Erosion along a beach on Bikeman Islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati (OSV News photo/David Gray, Reuters)

Is it time to declare the party over? Are we ready to pronounce Earth Day an occasion for mourning rather than celebration? As we seem increasingly unable to address the climate crisis, who do we think we are honoring a planet we’re effectively trashing? We wouldn’t expect parents who neglect their daughter 364 days out of the year to throw an elaborate party for her on her birthday. Why do we celebrate Earth Day in a world seemingly on the irreversible slide toward catastrophe?

In the heady years following Earth Day’s 1970 debut—and arguably well into the 1980s—a celebratory mood was more understandable. Environmentalists and concerned citizens earnestly believed that humanity was recognizing the error of its ways and putting the brakes on environmental despoliation. It was just a matter of harnessing the “post-materialist” and “post-scarcity” worldview that had emerged in industrialized nations in the years following World War II. Human beings—or those of us lucky enough to be well-provided for—could now finally ascend Abraham Maslow’s familiar “hierarchy of needs.” We’d mastered the satisfaction of basic wants; now we could work toward harmonizing our higher-order needs with the needs of the planet—even the universe. It was, after all, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

But that never happened. Post-materialism gave way to a renewed hyper-materialism and predatory capitalism. Easy Rider and The Graduate were displaced as cultural touchstones by Wall Street and Risky Business. Greed was good again. Major polluters convinced us that our glutted grocery stores and gas-guzzling SUVs were not a serious threat to the health of the planet. Now, rather than anticipating with glee that Aquarian Age, we read of climate anxiety and Generation Dread.

By now, the sense of doom is so great that climate scientists have begun to drop the pretense of impartiality. Dispassionate reports of current conditions and analytical policy prescriptions have been replaced by blunt expressions of the unlikelihood of avoiding the ugly scenarios their models have anticipated for years. Long ago they warned us that burning oil, gas, and coal is raising the planet’s temperature, but it wasn’t until COP28 (the annual UN climate conference) in Dubai this past November that negotiators could even bring themselves to name fossil fuels as the problem. Arguably, the environmental movement has now refocused its vision away from shaping a brighter future and toward stopgap measures and restive lamentation.

Arguably, the environmental movement has now refocused its vision away from shaping a brighter future and toward stopgap measures and restive lamentation.


For our part, people of faith have done little to abate the pessimism. In the 1980s members of the “deep ecology” movement already looked askance at Judeo-Christian commitments to environmental renewal, given God’s fateful decision in Genesis to award dominion over the natural world to the reckless and self-serving human species. Contemporary critics can point (accurately, for the most part) to a Church quick to pray for “care for creation” yet slow to make substantive changes to society or our own lifestyles. The Laudato Si’ Action Platform—a noble attempt to bring Catholic institutions worldwide into the net-zero orbit—remains obscure to most parishioners, if they’ve heard of it at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Pope Francis has given us a glimpse of how hope might figure in the climate movement and a new lens through which to view our ecological condition. While his writings contribute to the spiritual wealth of the Church’s Magisterium, Francis doesn’t rely on spirituality alone; he outlines a thoroughly material basis for hope in this world: integral ecology. He asks us to put our hope not in a particular plan, technology, or popular theory, but in an ecology that integrates our response to the “cry of the earth” with that to “the cry of the poor.” These two summonses are, for Francis, inextricable from each other.

In contrast to Francis’s holism, many activist groups attribute the source of environmental decay to a single preferred culprit. Marxists and other leftists blame capitalism and call for its systemic replacement, or at least the demise of avaricious corporations. Policy wonks attribute the problem to ineffective legislative and executive oversight, demanding institutional and regulatory reform to improve environmental metrics like air and water quality. And finally, activists beholden to vestigial New Age philosophies opt to tout the old Pogo cartoon mantra, “We’ve met the enemy, and it is us.” They assign blame to insolent consumers and cultivate a therapeutic form of environmentalism that can be satisfied with largely symbolic acts of environmental virtue like recycling plastics or composting food scraps. All of these approaches touch on part of the truth, but in isolation they are dangerously single-minded. Disarming the drivers of climate change is a multi-level and multi-dimensional project.

Pope Francis’s ideal of integral ecology asserts that the systemic, the institutional, and the personal cannot be treated apart from each other. As Marx suggested, capitalism may indeed have outlived its usefulness in satisfying human wants efficiently (much less satisfying them equitably, but that was never a selling point). Still, as Francis’s encyclicals suggest, you can’t dismantle capitalism’s modern neoliberal manifestation without at the same time inspiring a change in the habits and lifestyle choices of the countless individuals who make the system work. In the same vein, sound environmental policy is undoubtedly thwarted by the influence of the fossil-fuel industry on policy makers, but this corruption can’t be eliminated without systemic change at the political and economic level. And finally, yes, we as individuals remain resiliently numb to the consequences of our consumer actions, but it amounts to pious shaming to concentrate on this alone and folly to suggest that a change of personal habits can somehow produce social transformation without changes at the systemic and institutional level.

So, no, the party isn’t over, and all hope is not lost. But politics and economics, the institutions that govern them, and we who have benefitted most from industrial production must all change dramatically if we are to survive this century and if the marginalized are to survive the next few decades. This is not strictly a matter of revolution or reform or personal transformation. It’s all three or nothing.

Edward Tverdek, OFM is a Catholic priest living and ministering at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Chicago. He is the author of The Moral Weight of Ecology (Lexington, 2015).

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