The following is part of an article extracted from Communio 38:4 (winter 2011) 583 – 620 written by Mary Taylor and presented in the frame of the last WYD in Rio de Janeiro
Pope Benedict XVI, said during the World Youth Day held in Australia, “Reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption.” So let us start with an assertion: we are in the midst of an ecological crisis. Or, to mitigate the assertion: at the very least, many people perceive us to be in the midst of an ecological crisis, and even those who deny that there is any crisis at all must still deal with those who do – and that too can take the form of a crisis!
The litany of ills is long and readily visible and does not need to be repeated here; a vast field of ecology/environmental theorists and practitioners has risen up in response. One of the central concerns for these movements is sustainability, which seeks the assurance that nature’s resources will be continue to be available to us in the future. Its concomitant sisters are restoration – that which has been, in the Pope’s example, eroded, deforested, and squandered, should be regenerated – and conservation – “setting aside,” whether for genetic information to be used in the future cure of diseases, for scenic beauty, or other uses. While most people of good will agree on some form of these, there are different ways they can be approached.
The manifestations of brokenness – both environmental degradation and disregard for life – are the result of actions that arise from free human choices; those choices may be economically or politically or even ethically motivated, but they have deeper roots. While there is not one single cause of those environmental crises (there are many proximate causes, some local, some not), ultimately questions about our relationships with others and with nature do not stand alone, but take their place within greater ontological and meta- anthropological dimensions, and must be faced by turning to those dimensions: what do we take to be real and who do we think that we are.
A recent text claims that there are over 200 schools of thought in ecology today. We will consider them here under the rubric of “trajectories,” a word borrowed from Pope Benedict XVI; the word is chosen specifically because they encompass not – or not only – theories, but ways of thinking, of being, of acting, of living. It is always perilous to generalize, but the term is not meant to be totalizing metanarrative, a rigid taxonomy, a way to “control and colonize” ecological thinking, or a way to deny the complexity, variety, and distinctions within each trajectory. Instead, the term is meant simply to point to, as Wittgenstein would put it, family resemblances.
A chemical company remediates a polluted site by digging up the contaminated earth and carting it away. A paper-and-pulp company plants a tree for every tree cut down. A nonprofit gets a scenic area set aside as a wilderness preserve. Any environmental project which seeks to conserve, restore, recycle, or otherwise manage natural resources when those resources are seen only in terms of their utility, and where sustainability is understood as nothing more than “utility extended into the future,” falls under the First Trajectory – the “instrumental rationalism of resource managerialism.”
Sustainability indicators – complex quantitative tools combining various indices and metrics– have been developed to highly sophisticated levels. Rightly ordered, they may be useful tools within the other trajectories, but here their defining feature is a reductive mode of thinking based on an antecedent calculative utilitarianism in which all factors are stripped down to the measurable for a single goal: “environmental policies are designed to maximize human satisfaction or minimize human harms.”
The First Trajectory’s antecedents are found in modernity’s dualism between the person and the world; the human is the subject and nature is the object, to be known by a form of science seen as the final arbiter in all human endeavors.
The Second Trajectory is the home of all projects which focus on nature as a holistic system that needs to be sustained for its own sake and not simply for human utility and efficiency. The idea is not to save nature for humans, but to save it by “letting be.” The same issues of sustainability, restoration, etc. may be considered, but they must be extended to living creatures and to the land. Second Trajectory ecological thought arose positively with the awareness of the delight to be taken in the natural world that was missing from positivism. It invokes, often in expressions of great beauty, the wonder at the heart of our relation with the earth. Philosophically, the Second Trajectory is part of postmodernity’s attack on the presuppositions of the Enlightenment, including its assessment of the subject/object distinction in epistemology and mind/body, self/nature dualism (eco-phenomenology has been very influential here), and the overemphasis on reduction, mechanization, and quantification, derived from physics and extended to other fields.
