Laudato Si’: Structural Causes of the Ecological Crisis

What hath air conditioning to do with Jerusalem?
September 24th, 2015

Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home is the first, and will likely be the last, papal encyclical to express an opinion on air conditioning. Rounding on something as seemingly mundane as air conditioning (§55) may strike some as eccentric. Critics suggest that it betrays the pope’s penchant for rhetorical carelessness or, worse, an improper intrusion into technical matters beyond the Church’s remit. Yet it alludes more aptly than might first appear to a crucially important question posed, if not fully answered, in the encyclical: How must we redesign society if we are to show a proper respect for nature? Or, to adapt Cardus’s house language: What would an ecologically responsible social architecture look like?

Context and Significance

The torrent of commentary already evoked by the document might be enough to deter anyone from putting their oar in at this “late” stage. The fact that, in the Internet age, remarks appearing more than two months after the appearance of a document seem hopelessly behind the curve (though I’m in great company) is an ironic confirmation, perhaps, of Francis’s lament over the relentless “rapidification” (§18) of contemporary culture. In any event, I won’t repeat the useful summarising work already done well by others. And I’ll resist the temptation to riff on how rival constituencies in the Catholic community have predictably sought to “read” Laudato Si’ in ways conducive to their own politics, instead of seeking to discern within it a possible pastoral rebuke to those politics.

The intriguing question of what or who is influencing Francis’s ecological thought is, however, worth two observations. First, in a welcome consultative gesture, Francis goes out of his way to echo regional episcopal statements on the environment, especially those representing poorer nations. This is in keeping with his emphatic desire to allow the voice of the poorest of the world to be heard much more loudly in environmental debates than they usually are (§48). They, after all, are the ones set to bear (and who are already bearing) the brunt of the environmental fecklessness of Western nations blighted by affluenza. They are indeed owed an enormous “ecological debt” (§51), yet in such debates “they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile” (§49).

Second, the frequency with which Benedict XVI and John Paul II are cited in Laudato Si’ should help lay to rest the premature hope—or fear, depending on one’s standpoint—that Francis’s pontificate heralds some kind of “progressivist” breakthrough in the Vatican. That Francis’s ideas are no radical departure from tradition but rather another creative “development” of the Church’s well-established social doctrine was already clear before Laudato Si’ appeared, and is amply confirmed in Eduardo Echeverria’s recent study, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II.

Beyond “Environmental Issues” to “the Ecological Crisis”

Yet Laudato Si’ is of historic significance as the first papal encyclical exclusively devoted to environmental issues. Not only that, it deploys the full weight of magisterial authority behind a passionate call for a far-reaching “ecological conversion” (§216ff.) involving every person, every institution, and potentially every aspect of human life. It sides decisively with those who have been arguing that we face not merely a series of discrete environmental “issues,” each solvable on their own terms by yet more technical fixes (§111), but rather a global “ecological crisis” (§15) of unprecedented scale, complexity, and severity, one mandating urgent and radical responses. It gives no comfort to those who claim that concerns about environmental degradation are being exaggerated or are somehow generated by a global conspiracy of leftist megalomaniacal bureaucrats carrying most of the world’s climate scientists in their pockets.

Laudato Si’ is replete with powerful insights on many dimensions of the ecological crisis and its impact on human life. It should be read as a “prophetic” document—not, of course, in the literal sense of “foretelling” future events but rather, as in most biblical prophecy, as “forth-telling”—speaking a timely and authoritative word of God at a moment of crisis. As a Protestant, I gratefully receive it as such—which is not to say, of course, that (unlike biblical prophecy) it is beyond criticism.

The 246-paragraph encyclical opens with disturbing, incriminating, and all-too-familiar reminders of the multiple symptoms of the global environmental crisis—pollution, loss of biodiversity, global warming, depletion of nonrenewable resources, deforestation, decline of fish stocks, and many more. But it also catalogs many of the damaging effects of this crisis on human well-being, such as widening inequality, rising sea levels, corrosive consumerism, and threats to local (especially indigenous) cultural communities powerless before larger economic forces (§145). We are indeed caught, Francis holds, in “a spiral of self-destruction” (§163).

Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. . . . The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. (§161)

Laudato Si’ should thus also be read as “lament” (the necessary prelude to prophecy). Yet Francis steers well clear of the bleak “catastrophism” of voices such as the Dark Mountain project, which asserts that “ecocide” is already upon us. For “hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps” (§61), that “gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we are made for love” (§58). Ultimately, this is because the “God who created the universe out of nothing can also intervene in this world and overcome every form of evil. Injustice is not invincible” (§74).

A Theology of the Labyrinth of Creation

The undergirding theology of Laudato Si’ is not original, but it is rich, profound, and compellingly articulated. This theology is metaphorically captured in the classic Franciscan notion that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (§2), and that “soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were a caress of God” (§84).

Its substantive content straddles cosmological, anthropological, sacramental, trinitarian, christological, contemplative, Marian, and other themes. What binds these together is an appealing rendition of the “relationality” or “interconnectedness” of all creatures, human and nonhuman—among themselves and, indispensably (pace secular environmentalism), with God (§66). Ultimately, “Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things. . . . Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection” (§77).

Thus, in what is a challenge to a persisting Christian anthropocentrism, Francis asserts that organisms and ecosystems “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness [to humans]” (§140). The current precipitous collapse of biodiversity of plants and animals, for example, is therefore at bottom a spiritual issue: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (§33). This vital nuance is missed in George Weigel’s technically correct statement that the encyclical is “primarily about us, and not primarily about trees, plankton, and the Tennessee snail darter.”

