. . . a limitless technology, dependent upon a limitless morality, which is to say upon no morality at all. How did such a possibility become thinkable?
Pope Francis’s critique of the technocratic paradigm in his Encyclical Letter, On Care for our Common Home, might also be thought of as a critique of a morality of limitlessness, with the goal of articulating morally binding limits for human conduct. For guided by a morality of limitlessness, people are encouraged to have and do as much as they possibly can; so also are we commanded to “dream the impossible” while drinking at the eternal fountain of youth, delivered to our doorsteps by Amazon drones. There is an important sense in which Wendell Berry is correct when he suggests that all moral codes have until this one involved limits, thus making the idea of a limitless morality no morality at all. But he also undersells the way Liberalism’s limitless morality does have a distinct and not fully unwarranted program dedicated to removing obstacles and barriers to the pursuit not just of satisfaction, but justice and equality as well. As Marx was a great admirer of the bourgeoisie, so also are we great admirers of freedom.
While the morality of limitlessness—or, synonymously, Liberalism—has triumphed in modernity, it has not been without its detractors. The dehumanizing qualities of efficiency and machine production, the loss of social order by the singular pursuit of self-interest, the destruction of social bonds by individualism, the ceaseless change and disruption cause by technological advances—these have been a constant concern throughout modernity. They give rise to the bewildering anguish that Thomas Hardy once referred to as “the ache of modernity.” Throughout the history of modernity, it is true, limits have often been reinvoked, usually with little success, as a response to Liberalism’s mission of progress and equality (consider that, until recently, “levelling” has been a keyword of conservative social criticism). True, conservatives have often been concerned with little more than propping-up self-serving hierarchies, leaving more thoughtful critics, like Hardy, looking-on in quiet desperation. Conservativism, as it had developed throughout much of modernity, has attempted to slow the rate of change; with cries of “cultural decline,” it has typically contrasted a fallen present to some or another pre-modern Eden. As this tradition has devolved into the Republican Party of today (neo-liberalism strategically adorned with resentment), it is difficult to think of anti-modernism as anything other than an incoherent response to the loss of inherited and unearned privileges, all of which increasingly melt into air along with tradition’s chain of ancient and venerable prejudices.
There is a sense, perhaps, in which Pope Francis merely adds another voice to this tradition of anti-modernity—or rather continues a recitation maintained by the Catholic Church all along. He frequently talks of modernity, though vaguely, in terms of the loss of balance and equilibrium past, or as the rupture of an earlier bond between humanity and nature. More specifically, Francis is concerned that modern, technocratic pragmatism creates a one dimensional humanity that is spiritually bereft, unable to care for others, foster authentic human freedom or (let us not forget) obey its heavenly Father.
But there is another sense in which Francis’s anti-modernist morality of limits is unique. For what gives his critique its heft is not just his care for the meek and poor. It is not just his articulation of an “authentic human development” based on the alleged will and design of “his” creator. His closed world, in other words, does not maintain its boundaries only through the word of God or with nostalgic images—though all these elements are there and may be significant, they themselves are nothing new: religious authorities like the Pope, after all, have long been telling us that our modern freedoms are putting our souls in peril. Rather, the genius of the Pope’s timely meditation is to yoke a religion of limits to ecology, a science of limits.[i] Both Catholic theology and modern ecology inhabit a closed world–one distinct from the infinite universe of physics and “technology,” or of Liberal economics and morality. Ecology, today, has an Earthly urgency to it that provides Francis with a miracle of worldly opportunity. Our immortal souls may have always been in danger from our infinite morality or the leveling of “personality” into a one-dimensional “man”; now our mortal bodies are also threatened in a more immediate and menacing manner. In a way that knits together theology and ecology with hardly a visible seam, the Pope has called for an “ecological conversion” (217) so that we might at once save our souls and save our planet.
Attentive readers are correct to note an unremitting ambivalence in my regard. Yes, there is opportunism—or opportunity may be a better word—in the Pope’s combination of theology and ecology. I prefer my naturalism without supernatural backing. But, I find myself considering, there may also be no other valid options. Or perhaps our ecological crisis is finally creating the necessity that we wandering Hegelians have been looking for.
