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Laudato Si' - An Ecologist's Perspective - Part 3
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Light the Fire Again

By Owen Williams


Part 3 of 3


This review of Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and care for the poor (Laudato Si’) is written by an ecologist with over 40 years of experience in managing biodiversity and fostering public engagement in conservation. After 35 years as a government employee and community volunteer, he has continued in a leadership role in two regional/provincial scale environmental organizations. He is not a member of any religion, but is an active volunteer with the Catholic Church in London, Ontario, where his wife is president of the Catholic Women’s League of St. John the Divine parish. Owen’s personal response to the Pope's challenge is to promote Faith in Stewardship. See www.caroliniancanada.ca Faith in Stewardship pages. Contact Owen at FiS@carolinian.org


Click HERE for Part 1 which appeared in the November edition of Christian Life in London

Click HERE for Part 2 which appeared in the December edition of Christian Life in London

Laudato Si' - An Ecologist’s Perspective Part 3 of 3


Ecological Education and Spirituality (Chapter 6)
Pope Francis comprehends the reality of scale and challenge of enculturation that the environmental sector has also learned after four decades of promoting public engagement in stewardship. The previous chapter identified a number of key strategic actions and approaches, each and every one of which are laudable. Those of us that have made a career out of fostering public engagement and guiding of public policy are justifiably sceptical of the probability of implementation success. The stumbling point is the difficulty of getting people to work together in a synchronous way, with a focus on the top problems that Pope Francis has identified within Integral Ecology. Chapter Six recognizes and addresses that challenge without drawing attention to it. This chapter identifies how it is possible to achieve an “ecological conversion”, achieving the essential cultural scale by involving all educational sectors, primarily schools, families, the media, in (Christian) religions and elsewhere. (213)

He opens the Chapter with "We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone...A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal." (202)

Pope Francis encourages us to strive for the following:

A new lifestyle: (203-208)
"Despite practical relativism and the consumer culture, 'all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning… No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours’ (205). Changes in lifestyle and consumer choices can bring much “pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power”. We need "a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers." (206). 'If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop an alternative lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society’ (208)." (Laudato Si' summary for bishops)

Pope Francis makes reference to The Earth Charter (2000) and notes that “we have not as yet developed a universal awareness needed to achieve its primary recommendations. (207)

Educating for the covenant between humanity and the environment: (209-215)
We need to develop new habits. All of the approaches and tools of environmental educators need to be enlisted in a collaborative effort. Although Pope Francis speaks to the tasks of environmental educators, a lot of what he recommends is actually being led by the sector that is best known, at least in Canada as the stewardship sector. He points to the need to:
  • Develop an ethics of ecology, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care, noting that laws alone will not curb bad conduct, but that the majority of members of society must be adequately motived to accept responsibility (210-11)…what we in Canada recognize as developing a stewardship ethic.
  • Engage families (213), political institutions, social groups and the Christian community (214)
  • This collective and collaborative effort needs to "promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature." (215)

Ecological conversion:
Religions offer profound motivations toward "a more passionate concern for the protection of our world." (216) Pope Francis highlights some of those motivations in this section. Personal change is essential but not enough. "Social problems must be addressed by community networks". (219)

Building on the references elsewhere in this document to the concept of “dominion over the earth”, Pope Francis here says, “We do not understand our superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather as a different capacity which, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility stemming from our faith." (220) “God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings have no right to ignore." (221)

Joy and peace:
Pope Francis makes an interesting use of the word "sobriety" to reference a more moderate lifestyle (described elegantly in 222-27), that moves us out of the throw-away culture. He notes that "happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer". (223) "We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it". (229)

Civic and political love:
This section in particular describes the Canadian stewardship movement. "An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness". (230) In the civic and political context, "love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions” of charity (231). He gives credit to the many stewardship organizations that intervene in the favour of the common good by preserving the natural and urban environments. In my interpretation of this section, Pope Francis is imagining a future that is already well initiated by the Canadian stewardship movement. The leaders that have an interest in implementing the Laudato Si' encyclical need to study the development and progress of Canada's stewardship movement and research its current status. What is needed to ramp up this slowly growing sector of citizens?

Sacramental signs and celebration of rest:
God is encountered in the contemplation of creation and Pope Francis, in this section and the remainder of this chapter, highlights the relevance of the Church’s symbolism and rituals to teaching and motivating people to protect the world.

The encyclical ends with two prayers: A prayer for our earth and A Christian prayer in union with creation (246).

A closing observation from one ecologist:
Some ecologists who have thoughtfully considered their science as well as explored the supportive religious (all religions, not just Christian ones) principles and teachings, have approached the idea that what religions call God may indeed be considered to be the complete, complex biosphere. Its complex inter-relationships and systems result in the realities that science (particularly ecologists and social scientists) and religions have been working to document for generations. Pope Francis makes frequent reference to these realities and the related religious teaching or rules. The final section of the encyclical reinforces this ecological perspective.

The encyclical would have been a good place to point out that the various forms of "Eden" were the birthplace of humanity and the early people were not actually thrown out of Eden, but that early cultures destroyed their common home by their unsustainable ecological practices. If this fact is unfamiliar to you, do a quick look on the internet for the ecological history of Mesopotamia and Greece. They were once very lush, stable landscapes, much like Canada was before unsustainable resource extraction, climate change and the repeated “pestilence” of invasive species.

The Bible, and other foundational documents of religions, made attempts to incorporate environmental stewardship ethics, but two issues have hampered their incorporation into our cultures. First, the writers of the Bible had a limited comprehension of ecological processes. Second, we are a relatively short-lived species (relative to the time frame of many ecological system shifts) and as generations passed, religious leaders and parishioners were increasingly unable to interpret the lessons. Recognition of the erroneous interpretation of “have dominion over the Earth” is a good start.

