is responsible for so much human oppression and despoliation of nature. Integral ecology acknowledges that during the past two centuries efforts to put into practice modernity’s noble world-centric ideals, including universal human rights, have often been marred by residual racism, ethnocentrism, and imperial power motives, all of which have been rightly criticized by post-colonial theorists and activists. Failure to live up to its own ideals, indeed using those ideals as an excuse to colonize “un-civilized” lands, reveals one of modernity’s dark sides. Another limitation of modernity is its treatment of nature solely as raw material suitable for enhancing human power, and all too often only the power of privileged human classes.

Despite flaws in its conception of “universal” human traits (all too often defined in Euro-centric terms) and in its application of its own ideals, modernity’s ideals of political self-determination and individual liberty, along with freedom of religion, of the press, and so on, have long been a beacon for people who resent the constraints imposed by pre-modern or traditional ways of life. The democratic impulse at work in the Arab Spring a few years ago was distinctly modernist in flavor, even though some theorists who promoted the revolutions were much aware of modernity’s complicity in 19th and 20th century European colonial interventions in North Africa. One reason the revolutions have failed to prosper is resistance from those tied to traditional political arrangements, although these had already been inflected by the attitudes of colonizers, including those the oppressive social organization imposed by Soviet Marxists, during the Cold War. Of course, to defend and adequately to re-conceptualize the ideal of cultural development would require a far longer discourse than is possible within the limits of this essay.

This encyclical’s tendency to minimize cultural evolution is regrettable, but not surprising. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church stood as a bulwark against many of modernity’s new values, including freedom of inquiry, freedom of individual conscience, freedom to elect government authority, and so on. These values arose in part from theological and political discussions that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. According to Martin Luther, for example, priests are not necessary as intermediaries with God. Instead, every person has a direct relationship to God, who is no respecter of a person’s status. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God. (Luther, of course, emphasized that everyone is equally sinful in the eyes of God.) Although Catholics made some important contributions to the rise of democratic principles, Church prelates often supported aristocracies that were eventually overthrown by popular revolution. Through the 19th and much of the 20th century, the Church regarded modernity (including natural science) with grave suspicion, as an illegitimate rebellion against divine (and papal) authority. Only after World War II did the Church, by way of Vatican II, find a way to reconcile its teachings with important modern ideals, including individual rights and freedom. Modern Western culture had evolved beyond the Church’s pre-modern attitudes, which then had to play catch-up in order to retain some credibility in the eyes of moderns (and post-moderns) who usually regard religion as a collection of superstitions that support authoritarian regimes.

In the 1960s, just as the Church was trying to come to terms with important modern values, Green post-modernism came on the scene. As in the case of modernity, the Church’s concern with Green values was prompted not by its own theological reflections, but rather by external cultural, social, and political events, some of which (as in the case of gay marriage) provoked at least as much ecclesiastical reaction as did the advent of modern values. The Green movement posited a whole new domain of value–that of the non-human world–that had largely been ignored by moderns as well as by Church members. Having attended Mass every Sunday during the 1950s and most of the 1960s, I can testify that concerns about the natural environment never made an appearance in the sermons that I heard, even though a frequent topic was the debased human nature (including sexual desire) that allegedly threatens us with eternal damnation.

Throughout the 19th century, a growing number of Western people regarded “progress” in favorable terms, and tended to discount its destructive consequences as inevitable growth pains. During the 20th century, however, the dark side of modernity became increasingly evident to many Westerners, in addition to people whose lands had been colonized. World-wars conducted using the latest high-tech armaments, grand narratives justifying whatever means were necessary (including the Soviet gulag) to carry out national policies, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, annihilation of traditional beliefs and practices, and modernity’s on-going failure to live up to its own ideals provoked increasing criticism and a search for alternatives. Green post-moderns conclude that anthropocentric modernity, abetted by natural science and technology as well as by economies committed to limitless growth, treat nature as nothing more than the raw material needed for enhancing human power and security. Many Greens insist that rather than adhering to anthropocentric modernity, we should adopt a dramatic alternative, biocentrism, according to which humans are just one more marvelous branch on the great bush of life, rather than being an exceptional species justified in lording it over all the other ones. Wisely, the Pope acknowledges that neither an arrogant anthropocentrism nor an anti-hierarchical biocentrism is adequate: There is something special about humans, and other creatures have goods of their own that call for respect and admiration on the part of humankind, which is both related to and dependent on those creatures.