TheSecond Trajectory’s holism is a philosophy of identity, in which, Benedict XVI has said, “the person is not an ultimate reality…[since] the person, the contrast between the I and the Thou, belongs to the sphere of distinctions;” instead, the boundaries between persons, and between persons and the natural world, “are absorbed, are revealed as provisional.”True solidarity based on respect is impossible not only with humans but with nonhuman entities if each living thing is nothing but “a dissipative structure, that …does not endure in and of itself butonly as a result of the continual flow in the system.”
A few years ago, a young consecrated layman, Ricardo Simmonds (a member of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae and the founder of “Creatio,” a Catholic nonprofit that seeks reconciliation between persons and creation as a response to environmental problems) was given the project of creating a small park out of a garbage dump in a South American shantytown. If it had been a First Trajectory project, the initial step might have been an economic feasibility study, followed by hiring a planning/redevelopment consultant, then seeking out landscape designers, waste management engineers, and other technical help. A Second Trajectory project might have begun with an environmental impact assessment and a stakeholder charrette. Instead, Simmonds put a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of the dump. First the mothers came to pray and plant flowers, carving out natural walkways; the children came to play; the fathers came and began hauling the garbage away; then others from both the shantytown and the city saw something beautiful happening that they wanted to be a part of, and volunteered their services, time, and money. This might seem like an isolated, irrelevant, or marginal event, and clearly a religious statue reflects a very specific milieu, but large-scale environmental projects have been carried out in a similar way: by reversing the standard order of starting with technical fixes and economic costs, which often lead to various social or political conflicts, and instead beginning with the common call to meet our deepest shared needs for meaning, beauty, mystery, and friendship. The other steps are not eliminated but are rightly ordered under what is most important.
We can see the above as an illustration of what Benedict XVI called a “new trajectory” in action:
A new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family; interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization.
The name “Third Trajectory” gives the impression that it is another possible path to be set alongside the other two. But it is not simply another, ultimately indifferent choice, or a response to the others; it remembers and integrates what is good in them, while at the same transcending them. This Trajectory really is new because its very grammar begins from a qualitatively different launching point, so that the ensuing alternative arc of its flight traces a solidarity that can embrace, heal, and bring to fruition all that is good in the earlier trajectories. This trajectory, to borrow from David L. Schindler, is able “to integrate the achievements of modernity, while at the same time moving us truly beyond modernity.”
Benedict XVI sees both the extrinsic, functional relationality of the First Trajectory and the interrelatedness of the Second Trajectory, whether due to biology or choice, as inadequate: “Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation.” This task, he continues, “cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.” So we begin by turning from projects to principles.
In ecological thinking, the Third Trajectory is only now coming into being, awakened by the growing awareness that the first two trajectories are not sufficient. Operating through dualism, monism, or a dialectic of ambiguity, is too limiting. The suggestion is not to reject instrumental reason, interconnection, or dialectic; nor is it to turn one’s back on sustainability, restoration, or conservation. Sustainability, for example, involves more than insuring that we can continue consuming into the future. Though our natural resources are limited and finite, we have a need for meaning that transcends the material; only the infinite will suffice. Solidarity, which requires the participation of everyone involved, concerns more than merely overlapping interests and diverse perspectives; it involves a reversal.
The Third Trajectory does not necessarily promote any specific ecological practices. It draws on every other level and every other ecological method and strategy, not as something extra or added on, but as that which radiates the light by which the others are seen. Something Benedict XVI said about the Church finds an analogous echo in the Third Trajectory: “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer,” but rather points to the truth of human persons and their dignity and vocation, for “without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and skeptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values — sometimes even the meanings — with which to judge and direct it.”
Seeing the whole of creation as an analogical, participatory, personalist gift within which we are in communion with all other beings illuminates the experience of wonder and gratitude for the natural world; provides for genuine hope for the future; and opens the door to a solidarity that is relational in the deepest sense, one which transcends the anthropocentric/ biocentric divide and whose end, to borrow from Martin Luther King, “is reconciliation… redemption…[and] the creation of the beloved community.”