The Reluctant Ecologist
I’m not a vocal environmentalist. I’ve always been turned off by the way environmentalists want “their kind” to toe all the proper party lines. Of course, I want clean water, soil, and air. Who doesn’t? But I also love sprawling, noisy cities and interstates. I think oil and computer technologies have done lots of good and can coexist with a robust environmentalism. I think free markets are less a problem than the corrupt hearts of producers and consumers. I’m actually (dare I admit it?) undecided about anthropogenic climate change. All this to say: the more environmentalists depend on the power of identification—of the consensus of their inner ring—the more I find myself retreating towards a quiet scepticism and questioning reserve.
So two years into my doctorate, I’m sure I shouldn’t still be asking: How did I end up researching this? This being ecocriticism, a critical method focused on the intersections of ecology and literature. I’m usually leery of such trendy “critical methods,” and the (mis)readings they tend to spawn.
But despite my eco-reticence, I’m hooked. Why?
I blame Dante. A few years ago, I noticed that the more literature I read from the early to mid-twentieth century, the more I found Dante lurking between the lines. Why this fascination with the Florentine poet—this paragon of Christian thought—at the dawn of a post-Christian, secular age? As Christianity waned, writers throughout the century sought alternatives to Dante’s transcendently charged cosmos: fascism, socialism, Buddhism, atheism, even the occult; many left Christianity; some went mad, others committed suicide. Yet they were all haunted by Dante’s voice echoing through the centuries, demanding a response.
So I read Dante. I journeyed with him to the icy bottom of the Inferno, wound my way up Mount Purgatory, and soared upwards into Paradise, to the still point of the turning world. And it struck me: where premoderns believed God and the heavens were transcendent realities, the moderns believed them to be mere projections of the mind, a quirk of our psychology, some evolutional tic that had once enabled our survival. So after emerging from The Divine Comedy, the cosmology of much twentieth-century literature felt flat and two-dimensional.
But not all of it. When I entered the worlds of the Inklings like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; the Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot; or (later) the prose and poetry of Wendell Berry, I was given a small glimpse into what it might be like if Dante’s cosmology had survived, if we hadn’t simply done away with the transcendent, cut the great chain of being.
But to bring this conception of the world into modern ecology is to think outside the consensus of the ecological inner ring. I realized you can’t pursue an interest in the understanding of the world in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature without bumping into the environmental movement and, by extension, ecocriticism. This was their turf. Yet the more I read from leading thinkers in the field like Bron Taylor, Timothy Morton, Carolyn Merchant, Dana Phillips, and Greg Garrard (to name just a few), the more I felt claustrophobic within a discourse that wouldn’t—almost couldn’t—even entertain the possibility that there might be more to the world than, well, the world.
In my reading, I’ve started to call this “ecology on the x-axis.” It looks outward, never upward. It’s cut the y-axis, the transcendent, out of the picture. And I’m convinced that if ecologists are going to teach us how to live well—as they propose—then they need writers (and there are many!) who will help it recover this y-axis. Because such writers are not, as some critics suggest, escapists from the real world; in fact, they might be the only hope we have for properly returning to it—and each other—with charity.
The Meaning of “Ecology” That Ecologists Forgot
To start, it helps to see that ecology without the transcendent doesn’t really work as a concept; it tears itself apart at the seams.
Consider Dana Phillips’s influential book The Truth of Ecology. This book made waves among ecologists by obliterating beloved and commonly held ecological assumptions that the world is a place of harmony, order, and balance. With iconoclastic verve, Phillips dispels the misguided naïveté surrounding these popular associations—the presumed truths of ecology—and argues that ecology and ecocriticism won’t advance until they are purged of such unobservable, unscientific deadwood.
Watch Planet Earth and Phillips’s main argument appears to be self-evident. There’s enough destruction and carnage from predators, viruses, and tsunamis to suggest that the only unifying principle or pattern underlying this ever-fluctuating world suggest a “fearful symmetry” of some malevolent, invisible “design of darkness.”
Yet many ecologists—especially popularizing lay ecologists like Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, John Muir, Jim Dodge, and, we might now add, Pope Francis in Laudato Si’—still cling to the “naïve” view that nature exists in harmonious balance. These writers see patterns and principles that elude the senses. Why? Are they delusional? Misguided? Uninformed? Maybe. Or maybe they remember something carried, but forgotten, in the very word “ecology.”
Do some archaeological digging and you’ll find that ecology is an old coin indeed. Its original picture has been worn away, but most still exchange the base metal.
In Nature’s Economy, Donald Worster unearths some intriguing truths about this word. First, he notes that “ecology” was only first used in 1866, but the earlier notion of nature’s economy (or oeconomy) dates back to 1530 (nearing the time the premodern world would give way to modernity). He goes on: “The study of ‘ecology’ . . . was in its very origins imbued with a political and economic as well as a Christian view of nature.” In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, ecology included three axioms: (1) “the Creator had designed an integrated order in nature which functions like a single, universal well-oiled machine”; (2) “Nature is an order expressive of God’s kindness toward his creatures, and especially toward man, for whom the creation primarily exists”; and (3) “Each species has been assigned a fixed place in a social hierarchy or scale of being.” The mechanistic metaphor—“the well-oiled machine”—already indicates a certain shift towards Deism, one that would eventually establish a rift between the immanent world of matter and its transcendent Creator. No wonder the idea of an ordered, balanced world seems so odd, if not downright problematic, in our secular, disenchanted age.Yet the harmonious interplay of part and whole is an idea that has survived in the ecological imagination today.
