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Biodiversity, Environmental Ethics and Theology

The environmental crisis has reached the point when it cannot be ignored anymore. The need to change attitudes toward the environment has given rise to environmental ethics – a branch of ethics studying the relationship between humanity and the earth. Environmental ethics aims to provide moral standards regarding how people should treat nature. For this purpose, ethics often couples with religion to evoke respect to the environment as part of God’s creation. In his encyclical letter entitled Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis (2015) clearly describes the relationship between the environment and religion. He appeals to every person in the world, regardless of whether they believe in God, to change their consumerist attitudes toward nature and take measures to improve the environmental situation on the planet. The first two chapters, in particular, outline the major environmental problems, such as pollution, climate change, water shortage, loss of biodiversity, and global inequality, and provide a religious basis for behavioral change. This paper will focus on the issue of decreasing biodiversity, explaining how environmental ethics and theology apply to this problem.

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The loss of biodiversity is not the most cited issue when it comes to discussing the current environmental crisis. However, from the environmental ethics perspective, it deserves as much attention as other problems. Thousands of different species disappear annually because of human activity, which often results from the fact that people do not consider the living organisms’ reproduction and migration patterns and essential habitat factors (Pope Francis, 2015). Pope Francis (2015) argues that preserving various species is important because they can be useful for humans in the future, for example, as cures or foods. However, the utility of different organisms for humans is not the only reason why people should care about their protection. As Pope Francis (2015) notes, they should be preserved because “they have value in themselves” (p. 26). Thus, animals, plants, and other elements of biodiversity are ascribed independent moral status, not reliant on their utility for someone.

The encyclical provides religious support for the argument that all living things have the intrinsic source of moral value. Pope Francis (2015) claims that every creature is valuable to God because “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory” (p. 50). It means that people should not decide which living beings are worth protection based on their utility. When speaking about the value of any creature, the Church emphasizes “the priority of being over that of being useful” (Pope Francis, 2015, p. 50). Thus, religion supports non-anthropocentric environmental ethics, which does not focus on humans and endows all living beings with equal intrinsic value.

At the same time, religion disapproves of anthropocentrism, which places the human at the center and views the world in terms of people’s values. Citing the Book of Genesis, Pope Francis (2015) argues that people have distorted the meaning of the words “to ‘have dominion’ over the earth” (p. 48). Instead of dominating the earth, people should “till it and keep it,” that is, cultivate it and take great care of it (Pope Francis, 2015, p. 48). Hence, religion emphasizes that every living creature has its intrinsic value, and humans’ superb position in nature calls them to protect all living things rather than exploit them.

The encyclical draws the ethical principles of justice, sufficiency, and solidarity to underpin the need for preserving biodiversity. Referring to the principle of justice, Pope Francis (2015) cited the words of Jesus: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (p. 58). This quote means that the powerful should not exploit the weak; instead, they should protect them to ensure that everyone is treated equally. Regarding biodiversity, it implies that, according to ethical principles, people should protect all living things because humans occupy a superior position in nature. The principle of sufficiency suggests that all creatures should have enough resources to maintain an appropriate quality of life. In his encyclical, Pope Francis (2015) relates this principle to the gap in the quality of life between the rich and the poor. However, it is also related to biodiversity since people should leave enough resources for other living organisms to sustain their existence.

Finally, the principle of solidarity implies that all living entities, including people, constitute one big family. As Pope Francis (2015) notes, “Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters …, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us … with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth” (p. 64). Being united with all entities found in the environment, people should have a concern in protecting nature and act depending on the consequences their actions will have on the well-being of others.

In conclusion, environmental ethics, underpinned by religious principles, calls people to weigh their actions against the results they will bring to the environment. This paper focused on the issue of biodiversity, discussed in Pope Francis’s encyclical. It has been argued that people are morally responsible for preserving biodiversity because every creature has value in itself, even if it does not directly benefit humans. Every living being is God’s creation, and humans have been sent to the earth to protect them rather than exploit them. Religion provides strong support for environmental ethics, emphasizing the principles of justice, sufficiency, and solidarity. According to these ethical principles, it is morally right for people to help the underprivileged, ensure that all living beings have enough resources and take care of the well-being of others.

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Questions for Class Discussion

  1. How is the problem of global inequality and poverty related to environmental ethics?
  2. In his encyclical, Pope Francis (2015) often refers to the planet as “sister earth” or “mother earth.” How is it related to the type of environmental ethics called ecofeminism?

Why does Christianity disapprove of anthropocentrism in protecting the environment?

Reference

Pope Francis. (2015). Laudato si’: On care for our common home. Our Sunday Visitor.

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