News headlines bombard us with facts about human-caused environmental degradation: temperature rise, endless droughts, trash in the oceans, extinction of species, and the list goes on. The subsequent news articles contain facts that intend to galvanize us to change our lives and economic systems to prevent environmental catastrophe. Given the condition our environment is in, knowing these facts for decades has not changed our behavior because truths have no power over us if they do not relate to us. We need to understand why care for creation matters to us, and what will motivate us to sustain God’s gift to us. In this essay, I will suggest that we need to think of care for creation as a way to love God and His works, and so shift the intent of our care from human gain to a desire to honor God’s love for us.
Catholics have a sacramental view of the world that is stridently opposed to a utilitarian and blind-chance view of the world pervasive in our culture today. The Catholic faith is a way of seeing the world as an expression of God’s love and creativity. As in, this beautiful world is not some impersonal entity that is an accident of fate but is a gift from God who creates and holds it in existence. Furthermore, all creatures and objects praise God through their existence. As a result, every creature and entity has inherent value through its very existence, regardless of its utility to humans. Consequently, we need to be concerned about all creatures that are affected by environmental degradation.
Instead, we tend to see environmental issues solely in terms of the effects on human societies. Droughts are seen in terms of crop losses and desiccated lawns. Heatwaves are framed in terms of human discomfort and lost productivity. Contaminated rivers are discussed in reference to rising human cancer rates. Even deaths of wild animals from drought are framed in terms of a lean hunting season. All these effects on human lives are real, and the causes need to be dealt with to alleviate human suffering. However, if human suffering were the only thing that mattered, technology and capital could solve most of our problems. For example, we could deal with climate change by using better HVAC systems, and building bigger indoor spaces for use in inclement weather conditions. And if the oceans are choked with garbage, we could put barriers around our favorite beaches and clean them periodically with automated equipment. And desalination plants and cloud seeding could provide water when we are in a drought.
Throwing money and technology at environmental problems is the go-to solution to ward off the human suffering that results from a degraded environment. The premise is that if we can somehow repel all the negative effects of environmental degradation on humans through a combination of money and technology, then we have solved the problem of environmental degradation.
When we discuss environmental degradation only in terms of its effects on humans, it betrays our latent utilitarian philosophy that perceives the world around us as merely a means to human survival, comfort, and pleasure. As in, the world does not have any inherent value apart from its utility to humans. In other words, the world exists around humanity as a happy accident, providing us with what we need, and it only has worth insofar as it is valuable to humans. As for the non-human creatures in the world, if they are struggling due to any reason, they will need to allow evolution to take its course and fade into obscurity. Furthermore, given that the earth is finite, this utilitarian view sees these other creatures as competing with humans for the same resources, and Charles Darwin rightly pointed out that only the fittest will survive.
A Catholic view, on the other hand, sees the world as fellow creatures in God’s creation. Each of us praises God in our own way according to our ability. Humans need to allow other creatures to praise God without unnecessarily harming them through over consumption of resources. Our hearts need to move to care for God’s world out of love for God and His creation. With this shift in perspective from a utilitarian view to a sacramental view of the world, care for creation will not be a burdensome sacrifice of our pleasures, nor will it be something transactional such that we care only for what is beneficial to us. Instead, care for creation will be a way to love and honor God’s creation. For instance, we will care about climate change not merely because droughts will ration our water supply, but for the sake of all creatures that depend on a stable climate to flourish and so, praise God.
This idea of care for their sake is based on the idea of a love that wills the good of the other as other. This love invites us to care for others for their own sake, and not for our gain. Through love, we will want trees and bees to flourish for their own sake because they praise God through their existence. Furthermore, when we are motivated by love, we will not worry helplessly about the enormity of the task of caring for creation. After all, we love our friends and family despite the widespread hate and indifference in the world around us. Every creature will receive our love as we love them. Neither will we be dissuaded when we perceive our neighbors’ apathy towards care for God’s creation. Love will move us to put in our best effort as friends of God who care about His creation. And we will live in the hope that others will be moved by our love for God’s creation.
Care for creation as an expression of love will still involve sacrificing pleasures and accepting ambiguity in actions. However, a sacrifice for the sake of love is drastically different from sacrifices imposed on us by the state or by guilt arising from judgment by others. While we can try to resolve the ambiguities in care for creation through gentle dialogue and honest science, we will be able to live with ambiguities when we trust that the people around us operate from a place of love.
The motivation of love will move us to action because in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “love is shown more in deeds than in words.” Let us pray that God will open our eyes and guide our discernment as we seek to care for His creation as an expression of love. Through an Ignatian lens, we can examine our lives and discern what draws us closer to God and what leads us away. We can reflect on how our daily lifestyle choices increase our faith, hope, and love for God and His creation. And finally, we can ask whether our consumption choices and their associated ecological footprint are helping us praise, reverence, and serve God.
God created the world out of love. May we care for creation out of love for God.