As I have previously mentioned, the Pope’s critique of the technocratic paradigm, as unrelenting as it is, poses less of a threat to Liberalism and Liberal freedoms than the eco-theological paradigm he proposes as its replacement. And topping that critique is a tall order. For it alone clearly states that we cannot live a life typical to Western industrial democracies: we cannot consume to our heart’s content, never mind that consumption will never content the heart. We cannot despoil our common home. We cannot treat it as a mere source of raw materials, no more than we can treat others as objects to be manipulated and exploited.[ii] We cannot pursue technology with complete moral abandonment. We cannot act as though the world has infinite resources or as if the economy can grow forever. Most significantly, we may not do just as we please, nor can we simply pursue our interests or desires. As Francis explains, we have “the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us” (208). The result of this assessment will lead to a life far different than most of us can even conceive of from the comfort of our middle class lives.
One might be tempted to expect that Francis’s critique of technocracy forms his negation of Liberalism, while the contents of his “ecological conversion” would present a positive alternative. This is not really the case—perhaps because we are, conversions notwithstanding, still embedded in a Liberal modernity which forms the contours of any action; perhaps it is because humans, modern or not, cannot simply plug themselves into ecological systems. Instead of a positive model, the ecological paradigm is, initially and itself, also presented most prominently as a further negation of our current pragmatic, individualistic, and consumption-based way of life.
We might therefore begin to describe the Pope’s “ecological paradigm,” as does Francis himself, by contrasting it to Liberalism. As I noted in my previous installment, the phrase “everything is connected” appears repeatedly throughout the Encyclical Letter. Interconnection, along with the notion of limits, is of course the fundamental principle of ecology. As Wendell Berry has put it, “For some time now, ecologists have been documenting the principle that ‘you can’t do one thing’” (46). This, he continues, “means that in a natural system whatever affects one thing ultimately affects everything” (46). Freedom, I have argued in previous installments—or at least within a political or social system organized around freedom, as well as justice and equality—presupposes that in most cases of human action we can do one thing, and without consequence to others. The principle of tight interconnection explains why there is no freedom in an ecological system—only place, function, niche, and role. Limits and interconnection, I have been arguing, are the antithesis of Liberal freedom, according to which most things are indifferent to us: ecology, like serious theology,[iii] is anti-Liberal; or, better, Liberalism is predicated on the eventual obsolescence of ecology (and, for that matter, theology); this is why as the Earth’s ecological limits are bearing down on us, we can expect ever more urgent calls for a Liberal (even leftist) Ecomodernism. For unless we can somehow keep stretching the Earth’s ecological limits, Liberal freedoms face a grim future. Because, Liberals believe, there is no legitimate or humane alternative to Liberal freedom we must, they conclude, find an infinite source of energy and transcend ecological limits in an ongoing quest to reach infinity and beyond.
In Chapter 4 of On Care for Our Common Home, Francis speaks most directly of the “Integral Ecology” that will inform any ecological conversion. One of the more notable aspects of Francis’s ecological thinking is that he goes beyond integrating ecology into politics; rather he wants to interpret all of society, politics, history, morality, even spirituality according to an ecological paradigm of interconnection. Ecology is his master-trope, competing at times even with traditional Catholic theology, which is now reinterpreted in a more ecological, and explicitly less anthropocentric, light. It is in direct contrast and as an alternative to the fragmented knowledge and instrumental reason of modern Liberalism that Francis posits “integral ecology” as his epistemological framework: “Since everything is closely interrelated and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest we now consider some elements of an integral ecology” (137).
According to this integral ecology, in order to understand “the environment,” for instance, and how it might be sustained, we need to focus as much on society as we do on “natural systems.” As Francis explains, “when we speak of the ‘environment’, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it” (139). Cutting with his words against the grain of modern society and most interpretations of Christian scripture, Francis argues that “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it” (139). In order to understand and address the destruction of our “environment,” then, we need to engage it with an understanding of the interrelation of everything: “recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the way it grasps reality “(139). This may seem simple and uncontroversial enough, but when the implications of an ecological “grasping of reality” have begun to accumulate, we witness a radical uprooting of the Liberal apprehension of our world, the Earth’s systems, and humanity’s place within them.
Take, for instance, the issue of global inequality. Like the Pope’s Bible, the Encyclical Letter is preoccupied with the plight of the poor and vulnerable, and likewise maintains a relentless criticism of the rich and powerful, who advise and prognosticate, consume and destroy, extract and abandon, usually from the comfort, “far removed from the poor,” “of a high level of development and quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population” (49). “Green growth,” and other trickle-down approaches, Francis maintains, are “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution” (50) so that privileges can be maintained with an eased conscience. Once we grasp the coherence of his ecological interpretation of society, it is easy to understand how a document that names our current ecological crisis as its first concern is as much a treatise on poverty and exploitation, and why he is telling high-consuming peoples of rich industrial nations that we must redefine progress (194), reconsider “the purpose of our life in this world” (160), and, above all, change (202). Unlike Liberal environmentalism, which may call for us to volunteer our time and money to help steward the local nature preserve, Francis calls for a whole-world stewardship that involves the entirety of our being and our way of life. There is no morally sanctioned retreat from the service-day at the Audubon Center to comfortable suburban enclaves; that level of consumption, Francis has already said, cannot be separated from the commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill.” This insight and connection between consumption and killing, in turn, is a straightforward result of an ecological epistemology according to which “everything is connected,” in which we assess “the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us.”