In chapter four, “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” the Encyclical intends to refute historian Lynn White, Jr.’s influential (but unmentioned) 1967 essay, “The Religious Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” according to which Christianity is the world’s most anthropocentric religion.[9] Although valiantly attempting to discover nature-friendly themes in the New Testament, there are few to be found. The Pope does not fully succeed in meeting the challenge posed by White and many others, who have argued that modernity’s anthropocentrism in effect a secularized version of themes drawn from Christianity and thus to some extent from Judaism. Humankind is given “dominion” (a strong Hebrew term with overtones of military occupation) over the rest of Creation. The noble efforts of St. Francis to valorize all Creation ultimately had only limited impact, given that–as the Pope himself admits–Christianity and Judaism had “disenchanted” the world, in the sense of depriving it of divine status: Nature is not God. Such a disenchanted view of nature was in part responsible for the rise of modern science, technology, and economies that have enabled growing human control over nature. The Protestant Reformation in particular sought to rid the world of all remnants of “magical” or “animistic” thinking, including the Catholic claim that consecrated bread and wine contain the “real” body and blood of Jesus Christ.

How to represent in a satisfactory way the relation of Creator to Creation has long vexed monotheistic theologians. Orthodox Christianity, influenced by its emphasis on the human face of Jesus Christ, rather than restricting itself solely to Scripture as in the Christian West, has explored the Creator-Creation relationship in a way that deserves study by all concerned about this matter. Contemporary theologians often use the concept of panentheism, in order to explain that God is present in the world, but also transcends it. God cannot be reduced to Creation or nature, as Gaians and other pantheists would have it. Monotheism, however, Christian as well as Jewish and Muslim, has come a long way in recent decades in arguing that the inherent goodness of Creation imposes constraints on how humans treat it. Pantheism, however, is not in the offing.

Although the Encyclical was written primarily as a pastoral document for Catholics, it is also addressed to moderns and post-moderns. The Pope, then, was faced with the three different audiences whose centers of gravity are pre-modern/traditional, modern, and post-modern. Just as traditional culture is still confronted by those seeking to modern views and practices, modernity is confronted with Green post-modernity. Greens depict modernity’s progressive aspirations in the least charitable fashion, just as modernity has often depicted traditional religious beliefs and norms as superstitious nonsense. Modernity and Green post-modernism represent new cultural values and attitudes, in light of which environmental problems show up very differently. For modernity, nature shows up as the “other” to humankind. Nature is mere matter/energy subject to invariant necessity, whereas humankind is endowed with intelligence and freedom, which justify utilizing nature however people see fit. For Green consciousness, in contrast, nature shows up as the inherently valuable source of all phenomena, including humankind. Contrary to the views of the Biblical tradition and modernity, according to Greens, there is no cosmic hierarchy atop which humankind stands. Human arrogance must be replaced by deep and abiding appreciation and respect for nature.

The Pope rightly emphasizes that we must call upon perspectives from natural science and social science, but also from cultural domains to address environmental issues. Integral ecology emphasizes in a way that the Pope does not, however, that we must take into account how “nature” shows up in different phases of cultural development. Although the encyclical includes certain elements of this view of cultural development, those elements are not woven into a coherent thread, nor are they foregrounded.

The Pope is hesitant to depict modernity and post-modernity as significant evolutionary advances beyond traditional Christianity, which for him must be the ultimate basis of value and human purpose. Instead, he attempts to show that that seeds of modernist values (such as “authentic human development”) and Green post-modernism are found in Holy Scripture. In fact, however, such ideas are very difficult to discern in the Bible. Alluding to St. Francis, the Pope remarks that today’s daunting social and environmental problems

have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. (Paragraph 53)

To talk about the contemporary (interrelated) environmental and social problems, the Pope must call on modern and post-modern discourses. The following passage from the encyclical draws heavily on German philosopher Martin Heidegger and his student Herbert Marcuse, whose book One-Dimension Man (1964) played a significant role in the rise of Green post-modernism:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [my emphasis]. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.

