Why the earth won’t green without us

This story appears in the Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land feature series. View the full series.

There is much talk these days about the upcoming encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment. Scholarly conferences, workshops, articles, talk shows and interviews are focused on what the pontiff might say on the environment and the looming consequences of global climate change. It is an extremely important area to engage, since polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and the biological niches of fisheries and natural flora are radically changing.

In a recent article in Scientific America, scholars note that climate change is the most significant driver of evolution. A climate change from cold to hot transforms everything an organism needs to survive and thrive, so each animal, plant, microbe and fungus species must adapt or die. Surprisingly, a recent Pew poll shows that almost 50 percent of the U.S. population claims there is no good evidence for global warming and that recent warming of the earth is due to natural climate variability.  

Hence, the Pope’s attention to the environment and his prophetic call to curb materialism, help the poor and stop hoarding natural resources, comes at an important time.

However, these insights are not new. In 1990, a group of distinguished scientists, including the late Carl Sagan and physicist Freeman Dyson, wrote a letter appealing to the world’s spiritual leaders to join the scientific community in protecting and conserving an endangered global ecosystem. “We are close,” they wrote, “to committing what in religious language is sometimes called crimes against creation.” Unless we change the way we think and act, the scientists confessed, we will not have a sustainable future.

More recently, Pope Francis has referred to the destruction of the Earth as collective sin: “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth,” adding, “This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.” His words remind me of Thomas Berry’s clarion call, “The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert.”

Ecology has become such a hot topic in the public sphere, especially among political and religious circles, that we have not paused sufficiently to ask, what exactly are talking about? As a scientific discipline, ecology has its own laws, mechanisms, governing operations and explanations of how various species function. When it comes to the environment, however, we are not talking about ecological mechanisms but human ecology, including human relationships (or lack of), human choices, human inattentiveness, human autonomy, human disconnectedness, human selfishness and the human choice not to do very much about an impending crisis we have been talking about for at least 25 years. The problem of global warming is not reducing carbon emissions (although this would greatly help); the problem of radical global climate change is the human person. We might call this problem anthropocentrism run amok.  

The Pope’s theological starting point is the human person created as image of God (Gen 1:26), called to have dominion over creation (Gen 1:28): “God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air.’” The Pope interprets dominion not as “power over” but as “protection of” creation. Are we called to return to the land? Till the Earth? What exactly does “caring for creation” mean in our age? Jesus tells us that God knows every sparrow that falls to the ground; each aspect of creation is embraced by God.

The reign of God, however, is the religious dimension of human life and requires a real conversion of values, a new heart: “Where your heart is, there your treasure lies.” The biblical word cor is not the physical heart but the deep inner core human existence, the soul, the mind or the realm of consciousness. If caring for creation begins with the place of the heart, and the heart is the seat of consciousness, then we might rephrase the words of Jesus as: “Where your consciousness is, there your treasure lies.” Where is human consciousness today?

A 2014 study showed that the average adult spends 11 hours a day with digital media and watches about five hours of television a day. Facebook now has 1.23 billion active users and over 750 million people log on daily. Hence, the majority of human waking time is spent with an artifice or device that lures human consciousness from the biological world of relationships to a virtual world of relationality.  

Sherry Turkle notes in her book, Alone Together Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, we are addicted to our information technologies. The consequences of this addiction are extensive, from memory loss (thanks to Google), to increased aggression (especially with violent online games), increased depression and loneliness, cyberbullying – and the list goes on. Of course there is the positive side of the Internet including social media and networking, family and friend Facebook connections, professional connections, email and Skype, online libraries, and endless games. Hence, the speed, efficiency and lure of the Internet can enhance relationships or sever them.

The question of ecology is not about relationships per se but the human person as a relational being. What are we becoming with our technologies? Theologian Philip Hefner has stated that technology is not located in the machine, but rather in a process of evolutionary becoming. Technology belongs to our becoming; it belongs to nature’s becoming, and to the becoming of the universe. Everything we think about religion, everything we think is spiritual – even care for creation – is rearranged by technology. Human becoming is nature’s becoming.

Margaret Wertheim notes that artificial intelligence is spawning a philosophical shift, from reality constructed of matter and energy to reality constructed on information. This leads to the notion that “the essence of a person can be separated from their body and represented in digital form – an immortal digital soul waiting to be freed – an idea she [Wertheim] sees as medieval dualism reincarnated.” A new term cybergnosticism has been coined to describe the “belief that the physical world is impure or inefficient, and that existence in the form of pure information is better and should be pursued.” Michael Heim sees strong links between artificial intelligence and Platonic traditions insofar as they emphasize the goodness of spiritual reality and corruption of material reality, an idea consonant with cyber life and virtual reality.

In studies on computer usage and childhood learning, Turkle notes that some children cannot tell the difference between the virtual and the real while others prefer the virtual over the real. This distinction between virtual and biological reality is soon to be transcended with the oculus rift, a device worn like eyeglasses that will essentially trick the brain to perceiving the virtual as (biological) real, which will include the experience of real space time presence. The futurist Ray Kurzweil anticipates an increasingly virtual life in which the bodily presence of human beings will become irrelevant. Robert Jastrow said that, “Human evolution is nearly a finished chapter in the history of life,” although the evolution of intelligence will not end because a new species will arise, “a new kind of intelligent life more likely to be made of silicon.”

The term “posthumanism” has been coined to describe the transition period we are in, as we move from cells to chips, from circulating blood to circulating information. Katherine Hayles, in her book How We Became Posthuman writes: “In the posthuman, there are no essential differences, or absolute demarcations, between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals.” She concludes: “Humans can either go gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species that once ruled the earth but is now obsolete, or hang on for a while longer by becoming machines themselves. In either case . . . the age of the human is drawing to a close.”

Here, I think, is our ecological question, are we becoming a new species, a techno sapiens? If so, what are the consequences for the environment? Will techno sapiens use technology more efficiently to green the earth or will techno sapiens signify a post-biological species and a post-biological world?  

Without technology at the center of the ecological discussion, the quest for a greener earth is stifled. The ecological question must begin with technology and human becoming because we humans are becoming something new with technology. By this I mean that the constant use of technology is altering the human brain, diminishing distinctions between virtual and real and altering patterns of human relationships. Although the nature we are trying to preserve is the natural world, humans emerge from this natural world. We belong by birth to this cosmos which is our home. If human nature is changing with technology then, in a sense, all of nature is changing or at least being affected by technology. That is, technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as "intentional technology."

Until we come to grips with the technological evolution we have created and which is recreating us, there can be no true greening of the earth. If you are reading this online, you may realize the connection – or disconnection.

[Ilia Delio, OSF, a Sister of St. Francis of Washington, D.C., is Haub Director of Catholic Studies and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. Her recent publications include From Teilhard to Omega: Cocreating an Unfinished Universe and The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love.]