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Ecology

Date: 
2002
DOI: 
10.17421/2037-2329-2002-FF-1

I. Humanity and the Environment: Themes of Major Interest. 1. The Novelty of the Problem: Dynamic Interaction between Humanity and the Environment. 2. Major Themes that demand Particular Attention in Present Times. - II. Reductionistic Views Concerning Environmental Ethics - III. Basic Principles for Environmental Ethics: going beyond Ecocentrism - IV. Theological Reflections and the Teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the Ecological Question - V. Responsibility and Hope for the Future: Towards a Culture of Respect for the Environment. 1. The Safeguard of the Environment and the Problem of Energy. 2. Problems concerning Demography. 3. Problems posed by Genetic Engineering. 4. The Ecological Question, a Question of Culture and Conscience.

The theme of the environment and its defense has been brought out in the lime light most of all over the last decades. This is due to the increase that technological progress has undergone in the industrialized countries, provoking a heated debate concerning its applications and its influence on the equilibrium of the biosphere, to the point of awakening some preoccupations concerning the very survival of the human race on the earth. The main themes known as the “ecological question” are today being put forward as problems which were merely being discovered during the latter half of the 19th century, that the earth and the living species which populate it form, to a certain extent, a unitary system, of which the various parts making up the whole, have an influence on each other. Their relationships are sometimes harmonious and capable of adjustment, whilst at other times they can be conflicting and selective. The term “ecology” (Gr. oikía, house, environment and lógos, discourse) was first introduced into the biological ambit by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834-1919), as the "science of the relationships between organisms and the environment" (General Morphology of Organisms, 1866). We are thus dealing with a sort of “economy of nature”, as Linneus (1707-1778) already indicated a century before, whose object of study deals with "the reciprocal relationships of all living organisms as united in one and the same link, their adjustments to the world about them, their transformations and their struggles for survival" (E. Haeckel, The Story of Creation, 1868).

The term ecology is today linked, above all, to the awakening of consciences, which we witness in our times; it specially refers to the relationship between humanity and the environment. An issue of responsibility which also concerns the future generations, given that the future of humankind on earth is linked to a balanced relationship amongst the various components of the ecosystem which we belong to. Thus, a wide reflection involving scientific research, society and the states, philosophy and economics has come about. This also concerns religious thought and Christian theology. As a source of precise conceptions concerning the relationship between humanity and the environment, religious thought is also involved as far as the ethical aspects are concerned, since it is closely attentive to the fact that scientific and technological innovations should develop in such a way that is compatible with human rights and cultural values. Technology does not simply come into play here as an instrument used for the exploitation of nature’s goods, yet it is also concerned with the use and the distribution of the earth’s resources, which are not unlimited. Technology also comes into play since it can actually provide instruments for conditioning or simply favoring the possibility of the richer nations having the upper hand as regards to the poor. Social justice is closely linked with ecological responsibility.

Attention given to the environment has in our day, become for some cultural groups and movements of opinion, a sort of “ideology” and an all-encompassing view. There are for example, those who have deemed it right to take away from ecology the very principles of regulative ethics concerning the relationship between humanity and the environment; others speak of the “rights of nature,” of certain animal species, or of the ecosystem as a whole. The moral problem remains. However, it must be tackled within the framework of a reliable ethical vision, which cannot draw its foundations from the fields to which it is supposed to be applied. The urgent demands coming from diverse fields must be taken into consideration and treated within a vision of humanity and nature which is not merely concerned with the present, but is also concerned with the future generations, whose life depends upon choices made in the present. Such a state of affairs can be paradigmatically shown by the fact that the term ecology moves from the field of biology to that of bioethics.

I. Humanity and the Environment: Themes of Major Interest

1. The Novelty of the Problem: Dynamic Interaction between Humanity and the Environment. The notion of “system” which is applied in many fields of knowledge (biological, anthropological, sociological, etc.) is at the base of ecology. Using the systemic approach, unity is put in the foreground as that which binds the various parts together in order to get hold of the diversity. In this approach the relationship between humanity and the environment is seen from a unitary point of view and the environment is understood as the system of relations between the various biotic and a-biotic components it contains and of which humanity is a part. The basic underlying idea is that ecology becomes a new way of looking at the world. Having made this point, the role which humankind can play in the ecosystem is very different from that of the other living species. The possibility of being able to take part in a conscious and intentional way in the present and future of the environment —in other words our “cultural dimension”— ascribes to human beings a specificity and a responsibility that differentiates us from all other animal species. Human beings have in fact the capacity to organize and control the natural environment according to their choices. The processes of adaptation of the human species are not only physiological and genetic, but also cultural. The earthly habitat to a certain extent is “ecumenical” for human beings who have the possibility of exercising a great amount of influence upon it, not only for the future of its own, but also for that of other species.

If however, this particular relationship between humanity and the environment has become even more apparent over the last few years, the competition between human beings and the environment was not only determined by genes or behavior fixed by DNA or imprinting, as it was the case for other species, but also through the means of culture. If humans have been able to survive the rigors of climate and the attacks of predators, whereas other species, such as the australopithecine, were unable to resist, it is thanks to various cultural devices, especially in the domain of living, instrumental and food technology. Examples of cultural expressions include the capacity of making plans and creating symbolic communication using language. Although they are extra-somatic factors, such behavioral expressions have played an important part in relations established with the environment, thus giving rise to the evolutionary success of the human species. Culture, therefore, was essential for the survival of humanity.