Heidegger’s philosophy had a major influence on 20th century thinkers such as       Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others, whose work helped to shape post-colonial discourse, multiculturalism, and Green post-modernism. For various reasons, I too was drawn to Heidegger’s claim that modernity is gripped by an insatiable desire for ever greater power over nature, including humankind itself as the most important raw material. A vexed relationship with my father, an executive in the plastics industry, encouraged my erstwhile anti-industrial, anti-capitalist stance. During the 1970s and 1980s I promoted Heidegger’s thinking as a foundation for Deep Ecology and related radical Green movements.[10] In the later 1980s, however, I discovered that Heidegger’s anti-modernism had much in common with the anti-modernism of National Socialism, which he supported. One reason Heidegger proved to be such a good fit with some versions of Deep Ecology was that they shared problematic anti-modernist attitudes.[11] Reading Ken Wilber’s book, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, allowed me to differentiate between modernity’s noble contributions and its limitations, without adopting a totalizing anti-modernistic stance.[12] Instead of dissociating itself from modernity, so I came to see, Green post-modernism should integrate what is worthy and transcend what is problematic about modernity. Doing so allows for a “progressive” environmentalism.[13]

In support of changing our treatment of nature, the encyclical focuses on the relationship between developing world poverty, on the one hand, and environmental degradation, on the other. The Pope is on firm theological ground in emphasizing the Judeo-Christian imperative to care for and to protect poor, oppressed, and dispossessed peoples, especially those in developing countries who are put at even greater risk by predatory global market forces. He calls for redistributing technology and wealth to counterbalance historical (and contemporary) practices that exploit the weak in the “winner take all” mentality of the market system. Although denying that he is calling for a “return to the Stone Age,” the Pope insists that there is nothing “magical” about the market system that enables it to solve all environmental and social problems, if governments and other social institutions simply get out of the way.

Such discourse appeals to Left Greens, but much more needs to be said about the best economic, political, and eco-friendly methods needed to lift people out of poverty. For several years in the 1970s, I was attracted to socialism, but socialism is hardly eco-friendly. Whereas capitalism calls for exploiting nature to serve individual ends, socialism exploits nature for the collective human good. Capitalism and socialism are variants of modernity’s humanism. Soviet-style Marxism wreaked terrible damage on the natural environment, in part because authoritarian communism limits press freedom, NGOs, and political debate far more than these are limited under liberal capitalism.[14]

With the collapse of the USSR, liberal capitalist modernity lost its only serious contender. Capitalism generates unparalleled wealth, but has many problems as well, including boom and bust cycles, enormous disparities of wealth, exploitation of nature as well as of human beings, and so on. Nevertheless, markets have always been limited by cultural, moral, political, and legal forces. Environmental organizations have not only resisted capitalism’s growth imperative, but have also found ways of enlisting market forces to achieve environmentally valuable aims (“free market environmentalism”). Market initiatives are easily undermined and/or misused. Critics charge that efforts “redistribute the wealth” in the form of foreign aid go astray, when the money ends up in pockets of corrupt officials and elites, thus never reaching the intended beneficiaries.

How to create the modern economic/political conditions (including transparency, rule of law, etc.) necessary for homegrown wealth? This is a matter of both cultural and personal development, from a traditional or pre-modern to some version (preferably indigenous) of a modern center of gravity. Such development takes time, considerable effort, and luck. There is no guarantee that it will occur at all, although in the past two centuries the general drift has been from pre-modern to modern, and then to Green post-modern. Moreover, there is no guarantee that modern achievements will be sustained, as complex cultural, social, political, and economic forces combine to call for renouncing aspects of modernity, as some critics say is occurring in the US.

The Pope is rightly concerned about the poor, but poverty as a percentage of world population has been decreasing for decades. Hundreds of millions of people have risen into the middle class, a group that the Pope concedes that he has overlooked the while focusing on the poor.[15] Does arriving at middle class status mean that people have become enslaved to “consumerism”? Surely the lure of acquiring more material goods is strong, but people in the middle class are typically concerned about housing, food, educating their families, as well as about health care and public safety. Luxury items usually come last.

Electricity is a necessity for human flourishing in the 21st century, but today 1.5 billion people have no electricity. How to provide them with the power needed to move them out of hunger, disease, and ignorance resulting from poverty? Here the clash between moderns committed to human development/opportunity and Greens concerned about anthropogenic climate change becomes most pointed. The Pope’s encyclical correctly notes that climate change–whatever its causes– would affect poor countries the most.

This observation must be balanced, however, by taking into account other important factors. Whatever the consequences of climate change might be for a given country or region countries with greater wealth will be able to prepare themselves far better than countries that remain poor. So far as we know, markets are the best and fastest way to produce wealth. Markets harness the desire of individuals to improve their condition, by offering people alternatives in choosing products and services. In An Ecomodernist Manifesto several noted authors argue that modernity, despite the environmental problems it has caused, can still deliver on its promise of human flourishing while simultaneously preserving habitat for the rest of life on Earth.[16] If we are in fact entering the Anthropocene, in other words, we might as well become good at running the show.[17] Rolling back modernity is not an option: we must move forward in ways enabled by emerging techno-science and thoughtful economic growth. If Greens are serious about climate change, they must stop opposing nuclear power plants, which emit little C02 into the atmosphere; likewise, if Greens are serious about protecting habitat, they must stop opposing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which return much farmland into habitat even while feeding additional billions of people. While appreciating this ecomodernism, I do not think it sufficiently recognizes the extent to which Green post-modernism introduces values that transcend the limits of modernity. If Greens could integrate modernity’s human-centered values even while going beyond them, more moderns would evolve toward Green post-modernism.

