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From Environment to Environmentalism


A danger comes when a natural moral concern for the environment, as God's entrustment to man, turns into a cult or worship of the environment itselfan environmentalism.


The February 1992 issue of AMBIO, the journal of the human environment of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, featured an article by Tatsuro Kunugi on the roles of international institutions in promoting sustainable development. The Japanese professor proposed a mathematical formula for sustainability.

S = (R x T) divided by P

in which, sustainability (S) is a function of natural resources (R) multiplied by technologies (T), and divided by the present and future populations of the word (P). He did not apparently advert to the imponderability of the three factors involved. R is practically incalculable, as the present glut of food products in the world market attests: enormous amounts of them have to be destroyed so as not to upset the market mechanisms, while in other areas people starve or are malnourished due to lack of infrastructure works, mismanagement, corruption and armed conflicts fueled by ideologies. T has proved itself obviously engaged in an endless progress of inventions undreamt of by the wildest imaginations, thus confirming the astonishing orientation of the human mind and will toward infinity a highly imponderable factor! And so far as P comprises the incalculable potentialities of as many minds and wills, the whole equation is meaningless. It simply fails to take into account that the human factor includes that element of creative freedom, and the supply economics that goes with it, which ultimately renders all calculations no more than fanciful guess or ideological planning.

After this logical flaw, Prof. Kanugi goes on to give a definition of sustainability which violates the logical rule that the defined term must not enter the definition, by denying that sustainability is environmentally sound and sustainable development.

In a subsequent issue of AMBIO (May 1994), the editor-in chief, Elisabeth Kessler, makes the following remarks in the editorial:

Most environmental problems consist of a multitude of related factors. Focusing on the correct problem or factor of the problem, constitutes a major challenge that environmental scientists face in their endeavours to monitor and analyze negative occurrences in nature. This may also be a problem when they are requested to suggest possible solutions to the prevention of degradation that is threatening the well-being of human beings all over the world.

One question that is of major importance, and that must be addressed by every individual researcher in whatever field of science she/he has chosen to practice, is related to a correct definition of the value of the resource their research aims to protect. They themselves must be convinced of the intrinsic value of the resources as well as being able to convince those who rely on the resource for their livelihood about the necessity for its protection. The success or failure of any environmental research measure will depend on the scientist's and decision maker's assessment of this intrinsic value for present and future generations.

It is precisely that value of the resource, this intrinsice value of the human person that must be seriously taken into account when tackling population issues. We are facing the question of the value of man, and the correlative concept of quality of life. Do we believe and hope in man? Or are we afraid of him? To have faith one needs grounds of credibility. Are there such grounds? We can bring up a few:

  • a) scientific, namely the empirical resourcefulness or practical capacity to survive and to solve problems;
  • b) philosophical, namely the mystifying orientation of the human mind and will toward infinity, which makes the human person infinitely self-transcendent;
  • c) historical, namely the actual achievements of human creativity in science and technology: arts and literature; legal, social, economic and political institutions;
  • d) theological, namely the testimonial of the Bible religions for the God-given dignity of the human person.

Does man deserve to be believed in, in spite of his evil or polluting proclivities?

Let me now, to introduce the following discussion, quote some remarks of Pope John Paul II to a large gathering of scientists attending a workshop on chemical hazards last October:

Man's spiritual nature and his transcendent vocation imply a fundamental solidarity between people, whereby we are all responsible for each other. Respect for the natural environment and the correct and moderated use of the resources of creation are a part of each individual's moral obligations towards others...

`The human family is at a crossroads in its relationship to the natural environment. Not only is it necessary to increase efforts to educate in a keen awareness of solidarity and interdependence among the world's peoples. It is also necessary to insist on the interdependence of the various ecosystems and on the importance of the balance of these systems for human survival and well-being. Mere utilitarian considerations or an aetheistic approach to nature cannot be a sufficient basis for a genuine education in ecology. We must all learn to approach the environmental ques solid from ethical convictions involving responsibility, self-control, justice and fraternal love. (Emphasis in texts.) (L `Osservatore Romano, English ed., 3 November 1993, p.4)

What is environmental ethics? Is it a new science? Or a new philosophical discipline? Or a new branch of moral philosophy? Or a new religion? A bit of each of those things it is indeed. One thing that it is not, however, is new.

If environmental ethics is a concern for the moral response to the so-called ecosystem, the most primitive peoples have always shown an obvious awareness and sensitivity to mother earth or mother nature, and a sense of responsibility for the physical environment stemming from a sense of stewardship toward it. As is well known, those primitive peoples were more conscious of collective ownership than of private property, more conscious of the community than of the individual. And this feeling of community or communion was extended to the land, water and air, namely, to the environment. The Greek root eco (aiko) means environment or surroundings or household: hence economy, ecosystem, etc. See Chapter 13 above.

Along with this sense of community with the natural or physical environment, men have always felt a sense of community with a supernatural environment, with a creative and fatherly deity, personal and transcendent to nature, with whom one could communicate (this is what prayer is), and to whom one is morally accountable. This was the original religion of mankind, as was conclusively proved by Wilhelm Schmidt in his 12-volume anthropological study Der Ursprung der Gottesidee. This landmark in modern anthropology, which came to complete the earlier pioneering work of Edward Horace Man and Andrew Lang, finally laid to rest the earlier theories of Tyler and Frazer which had maintained, without sufficient empirical data, that monotheistic religion was the final stage of an evolution from magic, through animism, totemism, pantheism and polytheism. These latter phenomena were empirically proved to have rather been degenerations from an original monotheism, rather than progressive steps in an evolution of culture and civilization.