Ecology in the Disenchanted World
Phillips’s argument, then, points to how the earth has been “disenchanted.” In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor traces the long and winding and far-from-inevitable history that led to modern disenchantment. While we used to imagine a God involved in the clocklike workings of the world, we began to imagine him merely as the one who wound up the clock. But once this separation between God and his world has begun, it’s not hard to cut God out completely until all that’s left is this clocklike world. Except now that we’ve given the clock a fairly thorough going over, we realize that it’s much—much—more mysterious and inexplicable than we ever might have imagined. And it takes a certain outmoded innocence to actually see the world as a well-ordered, harmonious mechanism, and not just a wild, chaotic tangle of moving parts with no real pattern the human mind can discern.
So today we live within what Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” a world reduced to naturalist explanations, increasingly closed off to the transcendent. And whether we’re aware of it or not (and whether we’re religious or not), this frame has shaped much ecological thought in our secular age. This means environmentalists, especially Christian environmentalists, don’t get to hop on to the subtraction-narrative bandwagon, lamenting everything we’ve lost since the fifteenth century—as if dysentery were something to get nostalgic over. We have to admit that disenchanting the world allowed for the possibility of major breakthroughs in applied science (particularly modern medicine) that have improved life. We also have to recognize that the flattening of the world allowed for a really robust look at life on the x-axis.
Yet while we might be grateful for the growing body of scientific knowledge accumulated within the scope of the immanent frame, there are still troubling consequences when we lose sight of the y-axis. As we become increasingly buffered from even the possibility that “something” might transcend our sensible world, we have a much more difficult time really believing that humans are not just another type of animal and the world is not just a place of inert, material resources for us to use up in any way we can.
Laudato Si’: Recovering Ecology’s Y-Axis
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis attempts something Wendell Berry in his fiction, Annie Dillard in her essays, and even Christian Wiman in his poetry have all attempted in the past decades: to recover the y-axis within ecological thought.
Over a month out from the encyclical’s publication it’s clear that it was not the progressive eco-manifesto that some had feared and for which others had hoped. Certainly Pope Francis demands—with an unmistakable urgency—that we take anthropogenic global warming seriously, and he minces no words about the looming ecological crisis should we refuse to change our ways. But these warnings are embedded in the much more ambitious project of making some elbow room for Christian thought at the environmentalists’ table.
Before we can appreciate—or rail against—Pope Francis’s ecological vision, we need to hear the radically countercultural refrain echoing throughout Laudato Si’: that our love for the earth needs to be deeply connected to our love for others and, ultimately, to our love for the Creator. In one of my favourite passages from the encyclical, Pope Francis brings this refrain to a crescendo: “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” In other words, care for the earth is only part of the much broader call to shalom, the recovery of true harmony among God, humanity, and the earth. It is the call to move in rhythm with the intended music of the spheres that sin disrupted.
For Pope Francis, shalom (though he doesn’t use the word) is the interdependence and interconnection of natural ecosystems, the built world, social relations, and God. He calls this integral ecology, a move that drastically expands—actually, recovers—the full, premodern scope of “nature’s oeconomy.” While there are questionable elements within Laudato Si’—for example, reductionist depictions of free markets, Luddite views of technology—the encyclical’s biggest (and often overlooked) success is right here, in nudging us toward a social imaginary—the one that has cut God from the picture—to consider how the transcendent releases us from our “stifling immanence.”
Because what animates Pope Francis’s environmental vision is not merely saving the world—non-Christians already do this quite well. He doesn’t counteract the problematic otherworldly tendencies of dualist, gnostic versions of Christianity only to subscribe to the (equally) problematic tendencies of monist, naturalizing versions. Rather, his vision of a world in harmony in all its dimensions rests on recovering the paradox that God is both immanent and transcendent. He is at work in the impossible complexity of this-worldly relationships, yet also exists outside them, wholly other.
In a way, the intensified flattening of ecology in the secular age has been helpful. It’s helped us understand our deep connections to the earth and our interdependence with all life forms. It’s also helped us recover a humbling sense that we are mere dust, embodied creatures who were made to depend on the material world. So we pollute rivers and soil and air at our own peril. We develop technologies and consume material without considering future implications at our own risk. We forget that in a free universe, we don’t necessarily have to, but we very well could self-destruct.
Again: one doesn’t need to believe in God in order to care for the world. But if saving the world is only a matter of clean air and good food and reduced carbon emissions—that is, if it’s only about human survival—it can quickly be untethered from a deeper wisdom that teaches us how to live and be fully human. Pope Francis helps us remember this wisdom. He calls us to meditate on the world in order that we might find out more about the one who made it and us; to be humbled and awed by the mysteries we have yet to grasp; to care for nature as we’d care for the least among us; to restrain our desires and insatiable appetites that are capable of consuming the whole world; to realize that true possession is often in giving, not taking; to think about how our acts reverberate to others in different places and future times. In other words, we need to mute the dominant cultural refrain that we are autonomous, and to listen to what the creation tells us from birth to death: we are creatures made for dependence and relation.
In other words, we are ecological creatures meant to look out on the world around us on the x-axis in ways in ways we’ve perhaps forgotten. But in the process, Pope Francis encourages, we also can’t forget to look up, like Dante looking at the stars, and strain to hear the harmonious music—the creative logos—of the heavens by which and for which the whole ecological order hangs together, and attune ourselves to this music in small individual acts and larger institutional acts that bring the health—a word connected to healing, wholeness, and holiness—of shalom into this world, our common home.