This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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4.8. The Natural Environment

A long-standing concern

“Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” So writes Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. And he is not alone. In 1971, Paul VI said: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk, of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.” Following this same line of thought, Benedict XVI wrote that:

“The relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God. When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.”[1]

As we will see in what follows, man has a distinct responsibility to minister to God’s creation in its entirety. This is particularly important at this time, considering the response Pope Francis has received when speaking on this subject. For example, some writers seem to suggest (as is common among persons who’ve never taken the time to read the encyclicals themselves), that Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ represents some new venture on the part of the Church—a departure from its customary range of subject matter.

On the contrary, the Catechism states that “creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness…for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him.”[2] Through creation we find life, realize our potentialities, come into relationships with one another, and, through its contemplation, are directed toward God.[3]

In order to drive home the continuity between past popes and Francis, we will pause on his immediate predecessor, who repeatedly emphasized the Church’s concern for the environment. To take only a sample of the former pontiff’s many statements on this point:

“Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family.”[4]

“The order of creation demands that a priority be given to those human activities that do not cause irreversible damage to nature, but which instead are woven into the social, cultural, and religious fabric of the different communities. In this way, a sober balance is achieved between consumption and the sustainability of resources.”[5]

“The ecological crisis offers a historic opportunity to develop a common plan of action aimed at orienting the model of global development toward greater respect for creation and for an integral human development inspired by the values proper to charity in truth.”[6]

“We are all responsible for the protection and care of the environment. This responsibility knows no boundaries. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity it is important for everyone to be committed at his or her proper level, working to overcome the prevalence of particular interests.”[7]

“The deterioration of nature is… closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.” “The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us bearings that guide us as stewards of his creation. Precisely from within this framework, the Church considers matters concerning the environment and its protection intimately linked to the theme of integral human development.”[8]

If we seem to be over-emphasizing the point, it is only because this issue has been ill-received by certain circles, so much so that it warrants a thoroughly prepared defense on the part of the faithful. The curious reader will have no problem multiplying these references by searching through the many documents provided by the Vatican online.

[1] Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, September 1, 2007.

[2] CCC, 299.

[3] CCC, 287-307.

[4] Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, September 1, 2007.

[5] Message to the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization for the Celebration of World Food Day, October 16, 2006.

[6] Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] General Audience, August 26, 2009.

A legitimate concern

Having established a consensus between the popes, we can see that Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’  is simply the latest confirmation on behalf of the Church that the environmental crisis is a very real and legitimate subject of discussion. It can no longer be denied a rightful place in political discourse, and in fact demands our attention. Francis begins his treatment by lamenting that the earth,

“now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”[1]

Nor is it any longer possible to deny the role of human activity in this process. Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.[2] Such is the responsibility that is tied with the human dominion over the earth. Other factors may come into play, but it is the human factor which is predominate both as problem and solution.[3]

[1] LS, 2.

[2] LS, 3.

[3] LS, 23.

Proper attitudes toward the environment

In a way, by arriving at a discussion of nature and our attitude toward it, we have arrived at the most basic expression of the principle that grace presupposes nature. The created universe and the life that unfolds within it are the foundation of existence outside of which grace would have no meaning or way of being brought to fruition. In this sense, we must consider creation as a good, as something given in order to make love between man and God a concrete possibility, and we must respect it as such, and not pretend that it is a dead thing with nothing other than a purely utilitarian value.

Because of this lofty purpose behind creation, our attitude toward it impacts our attitude toward life in general, including our attitude toward ourselves:

The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa…Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable.”[1]

In order to further understand this connection, we can say that the environment is a collective good,[2] and is therefore closely linked up with the common good, and so it is fair to say that a disregard for the environment is counter to a basic principle of Catholic Social Teaching. Respect and care for the environment is a duty not only because of the consequences it may have for the living, but because we also are to act as stewards for future generations. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we are one with the earth, for our very bodies are made up of its elements. It is through this connection that we can say truly:

“God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”[3]

We are not given dominion over the earth in order to exploit it at will. Such interpretations of the biblical imperative to “till it and keep it”[4] are perversions of the truth.[5] “If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the young.”[6] The utilization of nature’s gifts must be coupled with the restraint of a caring husbandman.

[1] CV, 51; See also LS, 92.

[2] CSDC, 466.

[3] EG, 215.

[4] Gen 2:15.

[5] LS, 66-67.

[6] Deut 24:6.

A crisis of selfishness

The problem of the environment has its roots in self-centeredness. “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.”[1]

This diagnosis points to the only solution, which is the turning away from self toward the world. Francis calls all people of good will “to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”[2] So long as we remain insulated by our egoism, we will remain numb to the consequences of our actions and those of our society on the created order. It is also vital for us to remember that our internalizing the violence done to the environment is not purely an imaginary exercise. The social and the environmental are concretely linked, meaning that what we have before us is not a dichotomy between social and environmental crises, but rather one complex crisis that involves both.[3]

[1] Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone (6 August 2008).

