Ever since the Industrial Revolution, modern society has lived in a tension between the good industry and technology provides and the challenges these advancements have created for human dignity and the degradation of the environment. At one level, we should rejoice that advancements in technology have drastically improved medicine, science, agriculture, and social communications. Whether it be the eradication of disease, our ability to view the heavens through new technology telescopes, the treating of cancers that once were untreatable, or being able to grow crops in regions of the world that once could grow nothing, there is much to celebrate of humanity’s industrial and technological revolution.
At another level, advancements in industry and technology have also created grave challenges that we live with to this day. From the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rapid rise of industry subjected the worker to inhumane work conditions. So dire were the conditions for workers in the late 1800’s that Pope Leo XIII penned the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, arguing for the rights of workers who were more and more being treated like a cog in the machine. As I have shared with you in the past, at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) on workers rights is the simple mentality that industry and technology is meant to serve and improve the dignity of the human person, not putting the person in the position of being a servant to industry and technology.
As time has gone by, the byproduct (literally speaking) of the Industrial Revolution has added a new layer of concern for human dignity. Whether it be the deteriorating infrastructure of our water systems, the waste that is finding its way into lakes and rivers, the pollutants that are pumped into the air, or the ramped consumption of natural resources by a people increasingly hungry for new technologies, there is a growing fear that, despite the advancements the Industrial Revolution has brought that we can celebrate, we are inflicting irreversible damage upon our environment in the pursuit of emerging industries and technology. In light this, the global community needs to take a collective moment of reflection (as has been done through gatherings such as COP21) and ask, What can we do to minimize or reverse the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves?
These thoughts on the Industrial Revolution came to mind while reading Pope Francis’ recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. At the beginning of his brief presentation, Pope Francis stated that never before has there been “such a clear need for science to be at the service of a new global ecological equilibrium.” When one thinks of an equilibrium, one thinks of balance and stability, pointing to the clear insinuation by the Holy Father that our common home is out of balance. In regard to addressing this lack of stability, Pope Francis asked the same scientific disciplines that came together to point out this crisis to apply their talent and energies to find solutions to protect our environment.
This begs a question: Can our current technologies reverse the damage done to our environment?
There are many opinions that emerge when exploring this question, but I always find hope in Pope Francis’ optimistic vision of our common home: Despite the ecological difficulties we face, there is still hope that change can come to ensure a stable future for our common home.
Pope Francis also made reference to new partnerships between the scientific community and Christian communities, “who are witnessing the convergence of their distinct approaches to reality in the shared goal of protecting our common home, threatened as it is by ecological collapse and consequent increase of poverty and social exclusion.”
When reading this statement of Pope Francis, I am reminded that today, December 5th, has been declared World Soil Day by the United Nations (UN). To recognize this day, Catholic Relief Services has posted an article describing the importance of fertile soil and the need to protect this precious resource. The article goes on to explain how Catholic Relief Services is working in impoverished regions of the world to teach farmers Regenerative Agriculture, a form of organic agriculture that helps regenerate the soil, and Climate Smart Agriculture, a form of agriculture that promotes sustainability and adaptability to changing climate conditions, while helping improve the current environment. This work not only brings together people of faith and people of science, but also promotes peace and stability for regions of the world that are susceptible to violence because of scarce access to natural resources. The efforts of Catholic Relief Services are essential, reminding us of the prophetic warning provided by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2010 World Day of Peace address when he warned that the future of War will be fought primarily for access to natural resources.
Reflecting upon the Pope’s words and the many efforts being made to help bring our environment back to equilibrium, I can’t help but envision the possibility of a new “Ecological Ecumenism” that expands the normal interpretation of the term “ecumenism” (dialogue between different Christian groups) and begins to include non-Christian faiths, the scientific community, and the entire global community. Amid the divergent theological, philosophical, and scientific issues that can create tension between people, can we not come to a basic agreement that all people need and deserve clean drinking water, healthy soil, access to food, and the ability to provide for humanity’s basic needs? Could we envision a new Ecological Ecumenism in which we acknowledge that the luxury many of us have in the developed world of arguing political, theological, philosophical, and scientific truths is only possible when we are not in a survivalist mode, wondering where our next meal or drink of clean water will come from? At the heart of this Ecological Ecumenism is the need, to quote Pope Francis, of an ecological conversion of heart.
In our modern world, we have grown up thinking ourselves owners and masters of nature, authorized to plunder it without any consideration of its hidden potential and laws of development, as if subjecting inanimate matter to our whims, with the consequence of grave loss to biodiversity, among other ills. We are not custodians of a museum or of its major artefacts to be dusted each day, but rather co-operators in protecting and developing the life and biodiversity of the planet and of human life present there. An ecological conversion capable of supporting and promoting sustainable development includes, by its very nature, both the full assuming of our human responsibilities regarding creation and its resources, as well as the search for social justice and the overcoming of an immoral system that produces misery, inequality and exclusion. (Pope Francis, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 2016)
Spiritual Exercise: Pray today that all of us achieve an ecological conversion of heart. Pray that all people, regardless of culture or economic status, can see the need for an Ecological Ecumenism that ensures the stability of all people. And, together, let us see this new vision of ecumenism become the foundation of a renewed sense of human dignity by protecting our common home.