Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. —Pope Francis, Laudato si’
When Pope Francis observed that the natural world had been infected with human wickedness, he echoed one of the more macabre and prescient prophecies of ecological ruin: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), John Ruskin’s account of the impact of industrial capitalism on the weather of England. In Ruskin’s eyes, the ailing earth had been contaminated by the putrescence of our wounded hearts. Polluting the skies with the effluvium of avarice, “iniquity” leavened the clouds; “bitterness and malice” befouled the winds; “poisonous smoke” composed of “dead men’s souls” rose up from the ominous mills. “Blanched Sun,—blighted grass,—blinded man.” This was “blasphemy,” in Ruskin’s view: a desecration of “the visible Heaven” and a sacrilege upon “all the good works and purposes of Nature.” “Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom,” he warned. If the moral and material pestilence of industrialized avarice metastasized, our terrestrial paradise would become a ghastly inferno. The only antidotes to this metaphysical contagion were “Hope...Reverence...[and] Love”—a constellation of virtues that, by healing our desolate souls, would also mend or mitigate the desolation already inflicted on the planet.
The phantasmagorical quality of Ruskin’s vision has caused even many of his admirers, then and now, to attribute it to early-stage dementia. (One contemporary scholar has opined that Storm-Cloud is “more nearly eschatology than meteorology” and that it represents its author’s “climactic shadow-struggle projected as apocalyptic myth.” Thus the “gloom” is none other than Ruskin’s own encroaching madness inscribed into the firmament.) Yet far from indicating delirium, Storm-Cloud offers a lucid and penetrating account of our ongoing assault on the natural world, heralding a planet existentially imperiled by the plague of capitalist modernity. Indeed, with his Romantic sensibility that alerted him to the eerie signs of the times, Ruskin anticipated Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’. Certainly, the reactions to Francis’s letter mirror the derision directed at Ruskin. Like Storm-Cloud, Laudato si’ was casually dismissed as the cri de coeur of a downer, “the work of a profoundly pessimistic man,” as Matthew Schmitz lamented in First Things. Yet neither Francis’s vision nor Ruskin’s issue in melancholy. Precisely because they both exhibit a sacramental imagination that captures the direct and intimate connection of spiritual and ecological disorder, they rekindle and sustain a faith in Ruskin’s hallowed trinity of virtues—the excellences of soul needed to confront the storm cloud of the twenty-first century.
Despite the obvious religious differences between the Victorian prophet and the pope—Ruskin was a heterodox Christian who had experienced an “unconversion” from Evangelicalism—a sacramental consciousness lies at the heart of their ecological imaginations. As one of the premiere Romantic intellectuals of the nineteenth century, Ruskin epitomized the Romantic inheritance of the medieval sacramental worldview, its modern restatement, in Wordsworth’s lines, of
...a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
Throughout his work—from the art criticism of his early career to his later climatological oracles—Ruskin discerned the trademarks of divinity “deeply interfused” in nature. He argued in Modern Painters (1843–60) that artists portrayed the “faultless, ceaseless, inconceivable, inexhaustible loveliness, which God has stamped upon all things.” The beauty of flowers, rocks, or human beings displayed, he wrote, “the Divine attributes.” When we gaze upon “the material nearness of these heavens,” he marveled, we “acknowledge His own immediate presence.” In “The Work of Iron” (1858), Ruskin importuned readers to consider that a pebble possessed “a kind of soul,” and that it would say to us, if we were inclined to listen, that “‘I am not earth—I am earth and air in one; part of that blue heaven which you love, and long for, is already in me.’” When Ruskin reported on his ominous storm cloud, he was deciphering signs of sacrilege as well as recording ecological devastation.