The Pope, The Environment and Religiously Inspired Self-Restraint

01/15/2011 01:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The media's (all too predictable) obsession with Pope Benedict's recent "condom" comments has obscured other noteworthy aspects of his recently released book-length interview, Light of the World. German journalist Peter Seewald engages Benedict in an extensive exchange on the global ecological turmoil facing our planet. The Pope's responses show no hint of "denialism" or of any flimsy "God won't let man destroy the planet" naiveté. Instead, the Pope is frank and direct: "Sacred Scripture tells us, and experience too tells us, that we do not remain here forever. But surely, we are doing something wrong" (p. 43). Later, when asked if there is any chance that we can "save our planet by our own power" he is even blunter:

"Man is clearly in danger, and he is endangering both himself and the world...Man can be saved only when moral energies gather strength in his heart; energies that can come only from the encounter with God..." (p. 184).

As the quote above indicates, religion is central to his analysis of the problem.

The deepest roots of our ecological crisis, he argues, lie in a narrow, secularized understanding of progress. Progress, in this view, is myopically understood as the increased control resulting from greater scientific and technological knowledge. While this increased control has greatly improved living conditions for many, it has not been matched by a commensurate increase in the moral wisdom which grows out of greater "spiritual knowledge." "Progress," says Benedict, "has increased our capabilities, but not our moral and human stature..." (p. 136). Without this heightened moral "stature," we lack the will to live lives compatible with greater ecological sustainability. In other words, science cannot save us unless we can marry it to the religiously inspired self-restraint necessary for enacting equitability and justly in the distribution and use of scarce resources. Of course, for Benedict the great storehouse of this spiritual knowledge is Christianity:

"The Church has tried to make a contribution in this regard with the encyclical Caritas in veritate. It does not give answers that would solve everything. But it is a step toward putting things into another perspective ... from the point of view that sees love of neighbor as something normative and is oriented toward God's will and not just our desires" (p. 48).

There are some interesting historical precedents that Benedict can point to in supporting the claim that religion has a unique power to promote effective resource sharing. For example, sacred ritual was the key mechanism by which Native Americans of the Upper Klamath River Valley (California) managed their fish harvests. Ritual marked the start and duration of the fishing season thus preventing any single group from dominating the resource at another's expense. Violating ritual prohibitions were believed to arouse not just the anger of the ritual practitioners, but the supervising spirits as well. Transgressions invoked the spirits' wrath, and led to "bad luck" and a poor catch. So seriously were these beliefs held, that people fled the riverbank for the surrounding mountain slopes so as to avoid the sacrilege of even gazing upon the fires built to cook the first salmon.

Recent analyses indicate that the Northwest Indians had the skill, technical capacity, and appetite to decimate the Klamath Valley fish stocks. That they did not serves as a testament to the power of ritual regulation. As of 2000, 30 species of salmon (including those of the Klamath) were on the endangered species list. Ironically, modern laws governing fishing are similar to the proscriptions practiced by the Northwest Indians. Lost forever though is the sacred orientation toward the land.

Across the globe, on the island of Bali, another example of a ritual solution to a resource management problem can be found. For centuries, the native Balinese have grown rice on steep terraced hilltops. Water flowing down the mountainside was diverted and shared by different communities. But how can one prevent those upstream from diverting all the water, leaving none for those downstream? Further complicating this challenge is the need to seasonally rotate fallow and active fields among the competing groups. This organizational nightmare was managed effectively for centuries by the water temple system. A temple honoring a local deity was located at each branch of the downstream flow. Each temple served as a meeting place for the groups using the diverted waters originating at that point. Disputes at one level could be taken to the next level up for resolution, with the high priest of Dewi Danu (at the summit Temple) serving as the ultimate authority. The steep climb from temple to temple very likely served as a natural disincentive to "frivolous appeals." But this alone does not explain the system's long tradition of success. Of even greater significance is the fact that the temple priests who mediated disputes possessed a uniquely effective combination of vast technical knowledge of rice cultivation and metaphysical authority granted only to clerics.

In the 1980s, the Indonesian government decided that bureaucrats could grow rice better than superstitious farmers. They replaced the water temple system with more modern practices and expert oversight. The results were disastrous. Eliminating the intricately coordinated rituals associated with rice cultivation disrupted the planting patterns required to control pests. When fertilizers and pesticides failed, crop production plummeted. The critical lesson was that coordinated planting patterns were critical to successful rice production, and religious ritual was central to this coordination.

Certainly, religion is no cure-all for our ecological problems. There are plenty of examples of religious people failing miserably to conserve and share resources. But there are enough varied success stories to take religiously-inspired self-restraint seriously as a potential strategy for protecting us from ourselves. Voluntarily doing without isn't easy and modern culture often makes practicing such an ethic seem borderline pathological. In the past, we have often utilized religion as a powerful mechanism for reining in self-interest long enough for competing factions to find cooperative arrangements. Considering that option now is not entirely crazy. In fact, it just might be our only hope.

(Note: for references on examples cited, see my book Supernatural Selection, pps. 75-76).