Pope Francis’s Land Ethic, Part 3

In his recent encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis argued the necessity of taking the long view in thinking about environmental ethics. I discussed the encyclical’s argument in part 1, and compared it to Aldo Leopold’s famous “The Land Ethic” in part 2. Here, I want to explore the parallels between the land ethic of Laudato si’ and Leopold’s idea of “thinking like a mountain.”

Pope Francis catalogs the history of prior papal statements touching on the environment, a list which demonstrates the evolution of a land ethic in Catholic thought and the larger society. (Francis makes it clear that he is addressing all of us, not just Catholics). But his statement stands out for its focus and its depth, and its integration of even subtle details of ecological thought.

The encyclical’s discussion of biodiversity loss contains staggeringly Leopoldian language:

It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

And it goes on to describe the ways that human interventions in nature often beget more intervention, to the harm of all, a frequent theme of Leopold’s:

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. …[T]he degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.

Contrast that with this passage from “The Land Ethic”:

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. …

When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust themselves to it. Change does not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow of energy; evolution is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of which has been to elaborate the flow mechanism and to lengthen the circuit. Evolutionary changes, however, are usually slow and local. [Hu]man’s invention of tools has enabled him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.

Compare, too, Leopold’s discussion of “Thinking Like A Mountain,” my favorite essay in A Sand County Almanac, in which he describes how the extirpation of predators led to the eventual destruction of a mountain’s vegetation, and thus destroyed the deer population which predator control was meant to increase:

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

If any human institution has the capacity to think like a mountain, it must be one with the millennia of continuous history that we see in the Catholic church. The encyclical does cite earlier discussions of related themes in past Papal statements, though never in an encyclical dedicated to the environment, and the namesake Pope Francis chose is a powerful reminder that environmental themes have a long history in Catholic thought. Despite this history, Laudato si’ is the first formal environmental doctrine laid out for Catholicism, and that is a reminder of just how alien this style of thinking is, and how complex the task is that lies before us all as we confront climate change. Luckily, Pope Francis signals that his church is in this for the long haul:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

He lends the Church’s support to political action on climate change and environmental degradation, and also recognizes “We are faced with an educational challenge.” He calls for that challenge, a matter of ethical as well as scientific education, to take place “at school, in families, in the media, in catechesis and elsewhere. Good education plants seeds when we are young, and these continue to bear fruit throughout life.”

He knows, too, that the soil is ripe for such seeds: “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

And he knows the forms of denial that will bar progress:

Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem, to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.

But we have no choice other than to act:

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades… Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

Josh Rosenau
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Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

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