19th century integral ecology

Charles Waterton’s natural history specimens. Copyright: Stonyhurst College Collections
Charles Waterton’s natural history specimens. Copyright: Stonyhurst College Collections

Last week’s edition of The Universe contains an article by Fr Damian Howard SJ, Provincial of the Jesuits in Britain, about a collection of preserved animals brought together by Charles Waterton, an alumnus of Stonyhurst College.

In the first half of the 19th century, Waterton made several trips to British Guiana (now Guyana), building an impressive collection of specimens, many of which can still be seen in the recently renovated museum of the College.

On his return to Britain from his last visit to South America in 1824, he ran his family home at Walton Hall in Yorkshire as a nature reserve. He built a nine-foot wall stretching for three miles around his estate, with a lake for wildfowl. He prosecuted a local soapworks when effluent from their factory seeped into the water supply. And he wrote extensively on natural history and conservation.

These achievements were recognised by Sir Richard Attenborough when he opened a new display of Waterton’s work in Wakefield in 2013.

In the wake of the industrial revolution, the harmful effects of the unchecked exploitation of the past centuries were becoming clear. Among pollution, slums on the outskirts of overcrowded cities, and the spreading of diseases, some began to look for an alternative lifestyle. Waterton, for the example set at that early stage, is now recognized as a pioneering ecologist.

“It may have taken the Church a little while to latch on to these concerns,” writes Fr Damian in the article, "but when she did she spoke firmly on the matter.”

Like in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Octogesima Adveniens (1971), where the Holy Father wrote that ‘due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.’

The Universe’s article links with the outlook of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, and so with Jesuits in Britain’s three new projects bringing together integral ecology and adult education that are beginning to take shape in Oxford, in Clapham, and at Mount Street.

“It is important to note that this concept of integral ecology,  as Pope Francis expounds in Laudato Si’, is not simply about climate change or recycling, important as these topics are” explains Fr Damian. “It means more; it is nothing less than a renewed vision of what it is to be a follower of Christ in the 21st century. Pope Francis wants us to take part in a bold cultural revolution, to reimagine society and our very civilisation in the light of the insight that 'all things are connected'".

Waterton’s collections have inspired generations of young people to think about their place in the natural world. “It is my hope” concludes Fr Damian “that the new projects that the Jesuits in Britain are developing will be similarly inspiring, leading many more to commit themselves to caring for our common home for the greater glory of God.”

Read more about the new Laudato Si’ Institute at Campion Hall, the Jesuit permanent private hall of the University of Oxford.