Volume 48, Issue 3 :: By Roberto Chiotti
“A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly.”
“We seem to think that we can substitue an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”
Pope Francis, Laudato Si
The much anticipated papal pronouncement on the environment, “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si of the Holy Father Francis On Care For Our Common Home,” was promulgated on June 18, 2015, which coincidentally fell on the initial day of proceedings of an international conference I was co-chairing at Toronto, Canada’s OCAD University (Ontario College of Art and Design), the institution where I currently hold the position of Assistant Professor and Sustainability Officer for the Faculty of Design. Our “Urban Ecologies 2015” conference was formulated on the understanding that, more than ever before, major urban centers were going to be at the forefront of the transformation and change necessary to accelerate a sustainable human presence. The framing of the conference set out to consider the largest possible context of all debates—the limits of our planetary ecosystem. It was within this “Big Picture” context that the conference hoped to challenge the current economic, political, and social frameworks that generate the design of our urban infrastructure and built environment.
The timely publication of the papal encyclical and the responses that immediately followed generated a palpable “buzz” for conference attendees. Pope Francis had just added a significant, authoritative voice to the many others who have been critical of our destructive models of industrial production and consumption, with their resultant social inequities and havoc wrought upon the very systems that support life on the planet. To the environmental dialogue, his encyclical introduces a uniquely spiritual perspective, one that identifies the planet as a sacred reality to be protected and cared for as our common home. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope’s acknowledged guide and inspiration, (10) he “…invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.” (12) [Editor’s note: citations refer to the 246 numbered sections of the encyclical]
In subsequent chapters, Pope Francis provides several references from Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, John Paul II, and others who understood the universe in all of its diversity and interconnectedness as a form of sacred scripture in and of itself, reiterating that “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love…Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” (84) He quotes my own Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as rightly pointing out that “From panoramic vistas to the tiniest living form, nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine.”(84)
I see this as constituting a definitive shift away from understandings that identified the divine as transcendent to the natural world, towards those in favor of embracing the natural world as the very threshold where the meeting of the human and divine occurs. (88) Subsequently, care for God’s creation becomes not only a moral religious imperative, but also a core value of what it means for humans to be spiritual.
“Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord,” the title of the encyclical, is the oft-repeated refrain by St. Francis in his Canticle of the Creatures. The pope reminds us that in the words of the canticle, “…our home is like a sister with whom we share life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” (1) “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” (1)
But the pope immediately goes on to lament that we have distanced ourselves from our sister, having forgotten that “…our very bodies are made of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”(2) Due to the violence in our hearts, we have plundered her gifts at will, having laid waste her soil, water, air, and all forms of life endowed her by God. (2) As humans, we are not just on the earth…we are of the earth. We share her chemistry, her DNA. Our human story is part of her 4.5-billion-year earth story, so when we wantonly destroy a part of her, we destroy a part of ourselves.
A portion of the document is dedicated to identifying the human roots of the current ecological crisis. Pope Francis challenges the basis of modern anthropocentrism, acknowledging that, “…an inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world… ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.” We can no longer assume that we can get away with privileging our needs over the needs of the planet that sustains us. (116) However, he feels that yielding a misguided anthropocentrism in favor of “biocentrism” will merely substitute one imbalance for another, creating more problems without solving current ones. (118) Instead, he defines what is necessary as an “integral ecology,” one that recognizes the interrelatedness of everything and our responsibility as humans to bring about a fair, just, and responsible relationship to each other and to all of creation. (137) “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (139) He makes the case that an “integral ecology” can only be achieved when we see the interconnectedness and interdependence between our environmental, economic, and social ecologies. “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. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related, and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment.” (141)
Pope Francis entreats us to listen to the groans of the earth and refers us to John Paul II’s first encyclical, which called for a “global ecological conversion” (5) and the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.” (6) Laudato Si appeals to Christians and non-believers alike to cooperate with each other, calling “…for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” (14) “We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: ‘Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.’ ” (14)
What does Laudato Si mean for us architects and designers, and for our students and interns? I believe that it challenges us to design as if the planet were our client, ensuring a responsible use of her resources in their extraction, processing, and ongoing use throughout the life of the buildings we design in service to creating urban built environments that are generative, equitable, and enhance the quality of life for their inhabitants and the ecosystems within which they exist. The educators among us are challenged to inspire and empower our students with the vision and skills to design a future worth inheriting. To do this, I believe we can draw inspiration from the life of the pope’s own namesake, guide, and inspiration, St. Francis, who he acknowledges as “…the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology…St. Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically…He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” (10)