Why integral ecology is not a new religion

POST BY AWentworth

Niall Leahy is an Irish Jesuit. In his second blog, he rebuts the idea that integral ecology is a new religion. 

In a recent interview, historian David Starkey made clear that he sees environmentalism as part of a new perverted woke-green religion. He believes that Greta Thunberg is being paraded as a “child saint” and that it’s all about returning to “sackcloth and ashes”. Whether environmentalism has accumulated superficial religious trappings or not is of little consequence. I am basically supportive of Greta and her friends, not because I want to be “woke”, but because caring for the planet points to deeper religious ideas that usually go unnoticed.

First of all, caring for the planet is a project that is deeply concerned with tradition. The word tradition comes from the Latin tradere, to hand on, and this is exactly what environmentalism seeks to do – to hand on to our descendants the invaluable ecosystems and natural resources that our ancestors handed on to us, even if that requires making sacrifices. Similarly, to be a Catholic is to be somebody who hands on. We believe in the integrity, and sometimes the sanctity, of those who handed on their beliefs and practices to us. The fact that they made sacrifices to keep the tradition alive tells us just how mindful they were of us, their biological and spiritual descendants. That is a humbling thought and something we could all learn from.

Secondly, our response to the environmental indicates whether we have understood the problem in a religious or modern way. Most secular political and business leaders see the problem as a purely technological one. Hence they are banking on a clean and tidy large-scale technical solution that will allow business and growth to continue as usual but without the nasty carbon emissions. Other environmentalists are more sober-minded and realise that damage limitation is now our most realistic hope. As a religious thinker I am more sympathetic to the latter because I acknowledge that we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world and even our well-intentioned responses will inevitably bring their own difficulties. So let’s not pretend that we can have our cake and eat it. We will eventually have to let go of some luxuries or conveniences and be happy with less.

This is not going back to sackcloth and ashes, or as Pope Francis says, it is not a question of returning to the Stone Age. It is a question of thinking religiously: coming to understand ourselves as people who hand on and as people who require conversion. Whatever difficulties conversion brings they will be difficulties that we will be able to live with and that will allow us to live.

You can read Niall's first blog here