Science, Religion, and Hope for Ecological Revolution
- Pope Francis’s ecological manifesto provides a source of hope that is foreign to science
- The question of population control will continue to divide science and religion
- The ecological crisis may demand a revolution in culture and consciousness that could unite science and religion
It seems like we have always lived under the shadow of environmental crisis. Climate change, ground water depletion, pollution, and other ecological ills have plagued us for decades. Political posturing, ignorance, and denial continue to impede action.
Pope Francis’s recent ecological encyclical offers a bit of hope. Addressing the global community with the hope of stimulating a green revolution, the Pope warns that we are “reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation.”
The Pope blames this on a variety of factors: consumerism, worship of technology, and our Promethean faith in human superiority. He sees the ecological crisis as a sign of a broader “ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis.” To respond, Francis argues, we need a “bold cultural revolution.”
Some scientists have been saying similar things for years. Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich argues, for example, that we are in the midst of a human-caused mass extinction event, which could lead to the collapse of civilization. In the 1960’s Ehrlich warned of “a population bomb.” Population growth and environmental degradation have continued unabated. Ehrlich is not convinced that we will do what is necessary to avoid ecological collapse.
I asked Ehrlich via email whether there are any reasons for hope. He responded, “I hope we will take the well-known steps that would give us a chance to avoid a collapse of civilization—like humanely stopping population growth and reducing overconsumption by the rich.”
Ehrlich is, however, not optimistic, given the cultural and political status quo. He concluded, “I see little hope that we will do the things required, like giving full rights and opportunities to women everywhere and supplying all sexually active people everywhere with access to modern contraception and safe backup abortion, and rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels.”
Scientists are not in the hope business. They deal with facts. Species go extinct. Past civilizations have collapsed. The earth has a limited carrying capacity. The concentration of climate-heating CO2 continues to rise. The most a scientist can hope for is that human beings will respond rationally to the facts.
But the Pope has a different source of hope. For the Pope, we are “not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos.” Rather, Francis believes that God “does not abandon us.”
Here we have a fundamental disagreement. Does God promise ecological salvation? Or is civilization a fragile product of evolution, which could die of natural causes?
Ehrlich would argue that theological hope misleads, especially when religious moralism about reproduction is part of the problem. But the Pope might argue that without religious hope there is no basis for his imagined ecological revolution of the spirit.
Hopelessness is a significant ecological problem. It breeds indifference and selfishness. If civilization is doomed to collapse, then why bother to fix things? If we are destined for destruction, then why not horde, stockpile, and consume in anticipation of the collapse?
Hope is clearly needed, if we are going to make progress. But theology is not the only source of hope. The final chapter of human history is not yet written. Unprecedented change can happen. Spontaneous decency can occur. And rational behavior is not impossible. To succumb to despair is to deny that the future is ours to create.
One hopeful sign is the considerable agreement between the scientist and the Pope. They both call for a quick end to the fossil fuel economy. They believe we have an obligation to distribute resources equitably across the globe. They are each appalled by consumerism, especially overconsumption by the rich.
Some differences are substantial. Ehrlich advocates birth control—including backup abortion. Francis just as clearly does not. While the Pope rejects population control, Ehrlich views such rejection as part of the problem.
Population control will continue to divide us. It is easy to despair about such differences. But there is hope in the growing consensus about the need for an ecological revolution.
We need to cherish the delicate beauty of nature and understand our precarious place on this perishable planet. Science and religion actually agree about our fragile mortality and about the awesome wonder of nature. Religion and science can work together to foster the ecological revolution. Let’s hope it does not come too late.