Dr. Todd LeVasseur is visiting assistant professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Charleston. His research interests include sustainability, religion and nature, and sustainable agriculture. LeVasseur is author of Religious Agrarianism and the Return of Place: From Values to Practice in Sustainable Agriculture (2017) and co-editor of Religion and Ecological Crisis: The “Lynn White Thesis” at Fifty (2016, with Anna Peterson), among other publications.
Ecology—(originally oecology) “branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments;” from German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, Ӧkologie, from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place” + -logia “study of”
I appreciate the opportunity to reflect and opine on the 5-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ welcome and needed encyclical, Laudato Si. I hope what I have to offer approaches the level of respect afforded the work of Pope Francis in calling attention to the very real and very sobering impacts of human-induced climate change, of human-driven loss of biodiversity, and of the structural environmental racism that define the lived experience for billions of my fellow human kin the world over.
I write from the perspective of someone trained in the academic study of religion and nature, approaching these entwined subjects from a naturalistic understanding for both. Key to this is that we are products of evolution—meaning so is the phenomenon and category of religion. We are therefore derivative products of combusting stars and, on our planet, the trophic pyramid, bound by basic laws of thermodynamics. In short, I am not an apologist for any religious tradition or perspective, as I do not approach what I study from a faith perspective but do so rather from a deeply agnostic perspective informed by a Western evolutionary (non-anthropic) epistemology. I instead investigate and analyze religious social data as these relate to how humans understand and conceive of and thus treat the natural, more-than-human world within which we have always been embedded; and how the natural world influences and informs the always ongoing social construction of religion.
The pope’s encyclical is therefore data for both processes: (1) it is a prime example of how a religious leader, guided through the teachings of his Catholic faith and tradition, understands the natural (for him, divinely created) world and thus the human place within it; and (2) his views on the natural world are clearly guided and thus socially constructed by emerging climate science and biological sciences related to conservation and species extinctions. The changing natural world—getting hotter and drier and with more severe climate-changed weather events, with decreasing biodiversity—was the background within which he wrote Laudato Si, where this changing natural world informed his Catholic views of the same. To this we must add the pope’s liberation theology background informed by a welcome and, from my perspective, needed Marxist critique of the excess ills of neoliberal capitalism. Ills both social and ecological, as rightfully delineated throughout the encyclical.
My response, then, comes from the above context. The encyclical is well meaning but optimistically naïve, as it appears unable to speak to deeper layers of what an evolutionary perspective of life (and death) suggests. Let me quickly explain:
There is an assumption in the encyclical that we are clear in our morality: that we are moral beings, acting in ways that are driven by care, or concepts of justice, or dictates of right/wrong. For the pope, these are tethered to a functionally coherent religious system, now updated by his letter. However, this most likely is not the case.
Humans often act immorally, without care, and without beneficial concepts of right and wrong. If we did not act in such ways, there’d probably not be a need for this encyclical. That in the letter the pope does point to the ills of capitalism—a functional religious system that caters to insatiable greed and immorality—is probably its most saliently needed ethical message. This is also salutary because capitalism and consumer advertising are probably more powerful in shaping our views of the natural world and justified actions towards it than are ethical teachings from religions.
Lastly, to speak of moral obligations when we are 60% banana in our DNA may be optimistic, especially when talking about not using fossil fuels. Most all species willingly and eagerly use available energy sources until they are exhausted (from bacteria to, it appears will be our case, humans), so I am not sure an ethical appeal to caring for a divine creation will stop 7.8 billion of us from acting against this base biological imperative.
The pope underestimates how fundamentalism, including in Catholicism, has politicized climate science, and in the United States, how Christian evangelical fundamentalism has taken over the Republican Party and made any action on climate change near impossible, including denouncements by Republican Catholics in the United States. This premeditated dynamic of obfuscation and maladaptive fundamentalist Christian engagement in the United States needs to be directly condemned by the pope and other religious leaders if religious groups are to make an impact on climate change.
This is the biggest opportunity of faith engagement on climate change: Religious leaders need to denounce anti-science and anthropocentric religious fundamentalism, especially in (White evangelical) Christianity in the United States, as being anti-life and as being theologically and morally bankrupt, especially in the context of rapid climate change.
There’s an assumption in the encyclical that religions tethered to monotheism (especially to a male-focused god), or other-worldly eternal residences where upon dying the faithful will go, can mobilize in their followers the required earth care needed to navigate, let alone stop, climate change. The data suggests the opposite—dominant world religions correlate to environmental destruction, whereas earth-centering religions that take evolution or kinship with the natural world seriously tend to promote more sustainable behaviors in their followers. Here we quickly enter charges of idolatry and paganism, though (charges the pope himself received).
The pope must still hold to basic Catholic teachings, even in his encyclical—heaven is still the final hoped for abode, while taking human population control as a serious climate change issue is not allowed in the pope’s Catholic pro-natalist theology. Yet we know that exponential human population growth is a key driver of both climate change and species extinction. Exponential growth of any single species in an ecosystem almost always leads to collapse of that species and biological impoverishment of its ecosystem/s—we are not immune from this evolutionary trend.
This brings me to my final point: Even in a religious work that takes science seriously, it still does not take it seriously enough. From not mentioning human carrying capacity, to the evolutionary reality that 99% of all species have gone extinct, to how rapidly climate tipping points are being crossed that suggest massive die off of humans, the pope’s encyclical, like most all other dominant religious tradition statements’ on climate change, does not take evolution seriously enough to be considered integral statements. They all neglect to ask the key question implied by ecology and evolution: Are we integral to the functioning of our planetary home? Right now, the data tragically suggests the answer is “no.”
To date I am ambivalent that religiously grounded moral exhortations that most followers will not read or follow, especially in a U.S. context, will sustain any sort of faith coalition that will mobilize enough humans to take climate change seriously. Sadly, I do not see this changing in the time we have left to radically redesign everything to keep us from going over the 2-degree Celsius warming we know we can’t eclipse. If moral statements do influence religious followers, then we needed such letters and exhortations from people in all religions, at massive scale and from top-down leadership, back in the 1970s when there was still time to create policies and economic incentives to move away from fossil fuels and live within the earth’s carrying capacity.