In the long Palaeolithic period, the type of relationships which were brought about by the economy of hunting and harvest, was not a disturbing factor for the natural environment. This was due both to the limited density of the population, marked by a rate of selection brought about by the high death toll, and to the large availability of resources. A substantial equilibrium was established, along with well-balanced competition between humanity and nature. This was, however, accompanied at the same time by the loss of many human lives during the period of growth. In the Neolithic period (the most recent Stone Age, between the 9th and the 4th millennium B.C.), with the shift to agriculture and animal rearing, the relations changed, since at this point we are dealing with the intense exploitation of nature (deforestation, pasturing, etc.) as well as the damage to other parts of the ecosystem. Unbalances were brought about in the flora and fauna, whilst conserving certain important homeostatic mechanisms, such as the system of biodegradation. In the modern era, with the advent of major industrial developments, the relationship between human beings and the environment became critical: the invention and the use of the car, agricultural mechanization as well as the use of biotechnology (chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), which besides implying the huge consumption of non-renewable sources of energy (carbon, petrol) also produces side effects, such as pollution of the environment (terrestrial, atmospheric, aquatic).

In the current situation certain aspects render the problem particularly crucial: the increase in technological innovations and their facility of extension on a world wide scale, the repercussions of undesired effects in far-off territories, along with the possible consequences for the future generations. In the Population and Resources report prepared by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1991) on the basis of the Human Development Report (1991) issued by the United Nations Development program, we read that "in the 20th Century transformations accelerated at an ever faster rate. For the first time, the global changes became even shorter than the life of a person and even of the lapse of time between two generations […]. And the consequences of that which we are doing at present may be felt for a long time to come." The environmental degradation, which brings about unbalances in the ecosystem, may render critical and problematic the lives of men and women, as well as the very survival of the species. Besides the consequences of possible irrational uses of the resources, the ethical implications also concern the need for a true environmental “culture,” that is a mentality that inspires responsible and fitting behavior. It has been quite rightly pointed out that, the ecological crisis, resulting from a bad relationship between humanity and the environment, is first and foremost a cultural problem (cf. White, 1967), a crisis concerning the conception of life, the way in which men and women live and their rapport with nature and with others, which has been characterized up until now by an attitude of exploitation-domination of nature’s resources. It is fitting to develop a common awareness and an education as regards to the meaning of responsibility for the future generations. These demands bring us back to the field of ethics, which I prefer to call “ethics of the environment” or “environmental ethics,” rather than “environmentalist ethics”; this being in accordance with what was stated in the important document produced by the Italian National Committee for Bioethics, Bioethics and Environment (Bioetica e Ambiente, 1995). Environmental ethics therefore is brought back to the field of bioethics since it is interested in the life and conduct of humanity in the order of the natural and human environment.

2. Major Themes that demand Particular Attention in Present Times. As far as the future generations are concerned certain choices which are being made at present will be of major importance. At this point we would like to briefly recall some of the most important ones. The first of these is obviously concerned with the “deterioration of the environment.” Both the physical and the biological environment are currently undergoing major deterioration due to human interventions; each year thousands of animal and vegetable species are wiped out, this is especially caused by deforestation. This reduction of bio-diversity is a great loss for the ecosystem and destroys the balances that exist among its various components, resulting in consequences whose totality cannot yet be foreseen. The causes and effects of atmospheric pollution are however well known. The burning of fossil fuels and petrol brought about by modern industrial development are a major cause of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Linked to this is the so-called “green house effect” due to the capacity of carbon dioxide to absorb and hold infrared radiation, causing a global warming of the earth’s surface. One should also call to mind the emission of methane and CFC gases which are generated by the use of modern industrial apparatus, house hold utensils, as well as luxury items on the market; all of these bring about a reduction in the amount of ozone in the higher layers of the atmosphere —the phenomenon is more commonly known as the “ozone hole”— which thus results in a diminution of its function in protecting the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Water pollution, which is mainly brought about by the use of pesticides and fertilizers, has caused major problems in certain seas, bringing with it unbalances in the food chain in some closed off lakes and rivers. (Certain lakes like Aral, for example, are considered to be biologically “dead”). Whereas the increase in sulphur dioxide along with other chemical components has given rise to the phenomenon of acid rain, which is extremely dangerous to vegetation, to fauna as well as to urban buildings. Not less worrying is the pollution caused by mutagenic and/or canceregenic chemical agents, which come from combustibles or from food additives and cosmetics, or from the consequences of nuclear explosions, which up until a few years ago were still happening in various parts of America, Polynesia and Central Asia. Although we do not have precise data on the development of epidemiological processes on a global scale, nevertheless certain effects have been noted on both genetic and chromosomal levels, besides the corresponding increase in tumors. We are dealing with the potentiality of undesired effects that cannot be foreseen, many of which may occur even after a lapse of time.

A second cause for concern is brought about because of the rapid “development of bio-technology.” Many are the risks to humanity, in today’s world and to future generations, introduced by this type of development, and we are not only dealing with environmental pollution. The indiscriminate use of genetic engineering in the field of agriculture and microbiology can have consequences in the formation of transgenic organisms and in new families of uncontrollable viruses, which could disturb the very equilibrium of our ecosystem. We cannot rule out the possibility of modifying the human genome, even on a large scale, or of artificially favoring the selection of human beings equipped with certain qualities, for example through cloning.

