Call to an ecological conversion
In the encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has drawn connections between the state of the environment and several causal factors. He observes that the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together, and we “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. The demand on natural resources in countries like Australia deprives the poor of the world of the resources they need for urgent purposes. There is no way that the biosphere can sustain our level of consumption, for example our level of car ownership or air travel.
The environmental crisis emerges from a wrong understanding of nature. Francis characterises the dominant view today as the way humanity has taken up technology and its development according to a “one-dimensional paradigm” – a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation. This has made it easy to accept the idea of unlimited growth. “It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit”. Nature is “viewed solely as a source of profit and gain”, with the consequences of “injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity”.
Central to the stand we take on the environment is our view of the world and of what constitutes the good life. It is important to go beyond the dominant paradigm and to embrace a new one. Pope Francis argues: “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems… There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking… a lifestyle and a spirituality”. My response to the encyclical is to reflect on the light it throws on this distinctive way of thinking and being.
In the encyclical’s view the different living species of the world are not mere resources, but “they have value in themselves”. Furthermore, in the Christian perspective, nature is a locus of God’s presence. “The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature, and calls us to enter into relationship with him.” This vision calls for a profound “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of people’s encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.
A vocation grounded in our local place
Following such a conversion, I believe that today many people have been called to an explicitly ecological vocation. Its spirituality is one of full engagement with the world—a vibrant, creative life, characterised by justice, non-violence, ecological practice, and building community. This vocation is also a journey, a pilgrimage of a kind that differs greatly from one person to another. Generally, in sharp contrast to the practice of global capitalism, it will start from the local, with a strong sense of the place in which we live and all that is special to it.
For many people today, the journey involves growing food and producing what they need locally. Pope Francis observes that “there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards, and in gardens”.
In Melbourne, for example, groups of people are developing the most diverse and productive gardens in private yards or community plots. Trees, shrubs, vegetables, and animals are all integrated, often in ways that mimic wild ecosystems. As well as constituting a key to the good life, such activities have wide environmental implications, such as reducing the need for long-distance transport.
Some may regard such lifestyles as austere. But in fact they embody a distinctive view of the good life. As the encyclical notes: “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption”.
As part of my own journey, I have been active in ‘friends’ groups that work to restore elements of the indigenous ecology through planting, weeding, and monitoring. We plant the local indigenous species. These maintain a continuity with the ecosystems of ancient times, and are the key to biodiversity. Through this work, we become familiar with our own place, with its own character, its own mystery.
We discover too the spatial patterns in the landscape and the connections between present and past. The whole countryside is crisscrossed by corridors rich in remnants of the original ecosystems. They run along rivers and creeks, along roadsides and railway reserves, forming a rich ecological matrix. The ecosystems were shaped by topography, geology, rainfall, and the history of human use, going back to Aboriginal management in the profound culture of the Dreaming. This landscape is full of power and meaning, if we care to encounter it.
I hope many will respond to the Pope’s call for a new dialogue about how we shape the future of the planet, that many will hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the people. This time of violence against people and against nature is a time for us to stand up to power, and a time to articulate our distinctive vision of the good life. Our active political life needs to be informed by our inner life, one of awareness and reflection, leading us ever deeper into the mystery of creation.