Integral Ecology: Promoting a Clean Environment and Economic Prosperity

By Jason Adkins

To many, it may seem that promoting clean and renewable energy is not compatible with fostering a robust economy. Catholic social teaching, in particular Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, rejects such a paradigm and urges the human community to seek solutions that protect the environment without excluding the possibility of economic growth and vitality.

Redefining progress

As Catholics, we reject an “either-or” between environmental stewardship and economic progress. Rather, we are motivated by the possibility that the two can coincide and even mutually reinforce one another. Pope Francis notes that if we believe there is always a tradeoff between economics and ecology, it is an indicator that something has gone wrong in our thinking.

Stewardship is not a matter of rejecting progress for the sake of the environment but of redefining progress itself. Real progress cannot be reduced to profit maximization; rather, it is always that which leaves “in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life” (LS, 194). The protection of the environment, far from being a secondary or optional consideration, is in fact “an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it” (LS, 141).

 Everything is connected

Unfortunately, Francis notes, a one-dimensional focus on profit maximization happens to be particularly acute in our society. Too often, the economy becomes an end unto itself, and we start to justify behaviors and policies that are detrimental to the environment and costly to future generations for the sake of the bottom line. This, Pope Francis says, “reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy” (LS, 195), which ought to be used to serve the common good, now and in the future.

 The Pope’s call for integral ecology takes seriously the environmental challenges we face today. It therefore demands a full embrace of all the means at our disposal that promote authentic human progress—the market included. At the same time, it recognizes that “everything is connected,” and that our decisions in one sphere of human life and society will inevitably impact other spheres. Our market strategies must be imbued with a desire for authentic human development, which includes the social, spiritual, environmental, and economic dimensions of human life.

 Economic ecology

Pope Francis points out the need for an “‘economic ecology’ capable of appealing to a broader vision of reality” (LS, 141). This broader vision of reality escapes the narrow concerns of profit and consumption. It refuses to separate economic questions from human ones, including questions of how individuals relate to the environment.

By no means, however, does a more integral vision of ecology demand a weak or stagnant economy. It does not involve “stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels” (LS, 191). It requires a more concentrated effort on the part of the human community to develop innovative solutions, as well as a hope-filled investment in a different kind of future that includes a better, cleaner, more sustainable world for everyone.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and an advisory board member of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum. 

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