Integral Ecology Without Nature

by C.S. Lammer-Heindel

A few weeks ago, I attended an ecumenical prayer service and panel discussion concerning Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment. The service included prayers for “nature,” and involved specifically praying for various natural habitats or ecosystems, such as savannahs, desserts, and so forth. Notably absent from the prayers was any mention of human habitats, such as urban neighborhoods, industrial parks, farming communities, slums, or suburbs. This is reflective of the fact that we conceive of nature as something distinct from ourselves. At best, we think of nature as a context, which we then modify. At worst, we think of it as something outside of and other than our habitats.

One of my chief criticisms of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is that, despite calling into question the culture-nature dichotomy, it succumbs to it. Despite reaffirming our creatureliness, its message is couched in the language of a human/nature rupture. Consider, for instance, the following passage:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (Francis 2015, sec. 106)

This passage is ordered toward a legitimate point. Francis is encouraging us to give up the subject-object dichotomy, which leads us to think of things purely in terms of their use-value. Here, he is acknowledging that we have always used that which is non-human in pursuing our human interests. But he suggests that our contemporary technocratic paradigm blind us to the realities of non-human beings and their unique worth and dignity.

And yet nature is framed as something in which we intervene, thereby suggesting that we (or our interventions) are unnatural or non-natural. This stands in conflict with the overarching theme of the encyclical, which is that “we are not disconnected  from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (Francis 2015, sec. 220). As Timothy Morton has written on his blog, Ecology Without Nature, “When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can’t hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand thing ‘over there’ called Nature.”

Francis’s “integral ecology” seems intended to be an ecology which overcomes the culture-nature dichotomy; the very term suggests this. But he has not presented this integral ecology consistently and thoroughly. He has, true to his word, only begun to sketch out the alternative. We ought to carry this project along, asking what it would be to affirm a Christian integral ecology without nature. Morton and others have much to teach us in this regard.

Works Cited

Francis. 2015. Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Morton, Timothy. n.d. “About.” Ecology Without Nature.