In Liberal environmentalism, similarly, there is a tension between the economy as most people think it should be, and the limiting of greenhouse gases–even as the tension is partially hidden and eased by greenwashing, and its fantasies of a green growth economy. Barack Obama has frequently promised to address our “environmental problems,” but not in any way that would hurt the economy (and thus not at all). His view is not that of an integral ecology. Similarly, the Paris Agreement, like its predecessors, is all too careful to insure that emission control won’t affect global growth, enforcing economic freedoms more vigorously than the Earth’s ecology when all is said and done, while timidly submitting morality as something non-binding and merely aspirational. Part of the attraction of Francis’s writing to those of us who are serious about sustainability is that his is not a voluntary morality. Francis argues that “we are not dealing with two separate crises, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” It is a crisis, he would agree, that is also moral, spiritual, and epistemological–having to do with the way we grasp reality and then live in it, body and soul. If economic well-being finds itself pitted against the functioning of our Earth’s eco-systems, in other words, this only shows how bereft our understanding of economic well-being has become, and how we’ve organized our economic and social systems according to a one-dimensional instrumental logic. “Strategies for a solution demand and integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (139). In an integral ecology, then, economics and politics are just and sustainable only when they do not require the exploitation of the Earth or each other. Justice and sustainability, according to the Liberal understanding, presuppose an infinite universe rather than an ecological world, in which our lives might be divided into public and private, consequential and unimportant, duty-bound and free, careful and carefree. Without these divisions, as I have argued, there is no Liberal freedom.
It is a shared concern with poverty and with “the environment” that might cause progressives like George Lakoff to consider the Pope one of their own. But he clearly is not. Increases in freedom and autonomy are not the Pope’s solution, limits and restraints are. Unlike progressive dreams of poverty eradication through universal wealth, Francis takes aim at the wealthy and their (our) way of life, understanding fully that an average American or European middle class life represents an extreme amount of wealth, supported by vastly unsustainable consumption of natural resources, propped up by a competitive and exploitative attitude towards the Earth and each other. A closed world or a finite planet requires a far different Eco-theology. Its main practical lesson: the poor can’t live more like the wealthy; rather the rich need to adopt a life of comparative material impoverishment so that we might all live with spiritual bounty. Otherwise, none shall inherit the Earth.
A Matter of Life and Death
We have increasingly colored-in the ecological critique of Liberal Modernity, but still without saying much about what an ecological conversion is a conversion to. True, we may all have images at the ready to fill in the space vacated by modernity, but this does not really answer the question: what is an ecological morality, and where does it come from and find its authority? We may know what we cannot do; but what can we do and how should we organize ourselves economically and socially? We might start to answer this question, more difficult than it appears at first, by asking how ecological systems work and what intrinsic values, if any, they maintain.
With its embrace of our closed world here on Earth, ecotheology revives a set of value-concepts rendered optional, nostalgic, and mainly private by the infinite universe and the instrumental reasoning that has held near exclusive domain within it. Recalling Koyre, these include concepts like harmony, unity, and wholeness. There is no “wholeness” in a belief system modeled after the infinite universe and therefore no unity. Harmony is a principle of bringing together difference into a manifold one, in the name of beauty and accord; harmony is necessary in finite space, but optional when waves of sound and light, or cause and effect, can trail-off into perpetuity, after which the pursuit of happiness might follow to the utmost ends of the universe. It should be no surprise at this point that these concordant, closed-system, principles are common to the descriptions of reality employed by the closed systems of ecology and theology alike.
