INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: The Context and Meaning of Integral Ecology in Laudato Si’

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 18 September) — Based on Thomas Berry’s account of the Universe Story, the birth of ecological age arguably happened in 1968, when the astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission documented their unique experience of seeing the beauty of the Earth from the moon and brought back to us the first photographs of the Earth from space known as Earth Rise.

“The Birth of Ecological Age” painted by Umajamnon tribe artist Jessie Lahindao / Photo courtesy of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

Al Gore remarked that the Earth Rise photograph “exploded into the consciousness of humankind” and, within two years, it gave birth to “the modern environmental movement,” including the annual Earth Day celebration every April 22.[1]

We are Integral Parts of the Earth

You may criticize this Earth photograph by saying: it’s not the picture of the real Earth we know. The real Earth has plants, fish, birds, animals, and humans. Well, that is true. But do you know why we and other fellow earthlings are not visible in this beautiful Earth photograph? It is because all of us are deeply united with Earth to the effect that we form one single unit. We are integral parts of the Earth as a whole.

This Earth photograph from space offers a new ecological worldview that “the Earth and humankind make up a single entity.[2] Thus, it powerfully visualizes the integral ecological principle that “everything is related to everything else in all respects.”[3]

The Earth has Bleeding Wounds

It is not enough to see the Earth photograph. We need to turn our gaze to the actual realities on Earth.Presently, this small, fragile, and precious planet Earth is suffering from, at least, two bleeding wounds: dehumanizing poverty and devastating ecological crisis.[4] Both wounds make the poor and the Earth cry out simultaneously.

On one hand, the wound of dehumanizing poverty has been bleeding for centuries due to several forms of oppression and violence suffered by the poor children of the Earth. On the other hand, the wound of ecological crisis is getting worse due to the systematic assault on the Earth in the guise of development. Apparently, both wounds appear to be human-induced.

Integral Ecology as Uniting All Ecologies in a Coherent Perspective

To heal the Earth’s bleeding wounds, a number of ecological therapies have emerged: Technological Ecology, Political Ecology, Human Ecology, Social Ecology, Mental Ecology, Ethical Ecology, and Deep Ecology. Moreover, the greening of other fields continues: ecological economics, ecological engineering, ecological agriculture, ecological spirituality, ecological theology, etc.

To unite all ecologies into a coherent perspective, Hillary B. More used the term integral ecology for the first time in 1958.[5] As described by subsequent authors, integral ecology is “a framework that allows all aspects of reality to connect with what has traditionally been associated with the scientific study of ecology.” [6] 

Integral Ecology as Moving Beyond Green Movement

In order to become integral, ecological reflection has to move “beyond its early stage as a green movement or one to protect and save endangered species.”[7] Consequently, ecological advocacy today can no longer be reduced to conservationism, preservationism, and environmentalism. It must also pay attention to the conditions of poverty and all forms of social crisis, as these can be considered “ecological aggressions against the most complex being of creation, the human being.”[8]

Moreover, this sense of integral ecology invites us not to separate the cry of the Earth from the cry of the poor. It would be pretentious to claim that we care for God’s creation if we do not care for the ongoing marginalization and impoverishment of the most complex of creation—the human beings.

Furthermore, Leonardo Boff explained that this integral ecological perspective seeks to articulate “a new alliance between societies and nature.” It presupposes that “society and culture also belong to the ecological complex. … In this holistic perspective, economic, political, social, military, educational, urban, agricultural and other questions are all subject to ecological consideration.”[9]  It can be argued that this overarching claim of ecology with its liberative notion of integral ecology may have “provided a direct inspiration for Pope Francis.”[10]

The Meaning of Integral Ecology in Laudato Si’

Laudato Si’ repeatedly affirms the integral ecological principle that “Everything is inter-connected” (LS 70, 138, 240). Building on this principle, the notion of integral ecology tries to bring together the environmental, economic, social, cultural, and everyday life ecologies (see LS 138–55), including the ethical principles of the common good, human rights, intergenerational justice, and the intrinsic value of nature (see LS 140).[11]

Pope Francis invites us to see “everything [as] closely interrelated and [to listen to his] … call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis” (LS 137). [12] It is clear that the solutions to the complex causes of global crisis “will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality” and “cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests” (LS 110). Thus, aside from scientific theories and interdisciplinary mediations, the Pope insists that there is a need to critically include “various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” (LS 63).

To enhance its religious and theological elements, Pope Francis emphasizes that the content of integral ecology includes “taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us” (LS 255).

To give it a sacred face, he declares Saint Francis of Assisi as “the example par excellence of … an integral ecology” that testifies the inseparable bond “between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS 10).

“No One is Saved Alone”

In his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reiterates his call to embrace the perspective of integral ecological in the face of the pandemic challenges: “To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves … as a single family dwelling in a common home.”[13] Elsewhere, the Pope strongly declares that “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”[14] This holistic view can be interpreted ecologically to mean that, in times of pandemic, people cannot save themselves without caring for their common home. The fate of humankind is inseparable from the fate of the planet Earth.

Responding to the cry of the poor and the Earth remains a constant challenge especially for the church. Integral ecological perspective is not only concern for the health and safety of the people but also works for the preservation of the sustainability of the Earth’s ecosystems. Yes, we need to heal as one, but together with our planet.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.]

[1] Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We can Do about It (New York: Melcher Media, 2006), 12.

[2]  Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, translated by Phillip Berryman (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 14.

[3] Leonardo Boff, Ecology and Liberation: A New Paradigm, translated by John Cumming (New York: Orbis Books, 1995), 10.

[4] On similar view, see Leonardo Boff, “Liberation Theology and Ecology: Alternative, Confrontation or Complementarity?” Concilium(1995/5): 67-77, on p. 67.

[5] Hilary B. Moore, Marine Ecology (New York: John Wiley and Sons; London: Chapman and Hall, 1958).

[6] Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman, Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2009), 42.

[7] Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, 4.

[8] Leonardo Boff, “Social Ecology: Poverty and Misery,” in David Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (New York: Orbis Books, 1994): 235-247, on p. 237.

[9] Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizondo, “Ecology and Poverty: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor,” Concilium: International Journal of Theology (1995/5), ix-x.

[10] Ryszard Feliks Sadowski, “Inspirations of Pope Francis’ Concept of Integral Ecology,” Seminare, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2016): 69-82, on p. 78.

[11] For a good explanation of integral ecology, see Thomas Reese, “Integral Ecology: Everything is Connected,” National Catholic Reporter (August 27, 2015). Online: http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/integral-ecology-everything-connected (accessed 14 October 2015).

[12] For a good article on this topic, see Guillermo Kerber, “‘Everything Is Interrelated’: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Integral Ecology,” The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October 2020): 596-608, on pp. 603-604.

[13] Francis, Fratelli Tutti: On the Fraternity and Social Friendship (3 October 2020), no. 17; https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.pdf (accessed 10 October 2020).

[14] Francis, Fratelli Tutti, no. 32.

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