At the same time, we are faced with a “shortage of natural resources.” This is extremely serious where non-renewable resources are concerned, as is the case with petrol and fossil fuels, causing extra worries for future generations. In the industrialized countries the consumption of energy is continually increasing, even if we take into account that advanced technologies, which are less dangerous for the environment, are now to be used. The growing increase in consumption is partly due to satisfying needs which are not required for survival, but which are simply products of interest or luxury. For this reason the current phase of relationship with the environment is known as the “high energy phase,” since it is linked with an increase in consumption of extra-somatic energy and therefore causes an important increase of “techno-metabolism”.

The last theme, dealing with the demographic development of the human population, is often linked to the ecological preoccupation, but it really deserves its own independent discussion. Approximate extrapolation for the year 2020 predicts a world population of a little more than 8 billion inhabitants; this would mean an increase of about 2 billion, based upon the current population estimated as being 6 billion in the year 2000. About 95% of these changes would chiefly concern countries of the Third World, with an expected concentration of about 3 billion inhabitants in urban areas, especially in the big cities. Migration of groups of people from the rural areas to the city, brings with it a whole amount of stress, affecting the various of areas of life: physiological, psychological, social as well as peoples’ way of life. Added to all of this, are the risks of environmental pollution which would indeed increase should immigration get out of control. The overall situation, however, is very complex. In fact, along with the demographic increase, mainly due to the drop in infant mortality and fewer deaths in adult life, we also have to take into account the drop in the birth rate, especially in the more industrialized countries, in accordance with a phase of “demographic transition” that from Western industrialized countries is being extended to the other countries. The situation is far from uniform. There are some countries with a huge demographic increase whilst there are others with quite a noticeable decline. In the latter, the fertility rate (i.e. the average number of children per woman) has quite clearly dropped and life expectancy (or average life at birth) is on the increase. In the European countries the lengthening of life is to be accompanied by an ageing population. If we add to this fact the decline in births, unbalances in the population structure are to be foreseen, with possible repercussions at the level of reproduction, besides problems in welfare and intergenerational conflicts with regards to the distribution of resources. Another element of great importance is the growing migratory phenomenon from extra-European Union countries towards Europe, with repercussions concerning not only the demographic lay-out but also other fields of social life.

From the point of view of the relationship between man and environment, the theme of demography must be considered in the light of its quite original characteristics. That is, it would be quite reductive, as well as scientifically incorrect, to consider the increase in population as merely a cause of pollution or an element of territorial unbalance, even if these factors are not extraneous to this phenomenon. The growth in population must also be considered as a source of resource and potentiality which can constructively and creatively interact with the environment. Such interaction should be done in an organic and sound way, corresponding to that “production of culture,” which, right from the beginning of human species, guaranteed its survival and adaptability. This however calls for world-wide responsibility. What is more, in the field of demographic science we have to bear in mind both the difficulty of calculating projections (cf. Myers and Simon, 1994), as well as the various trends in demographic thought, whose link with data is not always objective, thus conditioning their interpretation and the social measures to be adopted.

II. Reductionistic Views Concerning Environmental Ethics

The idea that the relationship between humanity and environment is mainly based upon the notion of domination and exploitation is now considered to be outdated. On the other hand, there still exists a certain diversity of opinion in the field of environmental ethics. A widespread ethical model proposes “respect for the biosphere.” According to this perspective, the ethical values to be sought after, and thus that which is good or bad, are established in terms of the utility and demands of the ecosystem. Nature itself, in its demands, based upon the dynamics of its balances, would be considered as the source of the moral values. This model inspired R Van Potter in introducing the term “bioethics,” for the first time in 1971, with a specific reference to the survival of species. Along with the support of many zoologists and anthropologists, Van Potter maintained that the goal of ethics was to be understood in terms of defining models of behavior which guarantee the survival of species, in such a way as to avoid their extinction, as Dobzhansky (1958) observed, caused by those fatal choices brought about by natural selection.

It is clear that in considering things from a purely biological point of view, the extinction of the human species is a possibility; yet it is quite reasonable to hold that this may precisely be avoided through culture, which plays a role of mediation between humanity and the environment: culture tends to intentionally adapt the environment to humanity and not simply humanity to the environment. This indeed enters into a genotypical and phenotypical adaptation process of humanity through the interaction of the species with its habitat. As far as humanity is concerned, culture represents a genuine “adaptive strategy” and can be seen as that which represents, in the most emblematic way, its most basic “ecological niche”. Yet Van Potter’s thought understands cultural values only within a naturalistic ethical framework. The aim of global bioethics, in his opinion, would be to find “true believers” able to “translate” the future needs into present cultural changes, capable of influencing governors, both on a local and on a global scale, thus reaching a targeted and adequate control of human fertility and the conservation and restoration of natural environment. From this view point, it is the demands brought about by the preservation of the system which justify the choices on an ethical level, without paying attention to the intrinsic ethical value owned by the demands themselves.