The union of ecology and theology may be compelling; but it is equally troubling, especially for those, like me, trained in the faith of secular, Liberal, modernism. The Pope argues in his revision of the traditional anthropocentrism of Catholic theology that theology and ecology are never far apart. “The harmony between the Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.” As a result, Francis says, “the original harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual” (66). A similar view of the unity of ecology and theology is affirmed by Wendell Berry who, in his manifesto of (agri)cultural redemption, The Unsettling of America, leans as heavily on concepts of the divine or sacred as ones of ecological unity and wholeness. Citing William Blake, Berry holds that “in speaking of energy, then, we are speaking of an issue of religion, whether we like it or not.” For “religion, in the root sense of the word, is what binds us back to the source of life” (81). In our moment of modernity, the common reference to “infinite energy” as the source of (Liberal) redemption is indicative of this same type of quest for divinity, though it is an idolatrous one (in Tillich’s sense of idolatry) made with no humility or restraint. Limitless energy, our most fervent and zealous technocrats will suggest, might “free” us from nature, let us inhabit the whole universe, even cure us of death.
This, the moral order of infinite energy and technology, Berry explains, “is comparatively simple”–one dimensional we might say. Its “principle sustains a highly simplified economy having only two functions: production and consumption” (85). Only in this economy might instrumental reason thrive, for in an infinite universe, neither “inputs” nor waste pose a problem, and thus require no care. The belief that supply and waste pose no problems works in mutually reinforcing concert with the belief that a good life is care-free and convenient. In contrast to this is a closed-world ecological morality:
the moral order appropriate to the use of biological energy, on the other hand, requires the addition of a third term: production, consumption, and return. It is the principle of return that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care, of a different and higher order than that required by production and consumption alone, and it calls for methods and economies of a different kind. In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human, are joined together in a kind of energy community. They are not divided from each other by greedy, “individualistic” efforts to product and consume large quantities of energy, much less to store large quantities of it. They are indissolubly linked in complex patterns of energy exchange. They die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures. (85-6)
In a closed biological system, in other words, everything is someone else’s food. When operating in a stable manner, it operates as a balanced or harmonious unified whole composed of wondrous diversity linked together; here, there is no waste or excess, only a system of order and exchange, with a degree of complexity beyond human understanding. “Nothing is indifferent to us,” as the Pope would say. Everything is interconnected and every action affects everything, thus announcing the terrible gravity of autonomy and free-will. Only by aligning ourselves with these cycles and their limits, as well as their incalculable complexity, says Berry, might “we touch infinity” (87).
I will later discuss the problem contained in this notions of “aligning ourselves” with nature, for its no easy matter–more difficult, in fact, than Berry admits: this is why an ecological morality may be less obvious that we suppose. Either way, however, to embrace nature and its cycles involves changing not only our economic system, our mode of production, the way we eat, drink, and be merry, our moral order and, most obviously, the way we consume—it also requires that we change our modern attitudes about death. An ecological system, as Berry points out, is not only powered by (solar) energy; it is also powered by death, without which the wheel of life would grind to a halt. As organic farmers, gardeners, and permaculturalists understand, soil is sacred, and the worm, fungus, and bacteria our most marvelous prophets. “A healthy soil,” Berry explains, “is full of death,” but by the same measure, “full of life.” Here “nothing that dies is dead for very long,” while “death occurs only for the good of life.” “It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. No less than the faithful of religion is the good farmer mindful of the persistence of life through death, the passage of energy through changing forms” (86). The Pope may strain, at times to turn his Catholicism more Earthbound. But this he nevertheless does–perhaps, because the force of attraction to the soil is stronger than two centuries of creed and orthodoxy for a theology turned ecological, as it must today. For, as Berry lyricizes it, “the soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and the restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life” (86).
Modernity, and its triumphant Liberals, in contrast, despises both dirt and death in the name of a misplaced biophobic purity where cleanliness sits next to godliness. Note the way a good Liberal humanitarian strives, more often than not, to “save lives.” Saving lives is one of the main “metrics of success”[iv] for a charity, military incursion, or new drug or other technology. Saving lives is what heroes do. Of course this phrase contains within it an unacknowledged fiction, and one that is, I think, more than a inconsequential figure of speech. One cannot save lives; the most we can hope for is to postpone death. But we nevertheless tell ourselves the story, often many times a day, that saving lives is a form of ultimate redemption, the highest calling, as if we have, in fact, solved the problem of death and thus all the problems of life as well.
