Forum Summary: Theologies and Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century

What follows is a summary of the Meridian 180 forum "Theologies and Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century" (September-October 2015).

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In September 2015, Meridian 180 brought together anthropologists, legal scholars, a literature scholar, a futurist, a geographer, a corporate lawyer, and philosopher for a lively conversation about Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. Some key insights emerged from their discussion:

1) More careful attention must be paid to the powerful institutions, histories, and thinkers that have served as foundations for Laudato Si’s (progressive) points about Earth’s environment.

Richard Irvine (University of Cambridge) pointed out how Laudato Si’s footnotes reference Bishops from outside Europe, philosopher Paul Riceour, an Eastern Orthodox patriarch, and a ninth century Islamic mystic. Vincent Ialenti (Cornell University) discussed the pope’s allusions to liberation theologian Leonardo Boff’s 1996 book Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor and to critical theorist Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. While Peter Wynn Kirby (University of Oxford) lauded the pope’s quasi-anthropological respect for multiple different knowledge forms, he noted the Church's "often imperious and hidebound" character. Karen Pinkus (Cornell University) likewise scrutinized the text’s “bedrock” – a powerful Church history of suppressing difference – underlying even its most progressive prose.  

Meridian 180 members made it clear that Laudato Si must not be interpreted simply as a single standalone text written by a one-man Author. The intellectual challenge, for them, was to instead ask: what other contexts, debates, and figures dwell behind, beneath, and around Laudato Si's multi-authored prose? How do these backdrops compromise or bolster the text’s ethical basis or rhetorical force?

2) The pope’s call for us to rethink how we live our lives must be taken seriously and must be scrutinized.

Stephen Humphreys (LSE) explored similarities between Pope Francis’ and philosopher Martin Heidegger’s critiques of technocentrism and between how they both sought the "saving power" of the "‘here and now and in little things’, in natural beauty, and in art." Tetsuya Kaida (KAZE Creative) advocated "holistically recreating" societies by embracing others, opening to change, and appreciating sensory experiences (of wind, color, taste, nourishments, and so on). Jee Hyung Lee (Ewha Womans University) questioned why so many people, with basic needs more than fulfilled, are overworked in an economy known to bring desperation to the poor without increasing the happiness of the rich. Huaihong He (Peking University) described how “dark green” ecological progress is prevented not just by rich elites and powerful institutions, but also by vast public populations valuing wealth maximization. Yu Xingzhong (Cornell Law School) likewise emphasized how the prevalence of modern "Scientific-Rational-Economic-Legal" people has left humanity undeveloped in emotion, aesthetic ability, sentiment, and spirituality. Finally, Tim McLellan (Cornell University) explained how certain Chinese agroecologists he knows take time to enjoy – in ways open to meaning, inspiration, and wonder – the landscapes they scientifically studied.

Meridian 180 members responded to papal critiques of contemporary obsessions with money, private property, numbers, and technology by envisioning what alternative lifeways, values, ambitions, and forms of enjoyment might look like. Can meaning, aesthetic appreciation, and fulfillment emerge alongside, within, or in reaction to the seemingly lifeless logics of technology, economy, and quantification? Or are they mutually exclusive? How can we imagine fresh ways of living life?

3) Further thought must be given to whether twenty-first century calls for economic progress, poverty alleviation, and environmental care can realistically be reconciled.

Douglas Kysar (Yale Law School) lamented how the UNFCCC's 1992 plan for progress did not come to fruition and how a meaningful price on carbon was blocked for years with US politics held captive by an unaccountable elite’s power. Amy Levine (Pusan National University) – discussing climate-pragmatist, eco-modernist, pro-nuclear critiques – too asked whether Laudato Si's vision of progress is idealistic. This opened the question of whether it is unrealistic for the pope to advocate poverty alleviation and limits on economic growth simultaneously. Does the former goal require more consumption while the latter goal requires less consumption? Are the (contradictory) aims that Laudato Si suggests we pursue really possible to achieve in tandem?

4) A more holistic discussion about religion and the rejection of selfish excess is needed.

Laudato Si links contemporary environmentalist and anti-consumerist thought to longstanding Christian thought traditions. But such urgings to reject materialistic excess, Meridian 180 members noted, are not unique to Christianity. Huaihong He explained how Confucianism – and today, popular Daoism and Buddhism – in China have sought to "restrict" people's materialistic desires. Ji added how religions "generally respect nature" and how, for example, Buddhism opposes waste and luxury. Can world religions' millennia-old teachings help us achieve a long-view perspective enabling us to revisit today's technocracy/capitalism as a historically new – perhaps reversible – trend that is out-of-sync with most of human history's ethico-religious frameworks? How might other faith traditions inspire anti-consumerist or environmentalist worldviews?