It was exciting to be in Paris during the COP talks on Climate. There was an unprecedented united movement of scientists, civil society, progressive business leaders, investors, and activists representing social and ecological interests from around the world, all demanding our political leaders put the common good ahead of national interests and actually lead. Soon we will know the results.
Even the best-case outcome in Paris will be insufficient, that much is clear. And the hard work of implementing the voluntary pledges on the ground lies ahead. Canada, under new leadership, deserves praiseworthy attention for its 180-degree turn to the right side of history. Saudi Arabia deserves global scorn for its continued disingenuous interference with progress. America did its part, but of course could always do more. Yet Congress awaits…
The course for the next five years has been charted. Action is rightly now the operative word. But a second line of inquiry continues to simmer below the headline grabbing pledges and initiatives, like Bill Gates’s $1 billion leadership commitment (1.25 percent of his net worth, it must be said) on the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that will invest in clean energy innovation. Of course innovation is essential. But genuine solutions that address root causes are far more complex. For starters, our short-term obsessed financial system needs its own reinvention to effectively serve this unprecedented challenge.
That second line of inquiry is at the heart of Pope Francis’s courageous, wise, and now controversial Encyclical, Laudato Si’, calling for an “integral ecology.”
Four hundred years ago, the leading Enlightenment thinker Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition under the auspices of Pope Paul V for his belief in Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe. The idea that the Sun and not the Earth was at the center of the Universe was heretical, and seen as a direct challenge to scripture and the authority of the Church. The injunction ordered Galileo:
“to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
Today it is the Pope himself being challenged as a heretic of sorts. He is a heretic to those who subscribe to the conventional, reductionist belief system that sees science as separate from spirituality, and religion as separate from politics and economics. At the core of this contemporary belief system is what Berkeley Ecological Economist Richard Norgaard calls “the Church of Economism,” which has “reshaped the diverse cultures of the world and come to function as a modern secular religion.” This is the “religion” of free market, neo-liberal economics as the arbiter of all questions of the day, as advocated by politicians on the left and the right, by business and financial elites, and even by many environmental advocates. Anyone who challenges this faith, including the Pope himself, had better be prepared for scorn and ridicule, the modern-day equivalent of house arrest.
How far we have come since the birth of the Enlightenment! While the irony is rich, the dangers are great. It’s time for a new enlightenment, grounded in a holistic worldview which understands that everything affects everything, and problems cannot be managed within the expert disciplines that currently define our institutions. The Pope’s Encyclical asserts: “It cannot be emphasized enough, that everything is interconnected.”
Modern science in each of its disciplines understands this to be true: quantum physics for example and the web of life in biology. So too the core religious beliefs, Eastern and Western, express this central idea of interconnectedness, often expressed simply as oneness. Similarly our indigenous wisdom traditions promote the idea of the “unity” and the interconnectedness of all life. Yet in the “house of economism,” and particularly in finance, we insist on breaking down complexity to its component parts so we can better manage them, leaving us with ignorant and dangerous concepts such as “shareholder value.” But in doing so, we lose sight of the interconnected whole as the financial crisis made all to clear.
This reality is central to the Pope’s important message. But unlike so many who challenge the modern “church of economism” with the ideology of resistance, be they champions of social justice or champions of the environment, Pope Francis points to a wiser path. He counsels that the genuine systemic solutions lie instead in our embracing “integral” thinking and decision-making: retaining what’s great about the modern system while addressing head-on its deficiencies and transcending our differences.
“We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”
A recent study funded by NASA, using a cross-disciplinary “Human and Nature DYnamical” (HANDY) model, found that two crucial and contemporary (interconnected) crises—”the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” (climate change is a prime example); and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses [poor]”— have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse” of civilizations in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
The bottom line: The stakes could not be higher: if we don’t change course, we are facing the potential collapse of civilization. Climate change is a symptom of a system-design flaw. So too is the grotesque inequality within wealthy countries and among nations. So too even is the scourge of terrorism. While we move to urgent action post the Paris COP as we must, transforming our energy system in particular, we must at the same time heed the message of the Pope and invest in the search for genuinely integral solutions.
 The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 138
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 141