Along the same lines comes the “naturalistic” conception of global bioethics as defended by Brunetto Chiarelli (cf Bioetica Globale, Florence 1993), who maintains that bioethics should concern itself with "the conservation of the typical DNA of the species and in maintaining its non-transferable variability." Such a principle would apply to all species in general, humanity included. However, in this case, choices stemming from human behavior would take into account culture, which has an active part to play in the conservation of DNA. A choice becomes positive when it intervenes in a favorable manner. "As for animal populations, he says, the same is true for humankind, that is, the interaction between the environment and its users produces norms which characterize historical behavior (e.g. morals, customs. etc.) and which characterize and facilitate their survival." In this light, according to this author, abortion as a means of birth control may be seen as licit. It is worthwhile noting here that when everything is sacrificed to the higher demands of the ecosystem, we end up by endorsing a reductive view of anthropology. In so doing, ethical values are seen as exclusively dependent upon one finality which can justify any means whatsoever, namely the conservation of the ecosystem itself.

As far as I understand, we are dealing here with “ecocentrical” global ethics. Nature as a whole, which of course does have its own importance, is presented here to the detriment of the human person. Nature is placed on a level that is superior to that of the person (I would suggest the example of totalitarian societies in which the individual is sacrificed on the altar of collectivity). One more ecocentrical viewpoint, although without a specific ethical proposal for human behavior, is that propounded by the “Gaia hypothesis” as put forward by Jim Lovelock (2000). He considers the earth as a unique system, like a living organism which has within it its capacity of self-regulation, or homeostatic capacity, capable of standing up to the aggression of external agents. Human behavior could well be considered as being part of the external aggressors, of which, according to the same author, there is no need to pay too much attention. What matters is the health of the planet and not that of singular species of organisms. We should allow nature to take its course. Every species that endangers the environment is at risk of extinction, but life goes on. Gaia would continue to exist even if humankind were to disappear, in so far as other forms would emerge, thus allowing the equilibrium to remain. In this example, it is not the survival of the species that provides the ethical boundaries, but rather the life of Gaia.

Generally speaking such ethical viewpoints appear to be quite clearly too narrow. The survival of the species (humanity included) is most certainly to be considered as one of the aspects and values of ethics, but ethics should be understood in a much wider anthropological perspective, having humanity at its center, each human being, those of our times and those of the future. The conservation of the environment is an essential value for human life, yet it remains within the realms of the means, or if one prefers, it is an intermediate finality. The survival of the species is to be seen as a consequence of our respect for humanity and for nature, rather than as a founding principle with regards to the morality of human behavior. Otherwise, the personal human being becomes an instrument for an impersonal nature; in this way he or she loses the “rank” of finality to acquire only that of a means. The survival of the different biological species as such cannot be considered as representing the ultimate finality of human life on earth, as some kind of altar on which all, including the good of the individual person, would be sacrificed. Rather, the care for environment should be seen as a good to be sought after by means of morally responsible behavior on the part of the individual as well as society, respectful of each human person. In fact, on a phenomenological level, the human person is the holder of a singularity and a transcendence as regards to nature.

III. Basic Principles for Environmental Ethics: going beyond Ecocentrism

It has been quite rightly observed by Marini-Bettòlo and Moroni (1989) that environmental ethics should seek to draw benefits from the contributions made by philosophers, but should above all be based upon a deep scientific knowledge of the environmental systems and upon the consciousness and responsibility of humanity. A coherent approach to the principles of environmental ethics, understood as a system of relationships in which the various components interact with one another, needs at the same time to be founded upon the specificity of each of these components. As far as human beings are concerned, their specific role is to be the natural administrators of the environment, and not only the consumers of it. It is only in a vision that brings together human demands as well as those of the ecosystem, in so far as it has humanity as its finality, that we can find a set of reliable orienting principles. Such principles need to be founded on the centrality of the human person, on the interdependence of the members of the human family among themselves and with nature as a whole, on the legitimate will to improve the quality of human life and that of the environment. And all this not only with regards to today’s world but also for future generations.

Some speak of the rights of all living beings, of non-human nature, and, more generally speaking, of the rights of the ecosystem. This type of language however appears to be inappropriate. Besides the fact that rights and duties are always meant to be correlative, it has been rightly observed by the Italian National Committee for Bioethics, that is not necessary to recognize the rights of nature as such in order to develop adequate forms of environmental protection (cf. Italian National Committee for Bioethics, Bioethics and Environment, 1995). The same can be said for the ecosystem. It is necessary, rather, to speak of the rights and duties of humanity towards non-human nature: the right of using nature’s goods and resources, along with the duty of safeguarding its balance and dynamics. This is not to be considered as something penalizing nature. When we recognize that nature is finalized to humankind, we are affirming that the internal balances and dynamics of nature are precisely those which, once properly administered, will ensure humanity’s survival and development. In conformity with the previously quoted document Bioethics and Environment it is necessary to look for "possible coincidences in the interests of humanity and those of the rest of non-human nature." Explained from a different perspective, it is about affirming that the quality of human life and the quality of the environment are very closely linked and interdependent: it is impossible to speak of the good quality of human life without good quality environment; however, research into the quality of the environment would be senseless if it did not aim to increase the quality of human life.

To conclude with the question of “rights,” I think it should be maintained that the “rights of nature” are acceptable insofar as humanity is included within nature, as that which gives fullness of meaning to the latter (cf. D’Agostino, 1992). Such a point of view is also consistent with a common framework of contemporary cosmology, which sees nature as a “dynamic process” in real harmony with the presence of life and humanity. Human beings seem to appear in the cosmos so as to give meaning to this upward “dynamic movement”: if nature has become history, it is because human beings “live in” and “build” nature, beyond and above all those accidental and impersonal events which happen within it.