The Pope’s Left-Green stance, underscored when he invited left-wing eco-activist and author Naomi Klein to advise him on economic matters, may not help here. Calling to mind Liberation Theology, the Pope starkly portrays capitalism as exploiting the poor and proposes to trump economic theory with moral duty. But, how best to alleviate poverty and mend the planet? That market economies can become distorted is clear. One glaring instance is current mal-distribution of wealth in the US and many other developed countries. Left Green critiques of market economies, however, must enter into productive dialogue with those who call for the political reforms–including transparency and the rule of law–needed for markets to work. Otherwise, many countries currently mired in poverty will not find a way out of it. That many such countries suffer from on-going problems that arose from colonization means that they deserve financial and other forms of assistance (including technology transfer) from countries that benefited from such colonization.

Culture and cultural developments are key factors often overlooked by major liberal market institutions, including the World Bank, in making loans to countries with extensive poverty. A traditional country has its own kind of economy, governed by traditional attitudes, beliefs, and practices that will not vanish simply because a cadre of bureaucrats proposes to conduct business in a very different way. Attempts to resolve complex issues must be carried out with care and with deference to traditional mores. Imposing “modernity” on traditional peoples is one reason that they are so suspicious of it.

It is important to keep in mind that significant concerns about the status of the natural environment, including pollution and habitat destruction, arise only after people have found ways to satisfy survival needs, which often justify practices that will later be regarded as environmentally damaging. The Pope mentions access to clean water as a crucial factor for individual health and well being, but he excoriates attempts to put a price on water by “privatizing” it. He offers no answer, however, to the question of who will pay for providing and delivering clean water. In many cases, putting a price on water and other commodities offers a disincentive to waste, which is often a major problem.

Left Greens striving to protect nature from human abuse recommend what amounts to a massive global belt-tightening intended to curb consumerism held responsible for so much environmental damage. The most effective way to slow the global economic engine is to dramatically decrease fossil fuel use. Many moderns insist, however, that abandoning fossil fuels without alternative energy supplies in place would lead to global economic collapse, leading countless millions to fall back into poverty. Moderns often read the anti-market, anti-development position promoted by Left Greens as a version of anti-humanism. To encourage more moderns to embrace Green concern for the well-being of the natural environment, Greens–as the leading edge of cultural evolution–must demonstrate clearly their commitment to human advancement. That commitment is present in the encyclical, but the Pope’s understanding of how to define and achieve such advancement remains limited. Were the encyclical to distinguish more carefully between differing levels of cultural and psychological development, the document may have been able to draw more acute distinctions and to offer more effective recommendations.

The Papal Encyclical has much to recommend it. The Pope has strongly endorsed the view that a Green sensibility is necessary for achieving social justice. Although other popes have spoken in favor of environmental aims, Pope Francis is the first to foreground humanity’s interdependence with the rest of terrestrial nature. Given that it was only during Vatican II (1962-1965) that the Church sought to accommodate itself to many important goals of modernity, an embrace of Green values only fifty years later is something to recognize and applaud. The nobility of Green lies in expanding the domain of moral standing beyond the human, so as to include all life and the biosphere itself. The challenge for Greens, including (apparently) the Pope is how to integrate the worthy values of modernity even while continuing to criticize its dark side, including its lack of respect for the natural world. This is no easy process. As one transcends a given phase of cultural development, there is a tendency to dissociate oneself from the prior stage. Consider the contempt with which many moderns treated traditional religion in the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite my reservations about aspects of the Pope’s Encyclical, I applaud its courageous call for the far-reaching and inclusive dialogue needed to address challenges posed by global poverty and environmentally unsustainable practices.


            [1] See Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Jenna Mukuno, “Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene: Humanity as a Force for Good,” The Breakthrough Journal (Summer, 2015).

            [2] Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman, Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. (Boston: Shambhala, 2009).

            [3] Pope Francis, On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si (Washington, DC: Unisted States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2015).

            [4] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (New York: HarperOne, 1994).

            [5] Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. (New York: Harper One, 1994).

