Ecological Economics as Care for Creation

by Chris Durante

In accord with his longstanding commitment to resolving the world’s ecological crisis, Patriarch Bartholomew has recently signed a joint letter with Pope Francis in commemoration of the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation on September 1st. This day has been observed by the Orthodox Church since 1989 and was recognized by Pope Francis in 2015.

Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis have correctly denounced “greed for limitless profit in markets” as one of the primary sources of ecological devastation. It must be emphasized that it is not simply greed on the individual level that is the problem; there is a systemic problem with the notion of perpetual growth that makes individual ‘greed,’ so to speak, inevitable in our current socio-economic system. The neo-classical / neo-liberal paradigm of economics that now dominates the global market functions precisely on a model of perpetual growth and a utilitarian mindset that seeks to commodify an array of living beings as well as all forms of creative human activity. The point is that the ecological crises cannot be adequately addressed, and will surely never be resolved, without also addressing economics. As both Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis have respectively claimed elsewhere, ecological and economic injustices are indeed deeply intertwined. Hence, in order to overcome the crises humanity is facing a self-transfiguration on the personal level must be accompanied by a social transformation if we are to actively show respect for the value of natural life and achieve a genuine form of human flourishing that is creative, communal, and sustainable. An authentically Christian view of our ecological relationality would be eucharistic in that it would view consumption as a life-affirming act that is appreciative of the living energies and living systems that make human life and flourishing possible by seeking to replenish ecological vitality, rather than destructively devour natural creation, as we avail ourselves of the fruits of its existence.

In Orthodox theology, the idea of panentheism, or the notion that divine energies are indwelling within all created life, implies that all of natural creation is sanctified and hence, worthy of being respected and protected. The theologian John Zizioulas has claimed that the sanctification of created life bestows upon it a “uniqueness” that makes it “irreplaceable.” To be unique and irreplaceable is the antithesis of what it means for something to be a commodity, which is inherently fungible, or interchangeable. A commodity is a product, an objectified entity resulting from human labor, the value of which is determined by factors external to itself, such as demand for its use and efforts of labor exerted involved in its production or cultivation.’The very idea of a commodity necessarily entails a utilitarian evaluation of its purpose in a system of trade where it is exchanged for other fungible objects; interchangeability and replaceability are an integral feature of commodification. If created life is indeed sanctified then to allow for the commodification of living beings and natural ecosystems in this manner is to neglect their sanctity as uniquely created lifeforms. Living beings and ecosystems cannot simultaneously be commodified, and thereby valued instrumentally, and sincerely respected as sanctified and intrinsically valuable. To ameliorate this tension it seems that an economics that does indeed recognize an inherent value of natural biological life and ecosystems would be more conducive with Orthodox Christian understandings of the Created world. One possibility of where we might begin would be through a deeper engagement between Orthodox theology and what the economist Herman Daly calls ecological economics, or what John Fullerton refers to as regenerative economics.

I have in mind types of economic theory that view nature, its ecosystems and living beings, as possessing an inherent and irreplaceable value and that calls for forms of economic activity that are regenerative. A regenerative ecological economics seeks means of avoiding the creation of waste and avoids the detrimental effects of human production upon natural biological life and ecosystems so that despite humans’ continued use of nature, we can avoid the destruction of living systems as we seek our mutual prosperity. What we need is an economic model that recognizes the interdependence of humans with the rest of the natural world and which adopts a qualitative understanding of the purpose of economics as a field intended to serve human flourishing. With the realization that natural resources are finite, the principle of regeneration seeks to develop means of interacting with the environment in such a way that restores rather than destroys ecological vitality, such as implementing nonpolluting technologies for the reuse of waste as an energy source and the production of biodegradable and or reusable products.

A regenerative ecological economics provides a socio-economic alternative to models that seek to dominate, and thereby destroy, the natural world. A core feature of ecological economics is the idea that human flourishing is actually at odds with the perpetual growth models of economics that are currently operative in our neo-classical / neo-liberal models and instead proposes a stable-state economy that operates under the auspices of sufficiency and sustainability. The phenomenon of perpetual growth is unsustainable in that new raw material inputs into the system are constantly needed, which necessarily entails excessively using up a myriad of natural resources which in turn involves destroying the ecosystems in which they are to be found. Ultimately, supporting an economic vision that is inherently oriented toward growth rather than flourishing necessitates the emergence of entities that will dominate and destroy living systems, and often, any human communities that preclude the attainment of such resources.  St. Basil the Great arguably endorsed an early ethic of sustainability when he encouraged Christians to consume more moderately while sufficiently meeting their needs and hence avoid excesses to ensure that the community was in correct relationship and could sustain itself. Today we must refrain from embracing economic systems designed with the goal of infinite growth in a finite world. Alternatively, we must seek practical ways of re-orienting our economic models so that our systems pursue sustainable prosperity, stability and communal life. We must overcome the compartmentalization of daily life that our current system imposes upon us and seek the ability for human labor and work-life to be integrated into our ethical and spiritual development as persons-in-relation. We can begin to enact such changes not only by composting our food waste, recycling and opting for more eco-friendly products but also through the re-localization of consumers’ relationship to agricultural production as well as through creative entrepreneurialism. For instance, the implementation and development of ecologically beneficial technologies can simultaneously revitalize natural environments and local communities. If faith is not a once a week affair and liturgical life consists of the continual common work of the people, then caring for creation must become part and parcel of our mindsets and ways of living.

To be “orthodox” means to hold “correct” or “right” beliefs yet it also entails ortho-praxis, or correct practice and right action, and hence, correct living. Taking panentheism and Divine sanctity seriously implies that actively endorsing economic models that fail to recognize the inherent value of natural living systems is inherently at odds with the moral implications of a traditional Orthodox Christian understanding of Creation. In attempting to overcome both our economic and ecological crises, we must adopt a holistic view of life in which socio-economic, personal, spiritual, communal and ecological flourishing are not divorced from one another as competing domains but rather which may be able to reinforce one another as we creatively develop new ways of being prosperous both economically and ecologically.

Chris Durante is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ.

*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.