07th December 2021

Book in Focus

Integral Ecology

Protecting Our Common Home

Edited by Gerard Magill and Jordan Potter

Our book Integral Ecology: Protecting Our Common Home contains the presentations of a 2016 conference, part of an annual endowed series held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, USA. The annual conference takes its inspiration from the leadership of Pope Francis to protect our global ecology and environment.

Pope Francis enunciated a bold and dramatic vision in his encyclical Laudato Si’ published in 2015. To summarize his approach, the Pope refers to “Integral Ecology” (§124) as a means “to protect our common home” (§13). The vision of Pope Francis for an “integral ecology” that can “protect our common home” includes several indispensable components that he explains in his chapter on “Integral Ecology” in the encyclical. These components include the following topics: an environmental ecology in which “economic ecology” and “social ecology” work together “in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (§141-142); a “cultural ecology” that respects our “historic, artistic and cultural patrimony” including “care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions” (§143, §146); an “ecology of daily life” supporting “human ecology” and celebrating “the relationship between human life and the moral law” which is necessary for “a more dignified environment” (§147, §155); respect for “the principle of the common good” that not only applies “the principle of subsidiarity” (to “develop the capabilities at every level of society”) but also has a “particular concern for distributive justice” as “a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest” (§157-158, §196); and a commitment to “justice between generations” that promotes “intergenerational solidarity” and “intragenerational solidarity” (§159, §162). To implement this amazing vision requires “major paths of dialogue” in order to address the “great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge” that emerges before us (§163, §202). This is an extraordinarily inspiring vision.

The Pope challenges us to develop many approaches to integral ecology. This requires a comprehensive and complex worldview of the planet and the pivotal issues that threaten its survival or foster its flourishing. Fortunately, many ideas are emerging from multiple disciplines to address the need for uniting the planet and its people in an evolving evolutionary and ecological framework. We face an existential threat that creates an opportunity for connecting environmental and social challenges to generate sustained advocacy and action, including religious and secular input.

A brief explanation of the phrase “Integral Ecology” can help to clarify the landscape that it depicts, influenced significantly by the work of Thomas Berry. The phrase is derived from Latin and Greek vocabulary: integral being derived from the Latin integer, meaning whole; ecology being derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning household. The phrase also is rooted in Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The phrase “Integral Ecology” is used in this book to present the study of how organisms and the environment interact within a perspective that aligns people and planet to advocate for transformative practices. Not surprisingly, this stance requires an unavoidable range of methods that inevitably generate a wide variety of so-called ecologies. In other words, this view projects an integral stance that connects natural and social sciences with the humanities. Hence, the phrase “Integral Ecology” is intended to encompass in a holistic (and integrative) manner the complex relation between people and the planet they inhabit, with a vast array of accompanying ethical challenges. The phrase seeks to embrace many different approaches to ecology that engage the intertwined crises of our social and cultural challenges (people) and our natural environment (planet)—people and planet, so intricately connected that only astute and insightful inquiry across disciplines can fathom their depths. The crucial connectivity between humanity and the environment raises a plethora of ethical issues that necessarily foster connections among social, cultural, economic, and ecological processes to develop sustainable systems to protect the planet.

This holistic interaction of people and planet captures what Pope Francis meant (recalling a long tradition represented in liberation theology) by an integral approach to ecology that connects the cry of the Earth with the cry of the poor. The theological approach to integral ecology was espoused by Leonardo Boff at the same time as Thomas Berry was developing his understanding of integral ecology. Each highlights the connection between social injustice and environmental degradation, inspiring common ground between ecological integrity and social movements.

This approach was unambiguously adopted by Pope Francis at the heart of his encyclical: “Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop… It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected” (LS, §138). This relationship includes society: “When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it” (LS, §139). This approach has significant implications for ethics. The specific focus that Pope Francis adopted is interdependence and connectedness: “Because all creatures are connected, each must be respected with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” (LS, §42). Of course, his agenda refers to ecology generally, even though this specific text focuses on creatures.