Among the various principles that may form the basis of a reliable environmental ethics, I would like to point out in the first place the centrality of the respect for the dignity and the rights of the human person. The basic rule of general ethics, is also the basic rule of environmental ethics. When dealing with the respect for nature, it is important to promote respect for the rights of human life, all human life, in spite of difference in age, race, social group or economic productivity. From the conclusions of a Nobel Prize winners’ Conference organized in Rome by the Nova Spes Foundation in 1989, it was noted that the education needed for the respect of our fellow members of the human race and for the respect of nature, was one and the same duty. This duty also comprises our relationships with the future generations, whose well being and very existence could be jeopardized by our conduct towards the environment today (cf. Blasi and Zamagni, 1991). The Declaration for Global Ethics approved by the Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1993, maintains the full realization of the inviolability of the human person, of his and her inalienable freedom, the fundamental equality, the necessary solidarity, and reciprocal dependency amongst all people (H. Küng, K.J. Kuschel, A Global Ethic, SCM Press, London 1993).

Along with the dignity of each human person, it is necessary to affirm the universal destination of the earth’s resources, which are not unlimited. This implies the need to seek after life styles that favor the quality rather than the quantity of goods which a person owns. It is also important to bear in mind the relationship between personal and communal goods: even though the biosphere may not be an absolutely transcendent good, it still however represents a reality which transcends personal or group interests of a given generation; thus, when defining relationships between any one person and the environment, understood as a common good, it is important to avoid any forms of individualism or collectivism (cf. Przewozny, 1991). The centrality of humanity is to be seen within a global vision of the cosmos; there is a real interdependence, a genuine solidarity between humanity and the cosmos, and between the members of the human race. In the previously mentioned declaration from the Parliament of World Religions it is stated that: "We, in so far as human persons, have a special responsibility also with regards to the future generations as far as the planet earth and the cosmos, the air and the waters are concerned. In this cosmos we are linked to one another and so too do we depend on one another. Each one of us is dependent on the good of the totality. However, it must be said that, instead of proclaiming human domination over nature and the cosmos, we should seek to cultivate communion with nature and with the cosmos".

Yet solidarity is not only concerned with the relations between human beings who are living at the moment, but, as I have previously made clear, this responsibility extends to the future generations. The right to a healthy environment is of those people living now and of those who will come afterwards. Here we are dealing with the concept of “sustainable development,” the original meaning of which is the solution to a "problem of intergenerational efficiency which allows us to guarantee opportunities for the future generations without causing harm or damage to the present" (Italian National Committee for Bioethics, 1995) A solution is sought which calls upon research, study, and the cultural and scientific resources of the human race, trying to face up to the problem with a spirit of respect and international collaboration, without choosing the easiest pragmatic ways of advancing, which often penalize humanity or specific populations or social groups. The administration of the biosphere is not merely a private affair. Jonas (1984), a great supporter of responsibility ethics, has suggested that we should act in such a way that the effects of our actions are consistent with the continuation of life which is authentically human.

IV. Theological Reflections and the Teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the Ecological Question

Nature as creation, as well as the relationship between humanity and nature, are also the object of a theological reflection. The Bible contains many references concerning this subject. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that over the last few decades theology has shown a growing interest in the “ecological question” (reviews in Ancona, 1997; Morandini, 1999; Tallacchini, 1999). The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, such as declarations published by National Bishops’ Conferences or documents of the Roman Pontiff, have given particular attention to this theme, going far beyond simple speeches pronounced for some particular circumstances. Already in 1980 the German Bishops’ Conference dedicated an important document to ecology entitled The Future of Creation, Future of Humanity. More recently the Catechism of the Catholic Church offered a synthetic yet significant presentation of the theme: "The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation" (CCC 2415).

Here it is also worthwhile calling to mind that various 19th century authors such as Max Weber and Martin Heidegger had ascribed to Christianity the responsibility of having setting up a new relationship with nature. Christianity, having stripped nature of its sacred value, would have instead favored the domination of the earth, in accordance with the biblical commandment, transforming creation into an object of human manipulation and exploitation. On the other hand, the oriental religions are inclined to have a more unitary vision of the relationship between humanity and nature, thus having favored a kind of respect for the environment which Western culture, engendered by Christian thought, had failed to dedicate. This subject, which is part of a broader issue concerning what Christianity means by “the autonomy of created realities,” does not lend itself to simplistic syntheses. On the other hand, it is to be recalled that the meaning of renowned biblical passages such as "subdue the earth and have dominion over it" (Gn 1:28) and "to cultivate and care for the garden of Eden" (Gn 2:15), is not that of a despotic dominion, but of a lordship which is aimed at giving glory to the Creator, and therefore requires complete respect for all the various forms and beings belonging to the created world. The etymology of the word “dominate” (in Hebrew radah) includes the idea of taking possession of a piece of land like a shepherd takes possession of a grazing ground; the verb contains the idea of leading into pasture. In the same way, the term to “care for” (in Hebrew samar) does not refer to some extrinsic delivering, but rather indicates “to protect, to keep hold of”, in the sense of “taking care of with responsibility” (cf. Sauer, 1997). It is the verb used to say that one keeps the Law of God in one’s heart (cf. Dt 4:9) or in one’s soul (cf. Prv 13:3; 16:17). It is very interesting to note the fact that once Cain had committed his sin, he no longer saw himself as his “brother’s keeper” (Gn 4:9). Along with this, it is important to recall that a philosophical foundation of the attitude of dominating and controlling nature was provided only in the Modern Age, above all by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and later on with Descartes (1596-1650). They lived in a philosophical climate which had already distanced itself from what the genuine Christian view-point had to say about the relationship between God and the world.