Francis’s theology of a creational labyrinth of reciprocal interdependency undergirds his forceful denunciation of the secular modernist ideology of human “mastery” over the nonhuman creation. The “tyrannical anthropocentrism” (§68) this entails—the assertion of “an unlimited right to trample [God’s] creation underfoot” (§75)—is a repudiation of the proper posture of human creatures as those “called to lead all creatures back to their Creator” (§83). Francis affirms this “priestly” role of humans alongside their “kingly” role as “responsible stewards” (§87) who are called to “till and keep” the earth—to cultivate and preserve it rather than ravage it for their own self-gratification (§§67, 82). Contrary to eco-centrism, these roles are bestowed uniquely on humans as those made in the image of God (§§60, 65, 78, 81).

Yet the result of the human ravaging of creation is that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (§21). We will only be fitted to take up that unique vocation again if we are indeed prepared to undergo an “ecological conversion,” the ramifications of which range from campaigning for political change at local, national, and global levels—practicing an “ecological citizenship” (§211)—to refashioning our lifestyles by embodying an “ecology of everyday life” (§147ff.), for example, reducing our dependence on “harmful habits of consumption” such as, yes, excessive air conditioning (§55).

Ecological Crisis and Social Architecture: “Integral Ecology”

Proceeding from these foundations, the “social architecture” Laudato Si’ gestures to is organized around the document’s leitmotif, the notion of an “integral ecology.” The term was coined by John Paul II but is elaborated extensively here. An integral ecology searches out the deep interconnections between environmental degradation and the social and economic forces that drive it. The “environment” is not just that physical stuff out there, so often experienced at worst as a constraint or at best as a mere resource. Rather it is “a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. . . . We are part of nature” (§139). The human and the natural environments sink or swim together, so that “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (§48). For “one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology” (§118).

We might elaborate that momentous claim with the aid of a concept proposed by Karl Polanyi. Human society is marked by an “embeddedness”: the economy (as Polanyi powerfully demonstrated) does not operate according to self-sustaining autonomous laws but is completely embedded in a network of dependencies on myriad social practices and relationships. But we must go beyond Polanyi to a “double embeddedness”: the whole of society, including the economy, is embedded in the enveloping and sustaining biophysical womb of nonhuman nature. An integral ecology does not regard such double embeddedness as a constraint to be surmounted—as if the relationship between human ambition and creation’s plenitude were one of competition or conflict—but receives it as a gift to be celebrated and honoured.

What, then, are the dominant social and economic forces wreaking such havoc on the environment, and on ourselves? Here Francis paints in arresting macro-level brush strokes illustrated by a series of evocative, concrete micro-examples. However, what is missing, I suggest, is something in between: an adequate meso-level analysis linking the macro to the micro. Some might suggest that one should not look for such a form of analysis in an encyclical, but it is precisely the force field between the macro and the micro generated in the document itself that invites it.

In the remainder of the first part of this article I’ll illustrate this claim with reference to the encyclical’s forceful critique of technology, and in part II, I’ll examine it in relation to markets and states.


The largest macro-stroke on Francis’s canvas is the proposal that the ecological crisis reflects the cultural pathologies of a globalized “dominant technocratic paradigm” (§101ff.). On the one hand, Francis praises the extraordinary advances brought to human life by modern science and technology as manifestations of “God-given creativity.” Yet on the other, he argues that while, formerly, the human use of nature was disciplined by receptivity, humility, and partnership, today’s awesome techno-scientific power has placed in human hands a “dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world” (§104). Our “undifferentiated and one-dimensional” conception of technology (§106) reflects a radical shift in the human stance toward nature. We now treat it as a formless, wholly manipulable object containing infinitely extractable resources for the satisfaction of human desire (§106). The result is that “technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” (§108)—even our relationship to our own bodies (§155). Our promethean lust for unbounded human freedom thus entraps us in a new kind of subordination—disclosing what Protestant philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd dubbed the contradictory “freedom-nature dialectic” of modern humanism (a notion applied to technology by Egbert Schuurman).

Francis’s stark account of modern technology recalls the penetrating but bleak analysis proposed by French Christian sociologist Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1954). Francis’s own source, however, is the austere Catholic critic of modernity Romano Guardini, whose book The End of the Modern World (1950) Francis cites several times. Francis seems to struggle here between determinism and hope: while today it is “inconceivable” that we could promote the idea of technology as a mere instrument (§111), we still retain the freedom to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is . . . more human, more social, more integral.” Mentioning, for example, small, nonconsumerist producer cooperatives using less polluting technologies, he yet holds out the hope that an “authentic humanity . . . seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (§112).

Such small-scale initiatives are indeed absolutely necessary, and not only in poorer countries. Would that there were thousands springing up everywhere. But I submit that we also need a wider structural analysis of the nature of and interdependencies—some of them constructive, others dangerously corrupting—between the various institutional players in the technocratic drama: science, corporations, capital markets, universities, governments, and, not least, the defense industry. For only with the aid of such a middle-level institutional analysis are we able to provide meaningful guidance for those working within these demanding institutional settings on how to nudge a domineering technology incrementally toward the alternative, “integral” model of progress Francis calls for.

The same point will emerge from an examination, in the next part of this article, of Laudato Si’s remarks on markets and states.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is currently Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.


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