Man has always been aware of his environment, both natural and supernatural, and has always harbored filial sentiments toward it, together with a sense of awe or profound reverence, a sense of gratitude or indebtedness, a sense of responsibility or moral accountability, and a sense of dependence leading to trustful petition. Biblical religion states all these original attitudes emerging from the depths of the human spirit as a response to the supernatural and natural environment of man. The biblical tradition and scripture is, therefore, the strongest bulwark against the degenerations of authentic religion into polytheism, pantheism, totemism, animism and magic and superstition, with their logical development into idolatry. This process is a social and historical expression of human self-centeredness (the force of evil) struggling against God-centeredness (the force of good).

It is thus that the natural moral concern for the environment, as God's entrustruent to man, may turn into a cult or worship of the environment itself an environmentalism, which is one more idology, one more form of idolatry. It is to be found in various forms associated with the so called New Age movement. It is indeed part of ethics, namely part of justice, which is the heart of ethics, that we ought to give what is due to nature, to the environment, indeed to the whole of creation, treating all creatures, down to the last sub-atomic particle with due regard to their nature, revealed in the physical and biological laws they obey. Just as it is part of ethics to give what is due to every human subject and every human community, with due regard to their nature, revealed in the moral laws which they obey with free and intelligent self-determination.

Thus, as an expression of the moral duty to worship the Creator with filial love and gratitude, man ought to treat all God's creatures with love and justice, thereby cooperating with divine creation and somehow completing it. This active participation in divine providence is the privilege of the intelligent and free creature.

Just as science and technology can be adversely affected by the respective ideologies of scientism and technologism, the new science of ecology (scientific study of the environment) may be adversely affected or colored by the ideology of environmentalism. This ideology may be associated with revived forms of monism, or pantheism, or mother-earth worship, to be found in the New Age movement; or with the pan-psychism of Fechner in the last century, or of Lovelock in our own, with his Gaia Hypothesis. Like all ideologies, it is based on a partial view of a truth (in this case the nature of man), in which the social, or physical, or relational part of man is taken for the whole, obliterating the other `part, the specific part of human nature, namely its transcendence into infinity through intelligence and freedom. Man is indeed part of the physical (and moral) environment, but he transcends it indefinitely as attested by the undying abidingness of religion, and the wondrous history of man's creativity in all the fields of culture: science and technology, poetry and literature, music and plastic arts, legal and political institutions, social and economic systems.

Overlooking this specifically human dimension of man leads to an anthropological view that sees man as only a consumer (a mouth to feed), or a pollutant, or a receiver of non-renewable resources, and the persistence of the obsolete Aristotelian view of economics as exclusively demand economics, and the scientifically wrong assumption that land and labor are the sole factors of the economy. This impoverished concept of man, which debases him by ignoring his incalculable creativity, always at work when his thought is free and ethically oriented, leads environmentalists to advocate population control for fear of having too many people, just as Aristotle did in his time advocating abortion as the best means to secure that end (cf. Politics, VII, 16). After Malthus's law of the so-called inability of mankind to match the natural resources unless its numbers are kept down, environmentalists have added many more reasons like the depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere with the related green-house effect, the acid rain, desertification, etc. Of course, all these phenomena are undeniable, but environmentalists fail to look at the other side of the picture, namely the creativity of man in the field of science and technology, when fueled by an ethical orientation. Thus, they fail to notice the achievements of anti-pollutant technology against the effects of environmental pollution or destruction. What is man primarily, a pollutant or consumer, or a discoverer or producer? Which are more significant in him, his consumer needs or his productive capacities? In the last analysis, this is a philosophical and theological question should we believe in man or not?

Doubtless man can indeed pollute, both physically and morally; he can and does indeed do evil, but he also can and does good, if educated for freedom and responsibility.

The empirical science of ecology, if it must lead to technologies for the real welfare of mankind, must keep itself free from the ideology of environmentalism. In its calculations for sustainable development, it cannot fail to reckon with the incalculable transcendence and value (and dignity) of the human person and human life. Man is not a chunk of matter. Nor is he a pure spirit. The human person, created as male and female, is rather the mediator or pontiff (bridge-man) between nature and nature's God. Hence the inexhaustible human creativity which it is unscientific to ignore or to despise in any calculation, analysis or evaluation. Man's creativity comes from his spiritual dimension, open to the deity or to infinite being; and man's stewardship toward nature comes from man's immersion in the material cosmos. He bridges both the spiritual and the material as homo sapiens; not just as homo economicus.

This transcendent or integral humanism, vigorously put forward by Catholic social teaching, and empirically supported by, among others, Colin Clark, George Gilder and Julian Simon, has been opposed not only by secular humanists, but even by Christians like Herman Daly and John Cobb, all of them neo-Malthusians committed to the dogma of population control and the ideology of environmentism.



de Torre, Rev. Joseph M. From Environment to Environmentalism. In Generation and Degeneration: A Survey of Ideologies, 185-191. Manila: Southeast Asian Science Foundation, Inc., 1995.

The Author

Fr. Joseph M. de Torre is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Manila, Philippines. A social and political philosopher he is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles and essays. Fr. De Torre is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1995 Rev. Joseph M. de Torre
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