Seeing the Big Picture

The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves useful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole ….
Laudato si’  (LS) no. 110

In Chapter Three, Pope Francis speaks to the human roots of the ecological crisis. He finds that today’s technocratic way of looking at things fails us. We rely on fragmented knowledge. This cannot lead to solutions of complex problems, such as environmental degradation and poverty.

Summary of Chapter 3: Human roots of the ecological crisis

We should focus on the “technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world.” LS no. 101.

Progress in technology has not been matched by a sound ethics

Two centuries of technological progress have brought great benefits to humans. Obviously, “[I]t is right to rejoice in these advances ….” LS no. 102. What’s more, technology and science improve the quality of human life. LS no. 103.

At the same time, they give us tremendous power. That is, they give power to those with knowledge and economic resources. Will we use this power wisely? LS no. 104. We tend to believe that every increase in power is progress. But in fact humans have not been trained to use power well. This is why technological improvements have “not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” LS no. 105.

Responding to a globalized technological paradigm

Technology prioritizes fragmented knowledge

Humans have always intervened in nature. Until recently we intervened in tune with nature. We respected its  possibilities. Today, however, we simply try to extract what we can. We believe, falsely, that the earth’s goods are endless. LS no. 106.

Often we allow the method and aims of science and technology to become the paradigm that shapes our lives. This is a sign of a reductionism, and it affects all aspects of human and social life. LS no. 107. Indeed, a paradigm where technology is only a tool is inconceivable. Today, technology absorbs everything into its ironclad logic. LS no. 108.

This paradigm dominates economic and political life. For example, some people believe that market growth by itself will eliminate global hunger and poverty. But our wasteful consumer-based economy contrasts starkly with ongoing human deprivation. LS no. 109. Specialization makes it difficult to see the big picture. Knowledge is fragmented. Although fragmented knowledge helps solve discrete problems, yet we lose appreciation for the whole. Complex problems, especially those of the environment and the poor, cannot be dealt with from a single perspective.

Technology should serve humans

We need to look at the world in a way that resists the “assault of the technological paradigm.” Technology’s fragmented knowledge separates what is in reality interconnected. LS no. 111. We can broaden our vision. We can put technology at the service of a more integral progress. LS no. 112.

We must not resign ourselves to a spirit of globalized technology. Instead, we must “continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything.” LS no. 113. This calls for “a bold cultural revolution.” We need to go beyond fragmented knowledge, to slow down and look at reality in a different way ….” We can preserve what is positive and sustainable in our technological progress. But we must also “recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” LS no. 114.

We no longer cooperate with God

Through fragmented knowledge, we see nature as nothing more than “raw material to be hammered into useful shape ….” This compromises the intrinsic dignity of the world. We “fail to find [our] true place in this world ….” We misunderstand ourselves and end up acting against ourselves. LS no. 115. We take on “a Promethean vision of mastery over the world ….” LS no. 116.

When we behave as masters with absolute dominion, “the very foundations of our life begin to crumble ….” We no longer cooperate with God in the work of creation. Instead, we set ourselves “in place of God ….” LS no. 117.

“There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” LS no. 118. If we wish to renew the earth, we must renew humanity. “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God.” LS no. 119. As a noteworthy example, a concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with abortion. LS no. 120.

We must look to the signs of our time

We must reflect on our place in the world “in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations ….” LS no. 121.

When we place ourselves at the center of everything, everything becomes relative

Excessive anthropocentrism – that is, putting humans at the center of everything – leads to care for nothing but one’s own interests.  LS no. 122. This is a culture of relativism, where one person takes advantage of another. Other humans, like the earth, are mere objects that we use and throw away. LS no. 123.

A holistic view of the world values human work

Fragmented knowledge contrasts with a holistic view of the world. By definition, this includes human beings. As such, it “needs to take account of the value of labor ….” Through labor we become God’s instrument to bring out the potentials of the world he created. LS no. 124. This includes manual labor as well as “any activity involving a modification of existing reality ….” LS no. 125.

Benedictine monasticism contributes the idea that work is spiritually meaningful. This “imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety.” LS no. 126. Work is the setting for rich spiritual growth. LS no. 127. Our vocation to work precedes the value of short-term economic gain. LS no. 128. Therefore, the economy must favor productive diversity and business creativity. LS no. 129.

We need an ethical approach to research involving plants and animals

It is permissible to use plants and animals in scientific research, but such research must be within reasonable limits and contribute to human life. It must not cause animals to suffer or to die needlessly. LS no. 130. Human creativity cannot be suppressed. But “[w]e need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity.” LS no. 131.

This includes genetic modification. LS no. 132. Genetic modification occurs in nature, but at a slower pace than modern technology makes possible. LS no. 133. Use of genetically modified grains raises economic questions. Sometimes this technology concentrates productive land in a few hands. It may cause small producers to disappear. Some become temporary workers.  LS no. 134. This issue must be discussed. All stakeholders must be at the table. LS no. 135.

It is right to demand limits on scientific research involving plants and animals. But it is troubling that some people do not apply the same principles to human life. LS no. 136.

Focus on the need for a holistic view of the world

Holism understands the world through relationships and connections

Modern humans tend to look at the world from a reductionist point of view. That is, we understand a complex thing by reducing it to its individual parts. For example, a reductionist might understand human behavior by  the individual biological and chemical phenomena that make up a human. This is what Pope Francis calls the “fragmentation of knowledge.” Reductionism allows us to understand many discrete problems. But, as Francis points out, “it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationship between things, and for the broader horizon ….” LS no. 110.

In contrast, a holistic point of view looks at things as systems that are seen in their wholeness. As the Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff explains, this is ecology’s basic stance. Holism, he writes —

— continually see[s] the whole, which does not derive from the sum of the parts but from the organic interdependence of all the elements. This step moves beyond the thinking of modernity, which is purely analytical, split up, and disconnected. If ecology is not holistic, it is not really ecology.

Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Orbis 1997) p. 41.

The naturalist John Muir put it this way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Houghton Mifflin 1911).

Fragmented knowledge cannot solve complex environmental and social problems

Francis says that technical remedies to environmental problems are inadequate. They “separate what is really interconnected and … mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” LS no. 111. Relying just on technology, we solve one problem only to create another. For example, decades ago, our factories began building tall smoke stacks so as to reduce local air pollution. While this goal was achieved, we discovered that the “solution” contributed to the transport of pollutants to other regions.

The same is true for many social issues. To combat poverty, we have devised various welfare programs. But a long-term reliance on welfare ignores the truth that we have a vocation to work. As the pope observes: “Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.” LS no. 128.

Technology, with its reductionist way of looking at things, is not bad. The problem with technology arises when reductionism becomes the way we look at everything. Technology should be a tool that we use as needed and where appropriate. But the complex problems arising from our relationships  and connections with each other, and with the world itself, can be solved only when we understand those relationships and connections. That is, when we think holistically.

Next week: Everything is connected

A defining principle of ecological thinking is that everything is connected. Humans are connected to God, to each other, and to all creation. To understand the human roots of the ecological crisis, we need to start with this principle. Next week, I will discuss our connections with future generations.