Thinking about Nature

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In an article entitled “Climate Change: Economics or Ethics?”John Sweeney, professor of geography at NUI Maynooth has made a thoughtful and lucid contribution to the current debate concerning climate change. The article appears in the current issue of Working Notes, a publication of the Irish Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The recent report of the UN Inter-Governmental Conference and the up-coming Warsaw COP19 Climate Change Conference are contexts for renewed thinking about the issue of climate change.

Why is there so little movement on putting in place binding agreements at the international level on practical policies to combat climate change? There are many reasons. But one of them is the prevalence in the Western scientific and public consciousness of deeply-engrained attitudes toward the natural world. Sweeney notes that “the anthropometric worldview has blinded humanity to the obvious fact that far from being above nature we are dependent on it today as were the Neanderthals, though the relationship is more complex.”

A key ethical question that cuts across all political and philosophical discussions of climate change is whether we have an ethical responsibility towards those future generations who may have to bear the consequences of our selfish disregard for the current fragile state of the planet. The answer might appear obvious, but so brainwashed are we by the dominant individualistic culture of contemporary liberalism, that the answer is not at all obvious.

Sweeney refers to a classic essay by Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967) where White argued that the prevailing attitude asserting human dominance over nature is culturally derived from the Christian tradition. White has shown that our sense of a separation from nature coincides with the rise of Judeo-Christianity. Anthropocentrism is deeply embedded in Christian theology and anthropology. Celtic Ireland, however, experienced a deep connection with nature. Even as late as the Middle Ages, the Brehon laws counselled a respectful attitude towards the natural world.

Fundamentally, Sweeney argues that the scientific worldview has failed us. It lacks the moral power to persuade. Ethics and religion have a role to play in this regard. A religious worldview that has integrated the sacredness of the natural world within its ethical framework can be a powerful and persuasive voice in the raising of consciousness concerning the dangers that confront our planet. In his day, Saint Francis was such a voice. We need someone today of the stature and personal appeal of Pope Francis to spur us to paying some attention.

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