An Ecologist’s Perspective on Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter

Guest Contributor:  Dan Botkin

Throughout my career as an ecological scientist, I have been fascinated by the connections between the Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and modern environmental science, and have written about this in various scientific articles and several of my books.  So I have been especially intrigued that on June 18 the pope published his Encyclical Letter about climate change.  It a fascinating combination of many things, some completely contradictory, some I agree with, some I don’t, but with an overall important impact.

One of the intriguing things Pope Francis writes is

When we speak of the ‘environment’, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.  We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.  (Encyclical, Paragraph 139).

That people are part of nature, not separate from it, is a point I have emphasized in my writing many times over the years, but has not been a common part of dominant ideas in Western Civilization, which has tended to view people as separate, in a negative way, from nature — a view promoted especially since the beginning of the scientific/industrial age.

The Pope’s Encyclical Letter may seem to many people to be new, novel and unique in the history of religion.  But in fact, as long as people have written in Western civilization, they have written about people and nature from a religious and philosophical perspective.

Pope Francis also writes in his new Encyclical Letter about the character of nature, stating, for example,

Frequently, when certain species are exploited commercially, little attention is paid to studying their reproductive patterns in order to prevent their depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem. (Para. 35), and

Despite the international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the balance of nature. (Para. 57).

These statements, too, are not unique nor new.  On the contrary, again as long as people have written about nature in Western civilization, they have written about a balance of nature. The ancient Greeks sought to understand how this world, full of wonderful, curious, and amazing creatures, could have come about.  They concluded that it had been made by the gods, who, being all perfect and all-powerful, could only have made a perfect world with a perfect nature.  And since it was perfect, any change to it could only make it less than perfect.

They called this perfect state of nature the balance of nature, which they believed had several characteristics: it was the best condition of nature in every way, with the greatest diversity of species, the greatest beauty, and the capacity for permanence.  Furthermore, if ever disturbed from that balance, nature always returned to it, except when disrupted by human action.  It was not only constant over time but also spatial — geometrically — symmetric.  Thus, the Greeks believed that the deepest point in the oceans had to be exactly the same depth below the ocean surface as the height of the tallest mountain was above sea level.  Nature’s balance also involved the great chain of being, a place for every creature, and every creature in its place. This meant that all of Earth’s creatures — every one — had to be a necessary part of the balance, part of that perfect state.

This left the ancient Greeks with the obvious question: why wasn’t nature as they found it perfect, if it had to be?  They came up with two answers, both pointing the finger at us. Either the gods had put people here today to be the final cog in nature’s machinery and we weren’t doing our job. Or nature was only perfect without us — it was our actions that made nature less than perfect.  Sound familiar?  It should, as these are the same issues, same questions, and same conclusions that form the basics of the modern environmental movement.  And perhaps you have thought that these questions and the concern about environment were new, the invention of modern technological, scientific civilization since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1960.

Judeo-Christian theologians and philosophers picked up the same arguments, but giving the credit, of course, to the one God, also all-powerful and all-knowing, who therefore also could only have made a perfect world.  That the observed world was not perfect was attributed to the same human causes, and became a particular problem with the discovery of the New World and all its strange creatures.  Why would God make a grizzly bear, a coyote or a condor?

Thomas Jefferson was taught this balance of nature, believed it, and wrote about it.  The route that he and Meriwether Lewis planned for the Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean was based on the geographic balance-of-nature myth.  And it wasn’t the best route — assumed that the western half of the new continent had to be symmetrical with the eastern, and therefore the river that flowed from the western mountains had to be as navigable, as wide, and with the same kind of flow and meanderings, as the Missouri, and the western mountains had to be exactly the same width and height as the Appalachians, and as easily crossed in a day or two.  Thus Lewis and Clark were unprepared for the vastness of the Rocky Mountains and the great difficulty of crossing them and then finding their way without serious mishap down the Columbia River very different from the Missouri — all part of nature’s lack of symmetry.

Although modern environmental scientists rarely use the term “balance of nature,” scientific writings about environment are often heavily based on the idea, just phrased differently, with the term replaced by others that to these scientists meant the same thing:  stability, homeostasis, resistance, resilience, and so on.  Journalists and pundits without formal scientific training use these same replacement terms.  As a result, consistent with the belief in the balance of nature, we are warned of tipping points, of destabilizing climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, and populations.

