Laudato Si’ and human-nonhuman relations: unanswered questions?

The following is a draft of some ideas I’ve working through as I reflect on Laudato Si’. Comments welcome!

In the response to Laudato Si’ by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a notable climate sceptic thinktank, the following criticism appears:

“To us the encyclical is coloured too much by a hankering for a past world, prior to the Industrial Revolution, which is assumed to have been assumed to have been generally simpler, cleaner and happier. There is little historical evidence for such a vision… How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated?”

To what extent is this true? Laudato Si’ argues for two major changes in human behaviour – improved relationships with the non-human world, with each other, and with God; and, following on from these, moderation in damage to the environment, and consumption, at least for those currently rich.

But are these sufficient to provide practical guidelines for human behaviour. Or, as the GWPF also asks: “To imagine that human civilisation could develop with no adverse or competitive impact upon the wider natural world would be a misleading idealism. Might the encyclical have been rather more open about these realities?” Before we turn to the encyclical, let us consider what questions are at stake and set them in the context of wider issues in human/non-human relations.

One question to consider is: is the world intended primarily for humanity, primarily for non-human creation, or some point in between. Or, alternatively, what is the relative value of the interests of humans and other species?

At one end of this spectrum are views traditionally labelled as “dominion”, or their secular equivalents. At the extreme end of these views, the world is entirely for human benefit. Nature is worth preserving only for its value to humans – as something to eat, a source of chemicals (drugs, for instance) and wilderness and open space as something for us to enjoy.

At the other end we find ideas such as deep ecology. Here, humanity is just another species with no more rights than any other animal or plant. Humanity’s extinction would be mourned no more or less than the black rhino or a species of orchid: indeed, some thinkers even go so far as to consider our extinction could be a positive, given the damage we cause to most other species.

A second group of questions is to what extent humans have a responsibility to attempt to manage the world and ecosystems on behalf of the species in it, whether to attempt to preserve what is there or to improve it, or whether they should leave it alone. One complication here is that no part of creation is stable: we know that over the billions of years before humans arrived on earth, climate, geography and the range and distribution of species varied over time, and the processes leading to those continue, so by attempting to preserve something, we are, in some way, standing against what would have happened in nature.

For both of these questions, few environmentalists would find any extreme position credible, but exactly what middle ground to take is open to some debate. The same applies to Christians. The Bible makes a variety of relevant statements, but offers no single synthesis. For instance, we have both the command in Genesis 2:15 to tend the garden, and by extension at least part of the world, but the end of Job warns us that some aspects of it are beyond our comprehension, let alone our control.

These questions also go beyond academic interest into the practical realm. For instance, questions arise all the time about the balance of land use: should a forest be left in its current state, managed in some way, or cut down to provide space for human habitation and crops? These questions range into the realm of ethics and often economics. One controversial set of ideas proposes putting some sort of “value” on the natural world, enabling decisions to be made on the basis of some sort of cost-benefit analysis. This at least has the benefit of ensuring that non-human interests are taken into account, but there are major concerns about both the principles and practicalities of doing this.

The Bible alone cannot help us resolve these questions. How about a wider ethical or theological framework? All options seem to founder. For instance, consequential ethic methods or utilitarian methods require some basis for weighing the relative happiness of humans and the various species of non-humans: essentially the same problem involved in weighing the value of nature we have just considered.

Many environmental theologians have advocated a theocentric view, where the goal is to focus on God’s role in creation and seek perfect relationships. Or an ethics based on virtues, in which we improve ourselves to the extent we make right decisions and live in right relationships. These are both strands of Pope Francis’s thinking: in the world he imagines, ‘the human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures’ ultimately leading to ‘a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity’ [both 240, see also 208 and 11 for more on the two issues separately]. But while these characteristics enable one to enact good decisions when they are made, the issue of how we discern where the correct middle grounds lies remains, unless you hold to a theology of God that he can and will direct our paths in arbitrary detail. Or indeed some kind of overrealised eschatology where the ‘lion can lie down with the lamb’ in this world.

Those kinds of views might be more suitably attributed to the pope’s namesake Saint Francis, whom the Pope cites as an inspiration. ‘Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise’ [12] is potentially overidealistic, even if this is qualified with a note that such feelings must necessarily lead to action. [11]

Despite that, Pope Francis does list many problems which need solving, together with some pointers to solutions in some cases. In [60] he notes the spectrum between deep ecology and dominion (for him the latter is represented by those who ‘doggedly uphold the myth of progress’), but in [61] he notes that ‘on many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer opinion’ and advocates an open-minded debate.

In some respects this is a step forward for the Catholic church. Previous documents in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition have wanted to dismiss ideas such as ecocentrism and biocentrism out of hand due to them ‘[eliminating] the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings’ [Compendium 463]. Laudato Si’ at least sees them as positions which can contribute to the debate.

However, much of its thinking seems still rooted in the human-centred thinking of past CST documents. For instance, despite biodiversity being a good, and non-human creatures having value in themselves [33, 69, 82], it is unclear how much influence they will get in discussions. Nature reserves of various sorts are commended [37] but, despite a call to ‘restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium’ [210] there is no suggestion that humanity should retreat and ‘rewild’ what we have previously colonised. Policies are to be ‘developed and debated by all interested parties’ [183] but while local humans get a key place in these discussions, nothing is said about representations by, or at least on behalf of, non-humans.

In the same way, the key notions of Common Good and the Common Destination of Goods are extended to all humans, and to the future [156-158 and 93-95 respectively]: non-human creatures are not in view.

It is important to take into account the answer to the question of how much the ‘failings’ of creation are due to sin. Taking two books I’ve recently read Jonathan Wilson’s thesis in the book God’s Good World is that our theology of creation should be linked to a theology of reconciliation: hence the work of Christ can bring a world of peace – even in this world. Terence Fretheim, coming from the perspective of suffering, argues by contrast that creation is perpetually ‘messy’ and in a state of flux, and some level of suffering is inherent to some as species come and go, for instance.[1] Both Wilson and Fretheim argue that humanity should be co-creators with God of a world which is “more good” but how good can that world theoretically get?

This is in one sense the eschatological question we’ve already touched on: how much can we expect the future harmony of the new creation to be prefigured today? But the important practical implication is whether a theocentric view and better virtues are sufficient to “solve” the environmental crisis, or whether we will still need to adjudicate in disagreements both between different humans and between humans and other creatures. Neither author addresses this ethical question directly. The implication from Fretheim is that such conflicts will still exist. Wilson seems to take the former view. but he excludes environmental action from what he wants to cover. Where Pope Francis stands is less clear. Frequently, and particularly when referencing Saint Francis, he seems to be taking a similar line to Wilson. But when he talks about environmental action, the need for political agreement ‘on systems of governance for the whole range of so-called “global commons”’ [174] is placed alongside the need for improved virtues.

So it is concerning that neither the question of the relative values of human and non-human, nor the potential issue of resource conflict between human and non-humans is presented as an issue. (With the exception of water [27-31] although here, like elsewhere, it appears that human needs are more of concern.) Associated with this is perhaps the most alarming statement in the whole encyclical: ‘it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development’ [50]. Of course we know that the Catholic Church would struggle with this issue. But it is of concern that both the surrounding text and the reference speak of the needs of humanity alone: far from even considering human/non-human balance as a question to be addressed, here we see a further pushing back of the bounds of non-human creation as acceptable.

So, let us return to the GWPF’s question. How is the inevitable human impact upon the natural world to be moderated and mitigated? By better relationships and with better ethics – which are certainly needed – but some of the key questions seem not to be being asked by the Pope.

[1] Fretheim, Creation Untamed.

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