I realize I am opening a dangerous door by questioning the value of “saving lives,” but no more dangerous than the one opened up by questioning freedom. I do not take accidental or early death lightly, and even less lightly the cruelty by which the death of others is a matter of intention or disregard. Quite, in fact, the contrary. The same may also be said for the way I consider autonomy and freedom. I am, however, concerned with the way life and death, freedom and autonomy are all considered and understood. None of it should be squandered or wasted on trivial pleasures or the avoidance of minor discomforts. They are all of a piece: the desire to “save lives” exists on a fairly short continuum with any program of solving poverty by making everyone wealthy, of addressing global warming or resource depletion by way of an infinite source of “clean energy,” of avoiding economic hardship or difficult choices by growing the economy forever. All of these are raised on a limitless morality and thus the capacity of ingenious humans to launch ourselves beyond our biological confines.
And there is, at present, no limit upon the way or degree to which our society might pursue this dream of infinity. There are countless examples of this—one can hardly turn on the TV or radio, even “liberal NPR,” and not be inundated by the fantasy of human power over finitude. But one of the most vivid examples for me came in the form of a 2013 Time Magazine cover story. In September 2013, Time Magazine colorfully splashed across newsstands everywhere, the question, “Can Google Solve Death?” The editors’ goal with this front page story, of course, was to catch eyes and turn heads, but not with a proposition so bizarre as to be mistaken for the sort of farce that might come from “The Onion.” Rather, apparently, it seems a reasonable question, and the world’s knowledge-makers and economic elites who form the audience for news weeklies are, it also appears, by and large willing to take such an idea in stride
The logic is impeccable, but entirely disoriented: Death is scary and painful. Why wouldn’t we want to avoid it or escape it? Life is good; ergo, why not live forever? But lost in this worship of silicon, and ones and zeros, is the belief that life is not based on biology or an ecological system, that we are or can be a sort of artificial intelligence. And if life is not really biological, we don’t need to take biological limits or functions all that seriously or give them an especially prominent role in our moral order. The possibility of solving death is, I think, ultimately puerile and is indicative of the silly boy-geniuses who we view as leaders. It leads to paradoxical questions, like, could one live forever on a planet that cannot sustain life? For the end of death would certainly mean the end of biological life, and since our so-called spirits are grounded on Earth it would also spell the end of spiritual life, as well as the emotions with which drive our frail and finite bodies into motion on our frail and finite Earth. It should go without saying at this point that the carefulness that the finite cyclical system requires is the opposite of the carefree convenient life demanded by Liberal middle-class consumers. To “solve death” would be to end life, a principle grasped by theology, existential philosophy, and ecology—but not by Liberalism. The architects of our coming “smart planet”—Liberalism’s last hope–lack wisdom. They can do anything, but they know nothing.
An ecological conversion, should it occur, will be truly revolutionary and radical. For it takes us down to the roots.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floor of silent seas.
Here’s one of the difficulties: humans are not able simply to plug themselves into ecological systems. I should have been a pair or ragged claws; but alas I am not. While humans have made far too much of their differences from other creatures and the emancipatory power of a break with nature, there is a reason why nearly all ancient traditions have a myth of the gift of fire to humanity. We are the animal that burns, tills, transforms the face of the Earth in ways that reach for the heavens and scrape the pits of hell. Subject, object, subordination and coordination; internal and external—we are the storytelling animal. As Nietzsche noted, we are inflicted with a great memory; we are the animal that makes accounts and bitterly recalls them.
Humans might try to surrender themselves to ecological forces, but if this self-abandonment is conscious, the memory of fire still flickers within. It is a problem, perhaps, of freedom and autonomy. There is no freedom in an ecological system—or at least ones without humans—because other creatures appear to have no desire to transcend their functions and roles. We are blessed or cursed with the role of steward or destroyer, for where ever we go, we turn nature into culture. As the Pope puts it, “We do not understand our superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather of as a different capacity which, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility. . .” (220). Especially for us–in advanced modernity, where any kind of powerdown would involve relinquishing what we already have and can do–an ecological conversion is an act of will or freedom or autonomy, and probably also of bargaining and coercion, requiring new myths and hierarchies, and everything else that makes human history a mixture of tragedy and farce with its brief moments of redemption. It is a problem, to turn everything once more on its head, of our inextinguishable freedom. It is to this problem and the Promethean rebound that I will turn to next.
[i] We should also note, that modern ecology bears little resemblance to the biological sciences of the pre-modern era.
[iii] “Serious” may be the wrong word. Nevertheless, the attempt to unite a religious outlook with Liberalism and its limitless moralities has many admirable features, but Liberalism seems to be what Paul Tillich would refer to as “the ultimate concern,” and thus subsumes theology, which becomes increasingly either a choice at the cafeteria (Unitarians) or idolatrous (Joel Osteen, etc).
Photo credit: By Marek Slusarczyk, CC BY 2.5.