Integral ecology and solidarity with future generations

Chapter Four of Laudato Si’, Francis’ encyclical on the environment, zeroes in on “integral ecology.”

Jul 22, 2015

By Anil Netto
Chapter Four of Laudato Si’, Francis’ encyclical on the environment, zeroes in on “integral ecology.” Here, the Bishop of Rome takes the theme of interconnectedness a few bold steps further. Ecology, he says, is the study of the living organisms and the environment in which they develop. “Just as the different aspects of the planet — physical, chemical and biological — are interrelated, so too, living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand.”

The environment is the relationship between nature and society. Since we are part of nature, we need to find comprehensive solutions to tackle environmental problems. The protection of the environment is, in fact, “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.”

So, Francis says “an analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.”

If we are serious about tackling the environment, we need strong, effective institutions (e.g. the Department of Environment and the MACC). Unfortunately, as we have seen in Malaysia and in other countries, the effectiveness of such institutions has been eroded. Such a relatively low level of institutional effectiveness “results in greater problems for their people while benefiting those who profit from this situation.”

It is not just the natural ecology that we have to consider. There is also the cultural ecology.

In Malaysia and other developing nations, we seem to be inclined to razing our history, our sense of identity and of place by flattening old buildings and cultural icons, ignoring unique architecture and displacing entire communities.

The destruction of our sense of place or culture is driven by a “consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy” and has a devastating “levelling effect on cultures.”

Francis stresses that there is “a need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place, thus preserving its original identity. Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense.”

In fact, the development of a social group “presupposes a historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture”.

Unfortunately, local people are rarely consulted in major projects. Sadly, we cannot improve the quality of life by imposing it from top down, or from the outside.

The “quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group,” says Francis.

The disappearance of culture is just as bad as the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. Indeed, the imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single or mainstream form of production can be very harmful.

For indigenous peoples, land is not a commodity but a gift from God and their ancestors. Unfortunately, as we have witnessed, in Sarawak especially, native communities often find their land grabbed from them by plantation and timber firms or, in the case of other countries, mining firms.

We also need to look at the urban and rural environments.

It is difficult for us to be happy and lead fulfilling lives when our towns are crowded, congested and lack amenities like green spaces.

Still, in the midst of derelict buildings, shanty towns and poverty, “a wholesome social life can light up a seemingly undesirable environment,” notes Francis.

Nonetheless, the grinding daily experience amidst overcrowded tenements and social anonymity “can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence.”

Thus, an interdisciplinary approach to planning and design is important. But Francis adds, “more precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance.”

We need to create a sense of belonging, of rootedness, of “feeling at home” within a city. The different parts of the city need to be well integrated so no one section is marginalised, neglected or isolated.

As for urban settlers who are often displaced to make way for property development projects, Francis says we should be developing their existing neighbourhoods rather than razing or displacing them.

Where these communities live in slums or dangerous homes, “in cases where it is necessary to relocate them, in order not to heap suffering upon suffering, adequate information needs to be given beforehand.”

The affected residents must be offered choices of decent housing, and most importantly, they must be part of the development process.

To alleviate congestion on the roads, Francis, who often took the bus and train to work, says it is important to prioritise public transport. Not only that, public transport systems must be improved.

We should not overlook conditions in rural areas. We need to tackle the “abandonment and neglect also experienced by some rural populations which lack access to essential services and where some workers are reduced to conditions of servitude”.

Francis then reminds us of the common good, social ethics, distributive justice and human dignity. We must express solidarity with other living beings, especially the poor.

Our solidarity should not stop with this kind of intragenerational solidarity. It should also extend to intergenerational solidarity.

As the Portuguese bishops have pointed out: “The environment is part of a logic of receptivity. It is on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.”

This should prompt us to reflect on the purpose of life, the meaning behind all our toil and work. We should not just be concerned about future generations; it is our own dignity that is at stake and which will determine what kind of world we want to hand over to future generations.

Clearly, our present lifestyles and development model are unsustainable and will invite catastophes, which we are already witnessing. This should spur us to take decisive action now to reduce the threat we, and future generations will face.

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