It is interesting that the North American "First Nations" with their oral tradition, dependence upon elders and gender equity, were very successful until the arrival of Europeans brought invasive viruses that decimated their populations and a maladapted culture that overwhelmed them in their weakened state. Their culture retains their understanding of the importance of retaining knowledge from the previous generations and of making important decisions with respect for seven generations into the future. It is easy for an ecologist to slip into a rant. I have digressed.

Whether one endorses such a concepts or not, ecologists, environmental stewards, sociologists, educators and the broad environmental conservation sector are highly likely to find many ideas and recommendations in Laudato Si' that are scientifically valid and remarkably wise relative to our collective experience in conservation in North America and globally.

All of us who have felt a concern for the environment and felt the urge to take some positive action to protect what we know is our life support system, have been presented here with a powerful gift. We suspected it when the media first covered the announcement of the “encyclical on the environment” in June of 2015. In this encyclical, Pope Francis has indeed provided us with a gift…a tool that we can all use: to remind ourselves of the top environmental challenges and to obtain advice on the most important actions that we can take as individuals and in concert with the organizations that we are part of. If you wish to place your personal actions in the context of global priorities and in a synchrony with millions of other like-minded people, then this is the one strategic action plan that will help you do that.

Laudato Si' is inspiring. Pope Francis is inspiring. Environmental stewardship and the people already engaged are inspiring. But really, where does an ordinary person start, at least after you have toted your recyclables to the curb, turned off a few extra lights and adjusted the house temperature to a more eco-friendly (and budget conscious) level?

Appropriate Actions
  • Review the plans and objectives around you…your personal plans, your business or employers' plans and the plans/objectives of the organizations that you belong to. Focus on the aspects that impact the environment and care for other people, particularly the "underprivileged".
  • Consider how those action plans could be adjusted…even just a bit…to support some of the advice that is given in Laudato Si'. Then, approach the people who are impacted and share responsibility for those plans and objectives and begin a dialogue on how adjustments could be made that would enable you and others to feel that you are contributing to these more global needs. Keep the thinking practical and within the scope of the people that are involved…your family, the local community, the business reach. Realize that other organizations may be doing the same ... or could be encouraged to if they knew that you are. Can you increase your impact by working together, or at least in synchrony?
  • Take some time to read the encyclical. When you download it from the Holy See website, it will look to be a daunting 184 pages! Relax, each page is in very large type, so it is not so much to read as you first think. Then note that it is conveniently broken into six chapters and each of those is nicely organized into smaller themes and subjects…so you can read a little bit at a time and set it aside while you do other things (and think about the ideas in otherwise idle time). As you reach the end of each of your available time slots for reading, ask yourself, "So what can I conclude from this? How do these ideas impact my life? What can I do to act more responsibly?"
  • If you are a member of a non-Catholic religion, check your religion's internet sites - you may find that there is an environmental stewardship initiative that you can tap into.
  • Read the paper, listen to the news, talk with people about what is happening in the environment and with the socially and environmentally disadvantaged people. Think about these in the context of Laudato Si'. Watch for opportunities to right some wrongs.
  • Check the Carolinian Canada Coalition website www.Caroliniancanada.ca for ideas and resources.
  • If you are not already part of an environmental conservation organization, do a search for the organizations in your community. They are the ones that have projects that make a difference locally and those projects, with outcomes that relate to the projects of others, collectively enhance the local, regional, provincial and continental natural systems. Become an active environmental steward. Work with the people that are already part of a network. Watch for opportunities to contribute to continuing to evolve their goals/objectives and project designs so that they contribute to the bigger picture.
  • Recognize that you are making a lifestyle change. It has some similarities to weight loss and exercise programs or alcohol and drug rehabilitation efforts. The big difference is that everything that you do gives positive feedback to your internal feeling of self-worth and your enjoyment of life. Everything that you do to make the world a better place, once done is done…achieved. Being a steward on your own is a good thing. Working side-by-side with other like-minded stewards is fun. Environmental stewards, when engaged in a project, tend to be positive, optimistic people and the whole experience tends to be fun. If you can tap into the spiritual benefits, build on that and reach out to that related community. Enjoy it. By the way, people that volunteer in environmental stewardship initiatives are happier and live longer.
  • For my part, I am making myself available to facilitate the dialogue within and among the faith-based community, calling the initiative "Faith in Stewardship". You can stay current with it by looking for that title on the Carolinian Canada Coalition website www.Caroliniancanada.ca , likely starting in December. You can also contact me at FiS@carolinian.org

I mentioned the unfortunate maladaptation that we are a short-lived species relative to ecological system change. Another maladaptation is that we seldom respond with adequate concern and action about environmental crises until it is already too late, or very close to it. Without taking time to explain it here, look at the human record for dealing with Species at Risk (and endangered species) as well as the “S Curve” of awareness and response to invasive species. My reason for mentioning this: Laudato Si' is the most important call to action in the last several generations of humankind. I look forward (but I will have been dead and gone for many decades) to the next environmental encyclical that guides us to picking up the pieces of our shredded Integral Ecology and building ecological conversion into a global unity that is more capable of sustaining itself. If you think that is too cynical, then get involved now. It is time for all cultures and all religions to embrace an ecological conversion.

Resources

The Encyclical - from the Holy See
Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace
www.devp.org/en/encyclical - an excellent website providing thoughtful articles and links to additional resources.
Carolinian Canada Coalition www.Caroliniancanada.ca