John Paul II has made a number of reflections concerning ecology and the responsibility towards the environment, very often by means of definite and official teachings. In the document Christifideles laici (1988) we read: "Certainly humanity has received from God himself the task of 'dominating' the created world and 'cultivating the garden' of the world. But this is a task that humanity must carry out in respect for the divine image received, and therefore with intelligence and with love, assuming responsibility for the gifts that God has bestowed and continues to bestow. Humanity has in its possession a gift that must be passed on to future generations, if possible, passed on in better condition" (n. 43). If humanity owes to its own cultural identity, besides the biological one (that which I previously termed as its specific ecological niche: see above, II), the merit of having ensured its adaptation to the environment and the adaptation of the environment to itself, so ensuring its survival too, it is also true that this cultural dimension is nothing but a part of that “image and likeness of God” which the Bible refers to. Humanity’s biological and cultural identity brings us back to our identity according to the plan of God, that is, as personal beings created in His image and likeness.

The attention to ecology has been also present in major encyclicals dealing with social issues such as Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) and Centesimus annus (1991). An organic recapitulation of the most important theological principles on ecology is contained in the message for the World Day for Peace in 1990, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation. (8.12.1989). The key-points of this message can be briefly summarized as follows. Firstly, the “ecological problem” is to be considered as an ethical-moral issue and cannot simply be resolved using legislative tools (cf. nn. 13, 15). This implies the avoidance of two extreme positions: that of egoistic and irresponsible individualism and, on the other extreme, that of an immanent naturalism in which it is no longer humanity and its transcendent dignity placed at the center, but nature itself. But it is above all the “respect for life” which is to be the norm for every kind of genuine progress and the necessary pre-requisite for all ecological concern. The validity of concerns for a safe environment (including the corresponding legislative measures and their subsequent execution) is based on the fact that the environment is a “right of the person”: "The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life, evident in many patterns of environmental pollution. [...] Respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress" (n. 7). The solution to the ecological problem necessarily requires a reference to the principle of solidarity, that is to the responsibility of the international community in the management, production and distribution of the planet’s resources (cf. nn. 9-11). Education concerning the respect for nature is not only an ethical value, but also one of theological and aesthetical importance: creation participates in beauty as a transcendental of the divine, and offers a way to reach and recognize the Creator, and to give him glory (cf. n. 14).

In a discourse to the participants at the study week on tropical ecosystems organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II recalled that every form of life is to be respected, favored and loved as God’s creation ( cf. Discourse , 19.5.1990, in Papal Addresses , pp. 316-318 ). The encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis observes that "one must take into account the nature of each being and its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the 'cosmos'." (n. 34) Hence the planetary nature of the ecological problem, since the goods of this world are originally intended for the use of all. God established humanity as custodian and administrator so as to carry on his creating work: "the earth is essentially a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all" (Peace with God the Creator, Peace with Creation, n. 8) A similar affirmation is to be found in Vatican II (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 69). The custody of the earth is the responsibility of all since the earth belongs to everybody, and all have the right to take a part in the decisions which are made to ensure its safeguard: the growth in the quality of the environment implies overcoming of various forms of degradation. Ideally, the improvement of the quality of human life requires that the earth’s resources be used to the advantage of all people. Quality of life however means that the conditions of life are coherent with the dignity of every human person. In order to reach this, the opportunity of taking part in the various activities of society, including the decisional processes concerning respect for human rights have to be guaranteed. (cf. Discourse to a Meeting of Nobel Prizes organized by the “Nova Spes” Foundation, 14.12.1989). The need for solidarity, in facing up to the ecological problem, was also recalled in a speech delivered to the participants of an International Conference on Environment with the following words: "The balance of the ecosystem and the defense of the salubrity of the environment are in need of responsibility which must be open to new forms of solidarity. We need for an open and comprehensive solidarity for all of humanity, for all peoples, a solidarity founded upon the respect for life and the promotion of resources for the most disadvantaged and for the future generations" (OR, 24-25.3.1997, p. 4).

Perhaps the most recent authoritative intervention of John Paul II on the matter is the allocution dedicated to ecology and development, delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on March 12, 1999. In this, amongst the factors which cause harm to the environmental equilibrium, are mentioned «armed conflicts and the unbridled race for economic growth», saying how the latter ought to be moderated by interventions carried out «from the view-point of the common good and not only on the viability or private profit»(cf. nn. 2-3). The ecological theme is considered within the framework of a harmonious human development, which, beyond scientific progress, it considers the cultural growth of peoples, and the creation of a mentality of respect and solidarity in the most industrialized countries. All are concerned, scientists and politicians alike: "In order that the world may be habitable tomorrow and that everyone may find a place in it, I encourage public authorities and all men and women of good will to question themselves about their daily attitudes and decisions which should not be dictated by an unlimited and unrestrained quest for material goods, without regards for the surroundings in which we live, and which should be capable of responding to the basic needs of present and future generations" (John Paul II, Address to the study week on "Science for Survival and Sustainable Development", in Papal Addresses , p. 382) .

