3.1.4 ‘Ecological crisis’

Back to 3.1.3

Unit 3 Contents



We may sum up the last two screens in this way: an approach to economics based on the three bullet points given there, which was taken initially in Western societies and whose influence has now extended across the whole world, makes environmental damage inevitable, eventually.  If nature is no more than raw materials for our use, and we are never really satisfied however much we succeed in using it, we will go on and on using it until we ruin it.  Over the past few decades, many people have come to believe that there now are such problems and that they are serious.

The outline of the history of Western modernity on the last few screens forms an argument that this approach to economics is bound to result in ‘ecological crisis’.  In that outline I have emphasized the factor of economics in causing such crisis, although there is a huge historical question about other possible factors and also, more specifically, about why the mechanistic vision that inspired that approach grew so powerful when it did, in the 1600s and 1700s.  I pointed out that part of the background to this was scepticism about Christianity, prompted by Christian schism and the ‘wars of religion’.  This is a factor to do with religious belief, not economics.  Later in this unit, we give more attention to the question of the long-term causes of what is now seen as ‘ecological crisis’, and in particular to whether religious factors are significant.

Be aware that identifying the main factors that lead to major historical changes is never straightforward.  In the final unit in the module, we shall look at the issue of different kinds of historical explanation in general – for example, whether material realities or people’s beliefs are most significant (8.1.4).



Do you believe there really is an ecological crisis?  If so, why do you think that?  If not, why not?  Do you think you know enough to form a clear view?


Let us look at the term ‘ecological crisis’.  In the main meaning of ‘ecology’, this word refers to the relations that living organisms, such as plants and animals (including humans), have with their environment.  So the expression ‘ecological crisis’ is appropriate if such relationships, whether on a very local or a much larger scale, have become severely disordered or damaged.

Many people believe that we are now in circumstances of ecological crisis, even on a global scale.  In an important statement in 1990, Pope John Paul II used this phrase, showing clearly that he accepted that conclusion.  After he had referred to some of the main forms of environmental destruction that have emerged (which we shall consider in a moment), he said:

[Th]e ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone… [T]he earth and its atmosphere are telling us… that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue. (Pope John Paul II, Message for World Day of Peace, 1990, #15, italics in original)

The full document from which this quotation comes will be set as reading later in the unit.

There follows in a moment a short reading from the Compendium. This makes clear that the way its authors see the basic causes of ecological crisis corresponds with what this unit has summarized so far.

The text you will read refers to a “reductionist conception” that sees the “natural world in mechanistic terms and… development in terms of consumerism” (#462).  (You will recall that we looked at the meaning of ‘reductionism’ in Unit 2: 2.2.4.)  What that statement means is that the proper relationship humans are to have with the rest of nature is not merely a mechanistic and consumerist one.


Reading  (3pp)

Compendium, ##461-465 (Chap. 10, sec. III)


Here are brief definitions of three of the terms used in this reading, each of which refers to a view that CST rejects:

  • Scientism’ is a label for the view that the method of experimentation to gain knowledge of mechanistic connections between material things is the only way of getting true knowledge, including about the human person and about spiritual and theological questions.
  • Biocentrism’ refers to an ethical stance in which all biological or organic species are believed to have inherent value in the same way as one another, and in which, therefore, humans are not more valuable than other species.
  • Ecocentrism’ is an ethical view that goes further than ‘biocentrism’ in that it holds that what is of overriding ethical value is not just biological life but is the health of ecosystems, including the planet’s whole ecosystem.  These are, therefore, more important than human persons and any particular biological species.


That reading concludes for the moment our further consideration of the historical outline introduced in Unit 2.  I have presented a narrative in which the increasing dominance of a certain way of seeing and acting in the world over the last three centuries has led inevitably to ecological crisis.  Referring again, to the three bullet points given earlier, that way is characterized by:

  • a mechanistic world-view
  • human beings as ‘utility maximizers’
  • non-human nature as a scarce resource for human use.




End of 3.1.4



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