            [6] Steve McIntosh, Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins (New York: SelectBooks, 2012).

            [7] Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. (Boston: Shambhala, 1995); Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007); Ilia Delio, Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Catholicity in an Evolving Universe (New York: Orbis Books, 2015). There is also a trend to study “Big History,” that is, cosmic history, rather than focus solely on human affairs during the past 6000 years.

            [8] Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989). See my essay “Integral Ecology’s Debt to Holmes Rolston III,” in Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era, ed. Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, and Adam Robbert (Albany: SUNY Press), forthcoming.

            [9] Lynn White, Jr. “The historical roots of our ecological crisis,” Science 155 (3767). 1967, pp. 1203–1207

            [10] Michael E. Zimmerman, “Heidegger and Marcuse: Technology as Ideology,” Research in Philosophy and Technology, Vol. II (1977), 245-261; “Technological Culture and the End of Philosophy,” Research in Philosophy and Technology, Vol. II (1977), 137-145: “Marx and Heidegger on the Technological Domination of Nature,” Philosophy Today, XXIII (Summer, 1979), 99-112; “Toward a Heideggerian Ethos for Radical Environmentalism,” Environmental Ethics, V (Summer, 1983), 99-131; “Anthropocentric Humanism and the Arms Race,” Nuclear War: Philosophical Perspectives, ed. Michael Fox and Leo Groarke (New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1985); “Implications of Heidegger’s Thought for Deep Ecology,” The Modern Schoolman, LXIV (November, 1986), 19-43.

            [11] Michael E. Zimmerman, Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); “Rethinking the Heidegger–Deep Ecology Relationship,” Environmental Ethics, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall, 1993), 195-224; Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); “Martin Heidegger: Anti-Naturalistic Critic of Technological Modernity,” in Ecological Thinkers, ed. David Macauley (New York: Guilford, 1995); “The Threat of Ecofascism,” Social Theory and Practice, 21 (Summer, 1995), 207-238.

            [12] Ken Wilber, Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1981).

[13] Michael E. Zimmerman, “On Reconciling Progressivism and Environmentalism,” Explorations in Environmental Political Theory, ed. Joel J. Kassiola (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003), 149-177.

            [14] Murray Feshbach, Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege (New York: Basic Books, 1993) and Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and Environment in Contemporary China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

            [15] Jim Yardley, “Pope Says He’s Overlooked the World’s Middle Class,” New York Times, July 13, 2015.

            [16] An Ecomodernist Manifesto,, See also another important document, authored by several of those who contributed to An Ecomodernist Manifesto, The Hartwell Paper (2010),

            [17] Stewart Brand, one of the co-authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto, wrote this in his Whole Earth Catalogue back in 1968: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Brand later acknowledged that he “stole the line” from the first page of anthropologist Edmund Leach’s book, A Runaway World? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968). Leach writes: “Men have become like gods. Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?”

See also Mark Lynas, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans (Washington, DC: National Geographic Publications, 2011).

Showing 3 comments
  • anonyme

    Encyclical is not going the right way: “Only in 1950 did Pope Pius XII affirm that there is no “friction” between evolutionary theory and Church doctrine. Today, Pope Francis emphasizes more than any predecessor the extent to which humankind must be understood as a part of nature”

    If the Church accepts Darwin, it should be the opposite way than the one stated above. It should not be human part of nature but animals (and plants) part of civilization.

  • Blake Ludwig

    There are no guarantees that we’ll make it as a species. I think that’s the reality. There are no technological fixes, no superheroes to save us. Just the possibility that we change our mindset and our relationships to the rest of the planet ourselves and one another in time to start behaving differently.
    I applaud the Pope’s inclusion of the encyclical as bold as it is in demonstrably raising the moral compass and shaming our current neoliberal capitalist agenda as it doesn’t serve any of the good aims of modernism but seeks to enslave us in a cynical philosophy of scarcity, fear and separation.

  • Mary Linda

    Thank you Michael for this well written response to the Recent Papal Encyclical. “On Care for our Common Home”………some really Big Steps recently on this evolutionary path have been taken. The Supreme Court’s decision on health care and gay marriage rights along with this Pope’s voice for more connective ways to bridge our coming together in care for our shared earth space and Greece’s vote against a bail out. There is much hope these steps will be joined by other’s in each field, especially our politically divided field. As you say We have much still to be evolved and integrated but these footprints have begun and these prints pave the way, I do believe, for a new Evolutionary Integral worldview to emerge, as many begin to walk this new territory, evolving and creating together more loving, connected and harmonious communities.

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