Laudato Si’ study guide – Chapter 3: The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis

Benedictine Abbot John Klassen of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville is a former chemistry instructor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
Benedictine Abbot John Klassen of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville is a former chemistry instructor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

Pope Francis wrote his encyclical, “Laudato Si’” for “every person living on the planet” not only to read but also to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” In an effort to keep the conversations going, The Visitor is publishing a six-part faith formation series in which guest writers help to “unpack” what the Holy Father said in the letter and offer reflection questions and actions to respond to his message. This useful guide is intended to help readers grasp the overall content and encourage further study and dialogue in homes and parishes. This is part three of the series.

This chapter is very important to understanding Pope Francis’ overall account of the environmental challenges we as a human family face in our common home.

In turn, Pope Francis notes the ever-accelerating scientific and technological advances of the past two centuries, the accompanying globalization of a technological paradigm that cuts across all cultures, the negative impact of a human-centered anthropology, and finally a pervasive relativism that emerges from all of these narratives. The title of the chapter and the ideas expressed therein fly in the face of those who want to argue that the most serious ecological challenges we face are not caused by human activity.

Human beings are naturally curious. Pope Francis notes that we seek to understand how things work and how our world is put together. We are engaged with the world around us. And we are the most social of creatures, readily sharing stories and ideas if we are given a forum to do so. As smart as chimpanzees and orangutans are, having real problem solving abilities, they do not build airplanes or develop new antibiotics. Human beings are blessed with a creative, inquisitive, dynamic intelligence.

Scientific research, technological application. In the early days of contemporary science, researchers tended to work in isolation, usually connected to a university. Ideas about atoms and molecules, electricity, gravity, the theory of the biological cell and evolution, and the expansion of the universe, were tested and either confirmed and denied by experiment over decades. At present, the separation of basic research and its application to real-life problems is nearly gone. Think about the developments in our understanding of human physiology and biochemistry or the development of new, specific medications and antibiotics. Who could have imagined that we would map the entire human genome or genetically modify plants and other organisms?

Technology as god. Pope Francis expresses the concern that we as human beings have become so accomplished at solving problems with technology that we believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we can solve all problems through the use of technology. Under the influence of this belief, we don’t need God, faith, or prayer to fix things — we just need to get the right people on the problem! And we just need enough time and money.

Globalization of “the illusion of technique.” Another feature of these attitudes toward science and technology is their mobility across all boundaries of race, culture and geography. The phenomenon of globalization is itself one of the significant outcomes of scientific and technological know-how. If you go to Tanzania, they have largely bypassed a land line phone system — there are cell phones everywhere!

In all of this there is one pronounced flaw: As humans we can’t see the consequences of the rapid implementation of new technologies on the larger ecosystem. For example, the widespread use of Roundup-ready seeds creates the conditions for nature to develop weeds that “eat Roundup for breakfast.” Or our ability to work with the human genome leads us to want to experiment with the genome of fertilized eggs.
Finally, Pope Francis is concerned that rapid technology change reinforces a throwaway culture. For example, consumers are urged to lock into a program where one automatically buys a new smart phone every year — just pitch last year’s model even though it still works well. But it is not the latest!

ls-chapt3Everything is connected. Pope Francis insists that we as human family can never separate our commonweal from the health of the entire ecosystem of the planet. If in the development and application of new technologies, we do so in a manner that is oblivious to the consequences for human and non-human lives, that “constant schizophrenia” will come back to haunt us. Moreover, the arrogance and short-sighted thinking that our science and technology are good enough to bypass serious ethical reflections about who we are as human beings, what we owe each other at all stages of human life, what we owe future generations, and what we owe to the planet itself, foster attitudes that will prove to be hugely destructive. “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.”

A new synthesis is needed, one that will put human beings in the correct relationship with creation. If we put human beings at the top, front and center, without regard for the rest of creation, we will make our needs ultimate and final, never judging accurately the cost to non-human animals, plants, soil and aquatic systems.

Pope Francis expresses his deep concern that humankind is lapsing into a collective relativism, a system of loosely held ideas where there are no real boundaries to human actions. The operative ethical principle becomes utility, what is useful to us today — not respect for life from beginning to end; not good stewardship and commitment to future generations; not conservation, simplicity and frugality; not protecting the young, the poor and the vulnerable from horrific exploitation. Just what is useful to us, to me, today.

Employment and work. Pope Francis expresses the importance of communities having an ongoing, active plan to develop opportunities for meaningful employment for all. In the absence of such a plan, companies employing new technologies are always reducing the number of jobs, or lowering the skill and wages offered. Interestingly, he points to monasteries as examples of communities where work, the reading of Scripture, and manual labor are integrated into the fabric of daily life.

Agriculture is a major business in this diocese which has undergone huge changes in the past 50 years. It is both capital and technology intensive. Over the past 25 years, small dairy farms (40-70 cows) have given way to more medium and large-size dairies that take advantage of robotic milking parlors and other technologies. At present, there are a significant number of farmers who steward thousands of acres of land. Much of this expansion is driven by a market in which profit margins are vanishingly small and the risks are huge. One has to have a strong stomach to be a farmer.

Call to Action

Does your community reflect together on making sure that there are good jobs available for people who want to work? How entrepreneurial is your community? What favors or blocks new businesses? Creating good jobs is community business.

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The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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