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Humans and the Environment

Towards an Integral Ecology

By Emanuela Chiang

Integral ecology is not a discipline concerned solely with the study and protection of the environment, but rather a genuine vision of human development which offers much food for thought. It completes the concept of integral human development, already embraced by many, but which nonetheless disregards one essential factor, viewed by some as self-evident but which in actual fact is anything but: the view that the environment is not a box that contains us and within which we live, but rather a system of relations between living organisms and nature.

A wonderful overview of integral ecology can be found in Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, written in 2015, which presents a very lucid analysis of the socio-environmental crisis that the world is undergoing, both addressing the possible causes and offering proposals for solutions.

We all know that the environmental situation is very worrying, both globally and locally. Globally we are witnessing the effects of climate change, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and desertification, which intertwine with local issues such as atmospheric and hydrogeological pollution, and land consumption. All this has a negative impact on quality of life for people and communities, and COVID-19 is just one of the manifestations of how our planet is ailing and the dramatic social consequences of environmental degradation. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”*1

Consider the etymology of the term ecology, oikos = house, and logos = discourse: discourse on the house. The earth is indeed the “common home” we all live in, and where everything is interconnected. “Time and space are not independent of one another […] just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network.”*2 Nature (creation) must not therefore be viewed as something separate from us or as a mere backdrop to our lives. We are part of it and it is part of us.

Faced with these complex problems, we therefore need to adopt an integral approach: Pope Francis’s affirmation that everything is connected invites us to consider the complexity of reality, and the ecological crisis, as an external manifestation of an ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis. We need an approach capable of combining the different perspectives that now appear fragmentary and divided. Laudato Si’ offers a systemic vision, that is to say integrated and integral, of the various dimensions around which our personal and collective existence gravitates. 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. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part.”*3

The causes of environmental issues must therefore be sought not only in environmental factors but in the functioning of society as a whole, its social and economic dynamics. We cannot arrive at the causes by analyzing only one of these aspects, and therefore the solutions, the idea of our “common home” must be based on an integral vision: an ecology that is social and economic, as well as environmental.

If everything is connected, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life*4: “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment. In this sense, social ecology is necessarily institutional and gradually extends to the whole of society, from the primary social group, the family, to the wider local, national and international communities.”

Integral ecology also includes looking after humanity’s cultural heritage in its broadest sense. Together with our natural heritage, in fact, there is an historical, artistic, and cultural heritage that is equally important and equally under threat. Cultural ecology sets out to safeguard the common identity of places and create habitable cities, which does not mean destroying existing ones and building new, supposedly more ecological ones which might not always be desirable to live in. On the contrary, it is a question of integrating the history, culture, and architecture of a specific place to safeguard its original identity. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious as, or even more so than, the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions.*5

The earth is our “common home” where everything is interconnected. The vision of integral ecology presented in Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (2015), is a lucid analysis of the socio-environmental crisis and the complexity of reality where everything is connected.

Development in the proper sense of the term includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life, and this entails considering the settings in which people live their lives. Hence the concept of the ecology of everyday life. Indeed, the places we live influence the way we think, feel, and act. The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking in beauty, open spaces, or potential for integration can breed brutality and be exploited by criminal organizations. It is important, for example, that the different areas of a city be well integrated and that its inhabitants not be forced to live isolated in their neighborhoods; that transport be accessible and functional, that there not be an excessive number of cars that produce traffic and pollution, and that there be adequate roads and parking spaces to protect the urban fabric.

The Encyclical Letter also reminds us that human ecology is based on a sacred connection: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is indispensable when it comes to creating a more dignified environment. Our body itself places us in a direct relationship with the environment and other living beings.

Lastly, integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of common good, a principle that has a central and unifying role in social ethics. Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic, inalienable rights for his or her integral development. It also means working to ensure social well-being and security and develop intermediate entities, applying the principle of subsidiarity. The notion of common good of course extends to future generations too. We can no longer talk about sustainable development without considering intergenerational solidarity. The environment, as Pope Francis reminds us, is merely on loan to each generation, which must then hand it on to the next.

*1 Pope Francis, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

*2 Ibid.

*3 Ibid.

*4 Ibid.

*5 Ibid.

  • Emanuela Chiang is an Italian expert in project cycle management and has taught the subject at Bethlehem University since 2010. She has expertise in the field of migration, and in 2020 she began studying and working in the field of integral ecology. She can be reached at e.chiang@volint.it.

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