For example, in 2008, James Gustave Speth, at the time Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, headed an 80th Birthday Symposium held at Yale University for Dr. George M. Woodwell.  Speth said Woodwell et al. had written that “the CO2 problem is one of the most important contemporary environmental problems . . . [that] threatens the stability of climates worldwide.”  Clearly these authors had to know that climate had changed in the past, and it had always been changing, but they wrote to the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government that the climate is “stable”and human actions threaten that stability.  As another example, in 2015, a paper published in the journal Science, often considered one of the two most important scientific publications, was titled “Anthropogenic environmental changes affect ecosystem stability via biodiversity.”  That paper stated,

Human-driven environmental changes may simultaneously affect the biodiversity, productivity, and stability of Earth’s ecosystem . . . changes in biodiversity caused by drivers of environmental change may be a major factor determining how global environmental changes affect ecosystem stability.  

This paper leaves a reader with the idea that nature is stable, and that stability is an ordinary, natural, and important characteristic of ecosystems.  The balance of nature continues to form the basis for most environmental laws in the U.S. and in the European Union. For example, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1973, still in effect in its original formulation, called for the maintaining an “optimum sustainable population,” a single, best, permanent population size, the notion of which comes directly from a formal mathematical statement of the balance of nature.

The balance of nature continues to find its way into the media, again as a repetition of the fundamental characteristic of nature. On November 20, 2014, Charles Krauthammer, writing about global warming in the Washington Post, said, “We don’t know nearly enough about the planet’s homeostatic mechanisms for dealing with it.”  Frequently, a belief in the balance of nature includes a belief that nature must therefore be fragile, because balances in the physical world, as with a spinning top, are often fragile.  And a fragile world must be handled carefully by us, since the imbalance is believed today, just as it was among the ancient Greek philosophers, to be our fault.

Pope Francis continues this part of the myth when he writes,

If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.  (Para. 78).

One of the things I have learned in my now 45 years studying nature and attempting to understand how it works, is that life is not fragile.  It has persisted for 3 ½ billions years.  That can’t be considered fragile.  But this shows the debt of the pope to the standard environmentalist (not scientist) rhetoric.

If nature is now in perfect balance, then every part of it is necessary, including every creature alive today, that great chain of being.  Pope Francis continues this part of the myth, writing,

 Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose.  None is superfluous. (Para. 84).

Elsewhere, several times, the pope discusses our need to help the poor.  Helping the poor in reality requires protecting them from many of the diseases, but nowhere does the pope discuss the need to control or eliminate disease species.  That lack leaves him open to be interpreted as wanting the continuation of small pox, malaria, and Ebola.  This is one of the places where his rhetoric become self-contradictory and anti-ecological.

In some places in his Encyclical Letter, Pope Francis goes into considerable detail about environment. These details are repetitions of standard, mainline opinions from some of the major, large international environmental organizations, so that the pope seems to be directly repeating their calls to action, and therefore opening him to the criticism that he had written a political, rather than a religious, doctrine.  For example, he wrote

Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.  Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.  (Para. 153).

I happen to agree with what the pope says here about urban public transportation, and I am certainly no expert on religion nor of the history of previous Encyclical Letters.  I merely assumed they would be primarily focused on religious matters or, when discussing other topics that seemed part of and affected by religion, would remain philosophical and general.  For me, perhaps in my religious history naiveté, the pope’s jump into a specific technological issue seems somehow very strange and out of place for the person who is supposed to be one of the authorities on religion and religious philosophy.  It would be like me writing a major public statement about Catholicism, which I have no basis to do nor would ever do.

Be that as it may, the greatest importance of the pope’s document is that it makes clear once and for all that this issue is fundamentally a religious and an ideological one, not a scientific one. As I make clear in several of my books and many of my articles, the fundamental irony of environmental science is that it is premised on mythology, on the myth of the great balance of nature, which is not scientific and not scientifically correct.


About the Author:  Daniel Botkin is a scientist who studies life from a planetary perspective, a biologist who has helped solve major environmental issues, and a writer about nature. A frequent public speaker, Botkin brings an unusual perspective to his subject. Well-known for his scientific contributions in ecology and environment, he has also worked as a professional journalist and has degrees in physics, biology, and literature. His books and lectures show how our cultural legacy often dominates what we believe to be scientific solutions. He discusses the roles of scientists, businessmen, stakeholders, and government agencies in new approaches to environmental issues. He uses historical accounts by Lewis and Clark and Henry David Thoreau to discuss the character of nature and the relationship between people and nature.  For more information about Dan’s work, click here.  

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Twenty-Five Myths That Are Destroying the Environment: What Most Environmentalists Believe and Why They Are Wrong (Expected Publication, Spring 2015)

The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, New York, hardback and eBook, September 14, 2012). (One of 5 finalist in the 2013 USA Best Book Awards (Science))