V. Responsibility and Hope for the Future: Towards a Culture of Respect for the Environment

Recognizing the moral, and not only technical and scientific dimension of the ecological question, is to see its reference in the sphere of education, in personal responsibility and commitment; let us now try and deduce some of the consequences needing to be applied.

1. The Safeguard of the Environment and the Problem of Energy. It is necessary to reduce the amount of environmental pollution brought about by combustion and from industrial development, and to set up the use of cleaner and less polluting energies. The safeguarding of the environment for future generations requires careful attention using monitoring systems and appropriate bio-ecological indicators of the consequences of the various pollution factors, including those that are derived from nuclear explosions. Besides these checks, an effective curb is required with regards to the causes of contamination, seeking to find alternative and renewable sources of energy, for instance solar power or that which is derived from nuclear fusion. Reforestation should also be practised, especially to compensate the reduction of forest mantles when new industrial plants are set up in an area, or simply giving back to the ecosystem large areas of greenery.

The demands made are even more important when considering the major energetic requirements linked to development, in countries with a high level of technology, where consumption is on the increase, as well as in those countries which are still developing, into which innovations and life styles of the more developed countries are being introduced. It would not be fair to deny the developing countries access to the benefits of technology. However this should be done by setting up the possibility to use the more environmentally favourable forms of technology in an autonomous way, rather than exporting methods which have since fallen into disuse in the industrialized countries. Innovative schemes for financing the transfer and adaptation of technology should be considered; it should also be remembered that the industrial democracies not only use energies which are more efficient, but they also have a higher level of consumption per head compared to the rest of the world. These countries should seek every opportunity to introduce ways to save and renew energy sources (cf. Colombo et al., 1996).

2. Problems Concerning Demography. The quality of life is linked to the availability of resources and population concentration. The planet’s possibilities are certainly not unlimited. It is worthwhile considering various estimations carried out by the FAO. If good use were made of the earth’s possibilities, by means of modern technology currently available to us, the world’s population capacity could take up to 20 billion people. So we should not ignore the fact that the passing of time brings with it not only an increase in population, but also the hope of new technologies and that of a cultural progress more apt to deal with the needs of the situation. Concerning the demographic problem, the teachings of Roman Catholic Church has always maintained that those forms of family planning that are not based on respect for pre-natal human life are not acceptable. This point of view was presented by the delegation of the Holy See to the Cairo Conference on Population in 1994, and then exposed in a detailed document by the Pontifical Council for the Family titled Demographic Evolution, Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions (1994). The document stresses the need for a family-type policy that promotes the responsibility of the parents in generating new children, and introduces the concept of “contraceptive imperialism” which certain nations, according to the document, would wish to put into practice in making the economic aids given to developing countries depend on their demographic policies of birth control.

If it is reasonable to speak of a balanced curb in the prolificacy of developing countries —as the quoted document, Population and Resources (1991) of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences suggests— besides helping people in the responsible exercise of procreation, such a balancing could be obtained also through other means. Among them, the improvement of social and economic standards as well as the conditions of life and basic instruction, which is an important factor in curtailing prolificacy and helping in the diminution of mortality, and then in the formation of new balances in the current phase of demographic transition. According to John Paul II, "Population growth has to be faced not only by the exercise of responsible parenthood which respects the divine law, but also by economic means which have a profound effect on social institutions. Particularly in the developing countries where young people represent a high percentage of the population, it is necessary to eliminate the grave shortage of adequate structures for ensuring education, the spread of culture and professional training. The condition of women must also be improved as an integral part of the modernization of society" (Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences , 22.11.1991, in Papal Addresses , p. 333).

The limitation of births is not a necessary condition of development, as it was upheld by many authors, especially in the past. It is the diminution of births, rather, that would appear to be a consequence of development. This supposes a sort of self-regulating system of the demographic mechanisms connected with development, but development itself is promoted by a fair distribution of resources. As it was previously mentioned, according to a theological perspective God destines the goods of the earth for the use of all people. The social aspects of the problem are quite clear. They cannot be overcome by the political programs of individual countries alone, but rather they must be faced at an international level, according to a real principle of solidarity. On the ethical level, as far as the inevitable increase of the ageing population is concerned, new requirements come into light, such as the need for assistance and the respect for human life right up until its natural end.

3. Problems posed by Genetic Engineering. Concerns for the safeguard of the environment are also called for due to the large scale application of genetic engineering, techniques, particularly those which involve the creation of new organisms —animal or vegetable— of transgenic origin, obtained using gene transfer, from the same or from other species. These techniques are meant to improve plants and animals for alimentary use, offering the possibility of creating new varieties or species. Without going deeper into the debate which this subject has provoked either on the ecological or ethical scale, it must be observed that those who support such techniques point out the opportunity of improving species on the level of reproduction and alimentation, because of obvious advantages for humanity, so supporting the developing of nature’s potentiality via humanity’s intervention. On the other hand, the more active environmental movements (environmentalists) disapprove of genetically modified organisms being introduced into the environment because of the danger these new organisms may cause to those that already exist, thus reducing bio-diversity. Moreover, an improper and wide-spread use of such techniques patented by a minority who possess the necessary instruments, would end up by widening the gap existing between rich and poor countries. It is quite clear that the creation of transgenic organisms cannot be totally dismissed, especially given the unquestionable advantages they offer. However, these techniques are to be limited to vegetable and animal use, and at the same time are to be applied with transparency and evaluation, monitoring the risks and benefits, also by means of regular checks carried out by the international community (cf. Italian National Committee for Bioethics, 1993; Pontifical Academy for Life, 1999).