[2] LS, 19.

[3] LS, 139.

Disproportionate responsibilities

“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together,”[1] and this deterioration will always take its greatest toll on the weakest members of society. Here, as elsewhere, the principle of the preferential option for the poor must be taken into consideration.[2] This is not only because they are in an economic position that is by definition weak, but also because, on a global level especially, poorer peoples rely more directly on the natural environment for their sustenance when it comes to forestry, agriculture, fishing, etc.

Likewise, because excessive consumption is found, and is in fact sought by, the wealthiest areas of the world, it is only just to recognize that there are “differentiated responsibilities” depending on the needs, lifestyles, and capabilities of a society.[3]

The reality of this disproportion in impact of the environmental crisis explains the tendency of rich nations to deny or ignore the problem entirely. In fact, because the recognition of the problem would result in a duty on their part to take action, they have a vested interest in denying its existence.[4] The poor, and not merely the natural environment, become the collateral damage of their indifference.[5] And so Pope Francis reminds us that the questions of society and ecology cannot be separated, but that the earth and her poor cry out in unified suffering.[6]

[1] LS, 48.

[2] LS, 25, 48.

[3] LS, 52.

[4] LS, 26.

[5] LS, 49, 123.

[6] Ibid.

Against economism and short-sightedness

Much of the problem comes from the tendency of the economy, which automatically prioritizes short-term benefits, to overrule any long-term considerations.[1] This is to be expected once the economic interests take precedence over political and social interests. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.”[2] This allows government officials, businessmen, and all other economic participants to blind themselves to the reality of their situation.

“Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”[3]

[1] LS, 54.

[2] EG, 56.

[3] LS, 59.

Value of resources as capital

The very real deficiencies in the capitalist ideology become especially evident when considering creation itself. If we were to guess that there was one thing that capitalism could understand, it would be capital, but we find that even here it goes immediately astray. Natural resources, for example, are of two kinds: renewable and non-renewable. Non-renewable resources follow the laws of capital—and this is true even if we treat them, not like capital, but like income. What this means is that, just as any business enterprise requires a certain amount of capital in order to sustain itself, so does the operation of any industry presuppose the capital that is present in the earth. Now, any business would become immediately alarmed if their business plan itself called for a constant consumption of its capital, and did not contain any possible means of replenishing this capital. We would see immediately that such an enterprise was doomed to fail, because it was doomed to consume its own capital. We would see immediately that such a business model was “unsustainable.” And likewise, any economic theory that chooses not to acknowledge non-renewable resources as a form of capital, but rather chooses to treat them as income to be disposed of at will, is not sustainable either.

And yet the laws of the market place, particularly in the capitalist framework, cannot account for such a thing as non-renewable resources as capital. They are thus doomed to consume their own means until they go under: it is only a matter of time. This is because capitalism presupposes an infinite universe, or at least has no real way of imposing self-limitations required by a finite universe. Because of this inability to acknowledge reality as we find it—that is to say, limited—capitalism has no way of dealing with non-renewable resources, but treats all resources precisely the same: as fuel for production, to be used as heavily and as quickly as profit and efficiency allow. No limit enters into its calculus until it is imposed by reality. There is no such thing as foresight in such a mentality—there is no such thing as consideration for the future—there is only the law of the marketplace, and this law only works in the present, one transaction at a time. If it comes to a conflict between a non-economic consideration, such as the future well-being of a civilization, and present profit, the latter will always take priority. Thus, K.L. Kenrick once reflected, “We did not realize that Capitalism was prepared to destroy the human race in order to save itself.”

Value as beauty

John Paul II observed that “Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity.”[1] This contemplative potential infuses the earth with an effect that is therapeutic, and effect that Christ himself was to appreciate.[2] This effect is rendered null and even reversed when the beauty of nature is disfigured. “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”[3] “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal…”[4]

One of the fundamental ways through which the power and beauty of creation is manifest is through its diversity. It is precisely this diversity which is being constantly diminished through the abuse and exploitation of nature:

“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.”[5]

The lifestyle of the developed nations of the world is engineering a heritage of ugliness and want for future generations. It is as if the only beauty we acknowledge is that which we have manufactured and which will be necessarily artificial:

“[A] sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention…is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey…We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”[6]

Such an attitude is hubris plain and simple. We must keep our limitations ever before us. For example, we must realize that even in those situations where we acknowledge the violence we have done, it is sometimes not within our efforts to reverse the damage. We can replace a deforested zone through the plantation of trees, but the richness of what came before will not be equaled by the homogenous uniformity that we erected in its place.[7] The fragility of nature’s beauty is exemplified when yet another species becomes extinct: it shows us again and again that certain beauties are irreplaceable and are in this sense priceless. Their value cannot be calculated.[8]

When dealing with nature we must keep in mind the principle enunciated by St. John Paul II, which was that the unintended consequences of our actions will always outnumber the intended ones.[9]

[1] St. John Paul II, Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 14.

