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11 January 2021

Conversations on Integral Ecology: Planetary Boundaries and the Pandemic

In the coming weeks, we’re bringing you a series of interviews with academics working in the field of “integral ecology.” Our aim is to understand how their research questions and ideas can be applied to our contemporary global situation, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bethany photo

In this post, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Dr Bethany Sollereder, who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Laudato Si’ Research Institute and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. Her current work focuses on theological possibilities and human vocation in the light of irreversible changes in ecological degradation.

Bethany was in conversation with Dr Tim Howles, a researcher at the Institute.

Tim Howles: As we all know, COVID-19 has a zoonotic origin; it has jumped across a species boundary. Perhaps, then, it provides another prompt for human beings to ask about the way we are occupying the planet Earth and to think about the nature of our relationships with other animals. Do you think the pandemic is revealing how human beings have transgressed “boundaries”?

Bethany Sollereder: A nice easy question to begin with, then!

It depends a lot on your perspective. Generally, if a species has a wide range and is extremely numerous, we think of that as a successful species. A naturalist view might want to affirm how successful we have been as a species in multiplying and expanding into all sorts of lands and ecosystems. If we want to introduce the language of “transgressing”, we would need some other standard or value against which to measure that activity. That might be possible when we introduce, let’s say, a religious or a spiritual or an ethical perspective.

In fact, I would suggest we can say that human beings have had a mixed effect. Cows and potatoes have done much better than they ever would have without us. But many other species are in danger of, or already have been driven to, extinction. We have very strong mutualisms with a very few species, but we have degraded the living standards for so many others.

TH: … so there is a transgression in terms of balance?

BS: I’m not sure. Nature doesn’t actually have balances. Nature is always changing; it is always in flux; it is always dynamic. And human beings have always contributed to that change, in positive or negative ways. This is the case even for early human societies (think of the hunting-to-extinction of certain species of large mammal). Whether keeping a balance open constitutes part of the human vocation (we might say, part of the imago Dei) is an open question that might merit some reflection.

But perhaps we can say that we have recently passed the sweet centre of a friendly climate that has held since the last ice age and we are heading out to an extreme, an extreme whose impact and effects we cannot fully gauge at this moment.


TH: That’s a deep historical survey. But do you think there has been something substantially new in modernity? Some new set of values or some new epistemic shift; something we haven’t seen before? If “modernity” is too slippery a concept then let’s say the last 50-100 years.

BS: I think human beings have always sought to accommodate their environment to their needs. What is new is that technology has given us way more power. Now, we’re able to affect Earth systems at a scale and pace that was not conceivable before, indeed, at a scale that threatens to overwhelm the Earth itself.

TH: At the time of speaking, the idea of technology is much on our minds, as we consider the possibility of a technological solution to the lockdown (that is, a vaccine). Might we look to some equivalent technological solution to the environmental crisis?

BS: Technology is a double-edged sword. It can be used for good or can be used for evil. Because I believe in original sin, I suppose I have a very low standard of hope that people will, as it were, choose to do the right thing. But I believe we can build systems around people that make the right thing the easiest path to choose. This will primarily take place at the level of intergovernmental policy and of scientific and technological innovation. It might take the form of cleaner technologies that people can readily adopt. So, yes, I do think technology will provide answers to our current crisis. The ongoing question is whether or not that will introduce new problems of its own. Remember, the car was the solution to the pollution problem of horse dung on the streets.

TH: Turning to Laudato Si’ itself, I wonder if we find a slightly different inflection again. Yes, hope and expectation is expressed for systemic change. But there is a particular, and perhaps surprising, emphasis on an affective, spiritual and moral transformation of individuals too. How can we find that balance between politics (national and international) and individual responsibility?

BS: In countries that are democracies, governmental systems are ultimately responsible to the people, so there is a direct link. In the context of the UK we can be talking to our MPs and voting in ways that effect change. We also can and should act in whatever we can, for example in terms of eating or travel, or in terms of where we invest. But so many aspects of our modern lives entail huge levels of energy consumption and or complex global trade systems that we cannot extricate ourselves from. Often there is not much we can do to change that. 

