Develop renewable energy? Control the population? Punish polluters? Return to nature? Explore outer space?
These solutions, and more, have been proposed by a myriad of interest groups for the many environmental woes our world faces.
But are all options equally valid and morally acceptable?
Since our beliefs about humanity’s relationship to the natural world affect the solutions we propose, it is vital to distinguish between ideologies which are in line with our Catholic faith, and those which are not.
Nature (or the Universe) is not God
One popular idea is that God and Nature are one and the same: that to be “close to nature” or “in union with the cosmos” is to be holy.
But it is wrong.
St. Francis, the patron saint of ecology, differentiated between God and Nature clearly: “His response to nature was to praise its Creator and love the creatures… they are not, like the Eucharist, identified with God himself.” (Francis of Assisi: A New Biography by Fr. Augustine Thompson OP)
It is tempting to praise the Earth as “sacred”, since it nurtures our bodies and – unlike the God of Christianity – makes no uncomfortable moral demands of us. But this ideology, called pantheism, can result in a rejection of human activity and the benefits of science and technology, which include the ability to sustain far more people than if the Earth reverted to an idealised “natural state”.
Humanity is not just one organism amongst many
A secular version of pantheism is deep ecology, the idea that the natural world exists in perfect balance and that humanity has “no right” to interfere with it. We are simply one species out of millions, no more special than birds or bacteria. Deep ecologists reject the Church’s teaching that there is a hierarchy of Creation and that “Man is the summit of the Creator’s work” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 343) with stewardship over all.
Since humanity has no intrinsic right to exist, their solution to the ecological crisis is to curb the human population. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess has proposed reducing the population to 100 million people, while militant environmentalist David Foreman has said that people in the Third World should just be left to starve to death.
The idea that some should die or be stopped from reproducing so others can maintain their standard of living barely cloaks a racist or eugenic mentality, as the peoples of the developing world – who consume the fewest resources and are most vulnerable to climate change – are most often fingered for reduction.
As Pope Francis pointed out in Laudato Si’, “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” Decisions about family size must be left to married couples themselves. The implementation of coercive national strategies in this regard is a fundamental affront to human dignity. (Populorum Progressio, 37)
“Natural” is not always good; “Artificial” is not always bad
Deep ecology has led to “deep green environmentalism”, the idea that human activity is bad because it disturbs the balance of an otherwise perfectly harmonious world. Its proponents reject urbanisation, industrialisation and even agriculture, which they believe damage and exploit the Earth.
But the Catholic Church recognises that human activity is good! It is a collaboration with God in perfecting the visible Creation (Catechism, 378). Jesus himself never shunned technology. He worked with carpentry tools and sailed in boats (though he could walk on water!). He told his disciples to follow God by “keeping My word” (John 14:23), not by going back to Nature.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us that “far from thinking that works produced by man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s grace and the flowering of His own mysterious design.” (Gaudium et Spes, 34)
It is morally right, then, to use our God-given abilities to develop technologies to ameliorate the effects of climate change, to curb our reliance on fossil fuels, and recycle better. Just as we have devised technology over the centuries to feed and to heal, to build and to educate, and to enable people with disabilities to live with dignity.
Technology is not our Saviour
It is tempting to hold out technological progress as a silver bullet which can save us from the effects of man-made climate change. But even though new technologies may be under development – and it will be years, if ever, before solutions can be mass-produced and rolled out on a global scale – we must consciously choose more environmentally-friendly ways of living lest we squander any benefits that new technology might bring.
And as stewards of Creation, we bear in mind that “the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure” (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48). Technological improvements must respect the “grammar” that God has made evident in Creation, and not treat it as an obstacle to be overcome.
The fallen state of Creation means that every possible solution comes with pros and cons. We must use our prudential judgement to evaluate the likely effects – not just on the natural environment, but on the economy and on human societies, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
Just as Moses reminded the Israelites to “Choose life; that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19), the current ecological crisis is an invitation “to a serious review of [our] lifestyle, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism.. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices.” (Caritas in Veritate, 51)
Solutions to the environmental crisis
Authentic solutions to the environmental crisis can only come from the correct understanding of our relationship to God, humanity, and nature. Over-spiritualising Creation can result in measures which devalue the human person and his integral development. On the flip side, reliance on technological solutions in place of social and ethical change is a missed opportunity for us to grow in love of neighbour and of God’s Creation.