Redemptorists of Australia and New Zealand

Australia, New Zealand and Samoa

Province of Oceania

Bringing Good News to the World

An open minded ecology

Anthony Kelly CSsR

Raging bushfires, dreadful drought, and political bickering affect any talk about ecology. It has become a battleground of different views and antagonisms. Christian faith dares not raise its head—or dares too much as with the devout Israel Folau’s eschatological threats. Pope Francis and others have been stressing that an integral ecology is called for: you cannot have a genuine ecology if any vital aspect of life is excluded. How can it be “integral” if it ignores the transcendent source and end of our inter-relational existence, or if sets itself apart from the real being of the universe in which all things participate and exist in an interconnectedness and communion.

What has become the ideal is widespread collaboration of the sciences and economics, but especially in those areas with a specifically human concentration such as anthropology, sociology, politics, and art, and more, since no area of knowledge or exploration—theology and philosophy, for instance—can be left out of the conversation. For all nonetheless, this requires a proper docility regarding properly scientific analyses of the situation on such questions as the history of climate change, the spread of desertification, the degree of ocean warming, necessary political strategies, and so on. Others can make their best contribution in terms of faith, theology, spirituality, morality, as well as a range of philosophical questions dealing with the distinctiveness of the human, the integral meaning of ecology, the phenomenon of human consciousness, and its place in the community of living things. Some theological ingredient is essential lest ‘strange gods’ begin demanding human sacrifice or at least the sacrifice of intelligence.

Ecological concerns can occasion serious levels of depression, disillusionment conflict. In the present critical period, the field of ecology can seem to many as a zone of irreconcilable conflicts in which no one ever learns or experiences an open-minded meeting with others. Hopefully, by evoking a larger religious and philosophical horizon, the danger of ideological divisiveness and monodimensional mindsets might be avoided in the interests of a genuinely integral ecology. Inevitably, there will be opposing points of view even though there are new modes of collaboration to be discovered and more inclusive and respectful conversations to be conducted. An integral ecology holds the promise of a more authentic humanity. We are impelled to communicate at the onset of a “common era” of appreciation of the wonder and diversity of life on this planet.

Hopefully, by evoking a larger religious and philosophical horizon, the danger of ideological divisiveness and monodimensional mindsets might be avoided in the interests of a genuinely integral ecology.

An anthropocentic mindset assumes that only the human matters, and all else in heaven and on earth was for the sake of our human well-being and progress. In contrast to such silly self-regard is an appreciation of the role and responsibility of the human within the “sublime communion” of life on planet Earth. This does not demean other forms of life in this biosphere, past or present, nor does it presume that divine creativity was exhausted with the human. It does, however, point to quite a special mission of the human in “caring for our common home”—to quote the subtitle of Pope Francis’s encyclical. The phenomenon of human consciousness, the human capacity to know and respond the wonder and beauty of life, necessarily casts us human beings into the role of being, not only immersed in the ecology of life on earth but also of being ecological agents on this planet. The emergence of the human brings a capacity to register meaning beyond sense impressions, to respond to value beyond instinctual attractions, and to awaken to moral consciousness. It means living beyond the confines of a mere habitat, and entering an expanding world, and awakening as a participant in a boundless universe. Loving our neighbour must mean loving our planetary neighbourhood...and more besides..

In that respect, there is a distinctiveness of the human which—regardless of how much it shares a genetic inheritance with other animals—which must be respected and defended. After all, there have been no reports so far of a pod of whales holding a conference on the declining quality of plankton, or of leopards gathering to plan a cosmetic makeover to change their spots, or of dolphins who, after meeting in prayer, have decided to assert the rights of fish. We have no information of any lemmings exploring less wasteful organizational procedures, or of the higher apes writing monographs on the meaning of life. Any developments in such directions have so far escaped detection. As a result, questions of meaning and value, of a universal sense of the totality and our responsibility within it, seem to be left to the human. With all other animals, the human being breathes the air of this planet; but human consciousness inhales the atmosphere of another realm—original and ultimate.

From Aristotle on, previous generations spoke of the human as the “rational animal” (zoon logikon in Greek, animal rationale in Latin). This was the classic description of the human as the biophysical lifeform that can reflect on itself, and even reflect on its own reflecting. Through evolutionary biology, there is new understanding of the process in which human existence has emerged, with a rediscovery of the basic animality of the human. The human is not somehow circling the globe looking for a temporary physical habitation. Rather, the human animal shares with all other animals a common emergence and structure in a biophysical world, with needs, emotions, and the instincts to bond, reproduce, care for young, and so forth.

Yet there remains the “rational” aspect—that strange capacity in the human for thought and freedom. It is the capacity for reflective openness to everything—from the genetic makeup of our bodies and the brain’s trillion neurons, to the phenomenon of consciousness itself—and all its manifestations in faith, science, philosophy, art—in an integral ecology. The connotations, first of all, are largely negative: integral ecology is not to be realised by excluding any domain or dimension of knowledge from consideration. In this regard, it envisages, however imperfectly, not only particular ecological niches, or even larger habitats, or even the whole terrestrial biosphere, but the incomprehensible totality of existence and life as registered in human consciousness. It is to be received, as in Pope Francis’s phrase, as a gift of “sublime communion” [LS n. 92, 221].

Clearly, integral ecology does not begin from a ready-made synthesis; it is always in the making. From our experience of bodily consciousness emerge science and all scientific specializations. However, rather than take for granted the post-Enlightenment fragmentation of knowledge and the endless proliferation of specializations that distract from living, concrete experience, it is crucial to be immersed in reality as it is given. Before any the endless objective analysis of science and computerized records, life is given in ways that precede concepts, systems or even verbal formulae. What is given is that we consciously exist and coexist, immersed and participating in the inexpressible totality of the universe. This embodied participation in the universe is the precondition for all scientific and practical knowledge.

Complex cultural and social conditions have tended to mute the revelatory power of religious and even philosophical language in its deepest registers of meaning. As a result, a genuinely integral ecology impossible is all-but impossible. The current ecological crisis, however, calls for a new collaboration within an expanded horizon broad enough to include conscious connections with the biosphere of this earth, and with the all-encompassing cosmic reality. In this respect, an integral ecology must go beyond particular descriptions of earthly life to include an ecology of meaning, mind and spirit. Here, the accent is on connections, interconnections, implications, and analogical linkages, so that a new “framework for collaborative creativity” might result.

Finally, just as despair is fundamentally a failure of imagination, real hope is formed out of the active imagination of those who have the humility to recognize this earth as the shared body of our existence. Imagination regains its courage when it is prepared to diagnose the harm caused by the refusal of our earthly status. More positively, creativity is newly inspired to the degree we give ourselves to a more intimate collaboration with the gracious mystery of Life, however it has been revealed to us.