Discourse on ethics and integral ecology can adopt many lines of constructive inquiry. The organizing sections adopted in this book suggest a general framework that can be helpful for ethics dialogue. First, recognizing the context of the problem of ecological compromise situates the range of responses that are needed to protect our common home. Second, environmental science presents an indispensable foundation in empirical reality that is necessary to shape informed discussion. Third, the social sciences contribute enlightening perspectives to engage ecology from many interrelated disciples. Fourth, studies in religion can advance ethics by inspiring imaginative and coherent visions that harness belief to safeguard our planet. Fifth, advocacy contributes in a plethora of action-oriented policies and projects to encourage individual and community participation and to provide urgently needed practical support for the environment.

It is interesting to see how this framework can be traced in the view of integral ecology advanced by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si. The context of his encyclical seeks “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (§2) to resolve the “ecological catastrophe” (§4) that we encounter. The context that situates the analysis of the Encyclical is that “environmental degradation and human and ethical degradation are closely linked” (§56). That is, the pursuit of ecological integrity is construed as an essentially ethical quest.

The Pope recognizes the need to rely on “the best scientific research available today” regarding the “ecological crisis” that we face (§15). He upholds the high standards of scientific rigor: “Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom” (§140). The purpose of this research is to “give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term ‘ecosystems’” (§140). He also draws a close connection between “responsible scientific and social debate” (§135) that leads to many enlightening perspectives in social science.

The interrelated disciplines in social science present opportunities to advance his ecological agenda. Above all, his appeal to the common good is significant: “the gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity” (§201). He urges us to construe “environmental education” as being “aimed at creating ecological citizenship” (§211). By this, he means that “environmental education … needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility, and compassionate care” (§210). He presents this approach to “environmental education” in terms of restoring “ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony with ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God” (§210), thereby establishing a robust connection with religious discourse. It is in this link with religion that ecological conversion has significant spiritual implications, “an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith” (§216).

There is no surprise that Pope Francis presents “principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent.” With this stance he presents “guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience” (§15). Here, he seeks to harness the imaginative capabilities of religion to bolster rational discourse in ethics: “the ethical principles capable of being apprehended by reason can always reappear in different guise and find expression in a variety of languages, including religious language” (§199), producing “syntheses between faith and reason” (§63) that foster a “philosophical and theological vision of the human being and of creation” (§130). This approach results in “a religious respect for the integrity of creation” (§130).

Finally, the Pope encourages us to adopt an advocacy perspective to “advance some broader proposals for dialogue and action which could involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy” (§15). For example, he insists that “for new models of progress to arise, there is a need to change the ‘models of global development’”—in this regard, he boldly argues that “a technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress” (§194).

In sum, the sections that shape the book provide a general framework for addressing issues regarding ethics and integral ecology: context, environmental science, social sciences, religion, and advocacy. Hopefully, this framework will enable the reader to traverse this landscape more successfully than previously to protect our common home. Fostering an integral ecology constitutes a global ethical imperative.

Dr Gerard Magill holds the Vernon F. Gallagher Chair for the Integration of Science, Theology, Philosophy, and Law at Duquesne University, USA, where he is a tenured Professor in the Center for Healthcare Ethics. He received his PhD from Edinburgh University, UK, in 1987, and has previously worked as Executive Director of the Center for Healthcare Ethics at Saint Louis University, USA. He has authored, co-authored, and edited 10 books including a co-authored textbook on health care ethics and a co-authored book on Governance Ethics for Boards of Directors in Healthcare. He has also published over 60 scholarly and professional articles and given over 200 scholarly presentations at various conferences. He is a member of 14 Professional Associations. His current bioethics research includes governance ethics and organizational ethics in healthcare; human genomics; hospital ethics committees; research ethics, patient safety; and religious healthcare ethics. In 2015, he was appointed by Duquesne University’s President to be Chair of the Committee for the annual endowed conference series on the Integrity of Creation.

Jordan Potter, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Bioethics at the Cleveland Clinic, USA, where he completes ethics consultations and performs research in the Department of Bioethics. He has published several peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in the areas of end-of-life ethics, transplant ethics, cultural competency, and environmental ethics, and he has further research interests in the philosophy of religion, public health ethics, and clinical ethics.


Integral Ecology: Protecting Our Common Home is available now in Hardback and Paperback at a 25% discount. Enter PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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