Demands in the area of human procreation can lead to wanting to use all the possibilities made available by medicine, so as to reduce phenotypic manifestations of pathological genes and also to rectify them using genic therapy. However, this demand would not justify interventions whose aim is to eliminate, either before or after birth, those carriers of genes which could be possibly be dangerous for the individual or for the species. This would be an example of pure eugenics, which may be applied in the animal kingdom but not when dealing with human life. It could appear as though the ethical problems brought about by bio-engineering affect the individual more than the community as a whole, but that is not the case. Besides the possibility of the dangerous effects coming from the formation of families of viruses or new dangerous species in the animal or vegetable kingdom due to biological experimentation, the collective dimension of the problem is clearly underlined by the possibility of conditioning or modifying the human genome, meaning consequences on a large scale. In any case, regardless of the real or simply possible future repercussions of experiments on the human genome and its mapping, there truly is a great responsibility with regards to the future generations. The prospect of selecting human beings having particular qualities (using cloning for example) or attempting to improve the species (a eugenic operation having a racist motivation, for instance) degrades the human being to an object or a means, whereas the centrality of the human person demands that he or she should always be considered as an end and never as a mere instrument.

4. The Ecological Question, a Question of Culture and Conscience. If the ecological problem is above all a problem of culture, then it follows just how relevant is formation of an ecological mentality that favors respect for nature and of a sense of responsibility in the management and distribution of its resources. There is a need for a new cultural model in dealing with the relationship between humanity and the environment. Here the environment is certainly not to be understood as a place to be exploited and dominated, but rather as humanity’s partner in development. In this respect, human beings have a very special role to play in virtue of their intellect and liberty. John Paul II speaks of “educating ecological responsibility,” that is, responsibility towards ourselves, responsibility towards our neighbors, responsibility towards the environment; responsibility not only on a personal but also on a community level. A possible definition of “environmental education” may be the following, formulated within a scientific context: "the transmission of a system of knowledge, methods, experiences by means of which a person who is part of a group, and the group itself, become conscious of the reality of the natural and human environment in which they live and consequently assume a correct and responsible behavior in the programming and management of the systems and of the natural and cultural resources of human environments" (Moroni, 1989, pp. 567-568).

This work of education should lead to the respect for the natural cycles and to the appreciation of the beauty of nature; it should be based upon scientific knowledge of the effects of the deterioration of the environment and of its tolerance capacity, as well as taking into consideration the various aspects of the ecological problem (biological, economic, industrial, juridical, ethical, human, and so on). In being introduced into the various places of formation (schools, associations, cultural centers) it should encourage a certain sense of sobriety, thus taking a new look at certain life styles in our consumer society. It has been noted that the members of industrialized society should come to accept the idea that sustainable development requires a radical change in their culture and life style (cf. Colombo et al., 1996). And since we are dealing with problems of world-wide importance, it is necessary to develop awareness with regard to the unity of the biosphere and the fact of belonging to a world community. The development of an environmental consciousness on a personal and community level requires adequate interventions from politicians, which will ensure the conditions for sustainable development through the means of control and the running of the environment. The interdependence of the various regions and different countries, which is ever more apparent in our “use” of the environment, offers a fresh starting point for international relations, in which the environment is seen as a problem of global concern for humanity, rather than the domestic problem of a single nation. It is enough to recall the consequences of acid rain, nuclear explosions or of atmospheric pollution in general. New systems of international relations are required in which the States consider themselves as part of a community and draw up common plans of action to deal with specific problems such as deforestation, atmospheric and water pollution, etc. In 1982, for the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis of Assisi, the Carta di Gubbio was composed and published. This letter contains interesting reflections about our responsibilities, and suggestions for “environmental education” (cf. Moroni, 1984). The survival of humanity and the quality of life for the generations to come, are dependent upon cultural administration of the environment, helped along by adequate national provisions and international agreement, guided by planetary consciousness and the sense of responsibility of every human person. The awareness of our common dependence —of creation and of the human race— on the one Creator, from whom we have received the command to look after and bring to fruition the gifts entrusted to us, can only but reinforce such a consciousness in the hope that our duty may be well carried out.

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents

Gaudium et spes, 69; Paul VI, Message to the United Nations Conference on the Environment held in Stockholm, 5.6.1972, ORWE 22.6.1972, p. 6; Redemptor hominis, 15-16Sollicitudo rei socialis, 25-26, 39Christifideles laici, 43Centesimus annus, 37-38John Paul II: Discourse to the members of the United Nations Center for the Environment, Nairobi, 18.8.1985, ORWE 26.8.1985, pp. 7-8; Discourse to a Meeting of Nobel Prizes organized by the “Nova Spes” Foundation on the Problem of Environment, 14.12.1989, ORWE 8.1.1990, pp. 9-10; Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, 8.12.1989, ORWE 26.12.1989, pp. 1-3; Discourse to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 12.3.1999, Papal Addresses pp. 381-384.

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