When it comes to personal change, I’m not as optimistic as others. We generally observe that individual change takes a very long time. And our challenge is that it does not appear that we have this time available to us!

TH: we need more time for our habits to evolve …

BS: … yes. And another problem is that the dangers we are facing are not the dangers we evolved to react against. Our reactions are primed to respond to immediate, material dangers (for example, the wild animal jumping out of a bush to attack us). But when the problem we are facing is systemic in the ways we described above, we are not primed to respond with urgency. That’s presumably why climate scientists have expressed frustration at the way their data has failed to hit home and introduce the sort of change that is needed.

TH: Religions have some experience of this language, don’t they? Not a monopoly of course, but they do handle concepts of change, of transformation, or even of conversation. What resources do you think the Christian faith provides to “speed up” the evolutionary processes you have described above? 

BS: First, it provides a theological anthropology, a realistic view of human nature. It reminds us that we are not a quick step or an easy fix away from the solution. This will be hard work.

It also gives us a sense of the integrated whole of our living ecosystems. The idea of God as creator and all the rest of us as created beings helps us see the value of other species, or indeed the value of “otherness” in general.

My observation is that, because of the COVID crisis, governments across the world have taken their eyes off their environmental priorities. Funding has been slashed in order to be redistributed to COVID-related endeavours. That’s understandable: they have had too many other things on their minds! But perhaps this in itself is evidence of a human-first attitude: when the crunch comes, we will always and inevitably choose humans first. Christianity would to some extent support this view of course. But it can also provide a balance or a corrective.

So, what Christianity can really offer us is a reframing of what it means to suffer and to die. It turns us back to the reality of our mortality and proclaims to us that we are part of the created order. That is a perspective that has been somewhat lost in our modern and secular world. And without it, I would say the changes threatened by COVID and by environmental change risk becoming overwhelming. It also opens up the promise of new life. This life is not the end, so death is not the greatest evil. As we face our death, as we should, we can look at people around us and say: “until we meet again.”

TH: My anecdotal sense has been that the lockdown period this year has encouraged people to feel that environmental impacts have lessened and that some of the work has been done for us, as it were.

BS: The picture here will be varied. That “narrative” will no doubt require further analysis in the months and years to come. But climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe cites the analogy of a brick wall: “Think about it this way,” as she puts it, “we’ve been putting a brick on a pile every month since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Last month we put a 20 per cent smaller-sized brick on that pile that has thousands of bricks already on it. That one slightly smaller brick is not going to make a big difference.” That stuck with me. Lessening our impact for a few months is just falling far too short of where we need to be.

TH: In your work you’ve suggested a different way of understanding suffering in the created order. As we look back, how might your theology help us appreciate the pandemic as something that is not solely destructive or nihilistic? How can it be something that builds us up?

Suffering that is real suffering is always imposed upon us. Suffering that we “choose” is a different category altogether. So, the question is how do we react when that uncontrollable suffering comes? It comes down to our choices in our reaction, which is really the only thing we do have a bit of choice over.

Think of the action movie where the hero is bound up in chains, and then some weapon is flung at them. But they move in such a way that the sword meant to destroy them actually cuts their bonds instead, freeing them. It is a cheesy example, but I think in times of suffering we can say “Ok, God, help me learn how to respond so that this suffering leads to me being freed from bondages of selfishness and mindless consumption. Instead of taking it away, let this suffering be like the blows of hammer and chisel that shape the great masterpieces of art.” It is not that God sends us suffering to teach us; I don’t think God is like that at all. But I do think God can take our situations of senseless suffering and turn them (and with our cooperation) into something that are meaningful afterwards.

During the pandemic I think we’ve seen many positive examples of support and compassion. I’ve seen people take their loneliness as a cue to sign up to volunteer to phone others. I've seen neighbours meet and help each other out in new ways. We’ve seen the extraordinary heroism of NHS staff. But there are also the hidden stories of people day by day carving their loneliness into the grace of solitude one painful moment at a time. There are people who have encountered death with courage. There are people who have been stripped of their usual pursuits who are awakening to spiritual truths. All around us are examples of people who are making their suffering productive of deep goods, if we can only have the courage to follow them.

TH: Thank you for speaking with me today.

My pleasure! Thank you for having me.