[2] LS, 97.

[3] LS, 21.

[4] LS, 44.

[5] LS, 33.

[6] LS, 34.

[7] LS, 39.

[8] LS, 36.

[9] VS, 77.

Value as truth

The created world has a further value in that, if properly appreciated, can and does lead us toward the knowledge of higher things. It is an expression of truth.[1] “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”[2] “Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.”[3] Indeed, in a very real sense “all things are God.”[4]

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, this is not to be taken as some sort of vague sentimentalism, but is a necessary truth about human knowledge. From the material world, we can be directed to invisible truths. Moreover, this invites us to a consideration of every aspect of creation and its symbolic value: like man and all living things, the environment has its natural rhythm which cannot be ignored with degrading it[5]; the land must be given a rest and not abused to the point of barrenness as if it were a disposable commodity[6]; the earth, like life itself, proclaims the glory of God,[7] is good,[8] and is in that regard loved by God himself.[9]

[1] CV, 49.

[2] Rom 1:20.

[3] LS, 233.

[4] St. John of the Cross, Cántico Espiritual, XIV, 5.

[5] SRS, 26.

[6] Lev 25:1-7.

[7] Dan 3:56-82.

[8] Gen 1:1-31.

[9] Mt 6:25-34.

Respect for creation cannot coincide with present lifestyle

The lifestyle of hedonism, consumerism, and maximized profit are in direct opposition to the proper valuation of natural resources and ecology,[1] whether we are talking about its consideration as capital, the enrichment provided by its beauty, or its witness to God’s glory. Of these, the latter two are particularly non-economic values which market logic cannot in any way account for.[2] In fact, it is difficult to conceive of the environmental problem outside of the context of modern economic errors such as maximized profit and the consumerist mentality.[3] The doctrine of self-interest in particular has no place in a society respectful of the environment,[4] which cannot withstand opportunistic exploitation with no regard to the present or future state of humanity. Concern for the created world is a duty—a possession of God’s gifted to the whole human race[5]—and must be considered as linked with the principle of the universal destination of goods. To squander resources and sully the land is not merely to be guilty of individual acts of irresponsibility, but is to directly attack the rights of others:

“The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole…Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.”[6]

[1] CV, 51.

[2] CA, 40.

[3] CA, 37.

[4] SRS, 34.

[5] Lev 25:23.

[6] CV, 48, 51.

Human ecology

The parallel between our attitude toward nature and that which we display toward ourselves as persons has been spoken of by the popes as the human ecology:

“The deterioration of nature is… closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.”[1]

In employing this phrase, they mean to illustrate that the processes and thriving of humanity are fostered by respect for the processes and thriving of nature. If you care little for the one, you will unintentionally despise the other:

“If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development.”[2]

To teach children moral norms such as natural family planning, and then show utter disregard for the overarching world which inform these norms, is to undermine the teachings themselves by dividing a conclusion from its logical demonstration. How could the dictates of natural law be taken seriously when those who preach them take no care for nature itself?

[1] Benedict XVI, General Audience, August 26, 2009.

[2] CA, 37.

Population control is not the answer

For society to close itself to human life would not be a legitimate means of opening itself to other forms of life on this planet. The one need not suffer at the expense of the other, but they must both be respected in their proper order. Those who propose mandated birth control or abortion as the proper means of solving the environmental crisis are taking the easy way out and degrading human life in the process.[1] Such a solution attempts to fix the problem without discipline and without having to change our lifestyle of excess. It amounts to denial of the real causes, which lie elsewhere: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”[2]

[1] LS, 117; 120.

[2] LS, 50.

Disregard for nature will provoke a response

It is not uncommon to dismiss all these warning with a wave of the hand, and trust instead in man’s ingenuity, believing that he will continue to adapt, develop, and “conquer” whatever problems may arise in the future. Such is the implicit faith in the ideology of “necessary progress,” which really amounts to a faith in man and a denial of limits. But St. John Paul II offers a warning:

“Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.”[1]

And he is affirmed by Benedict XVI:

“The relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God. When ‘man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.”[2]

[1] LS, 50.

[2] Benedict XVI, Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the Occasion of the Seventh Symposium of the Religion, Science and the Environment Movement, September 1, 2007.