Respecting all the Earth's creatures
August 24, 2022
In the second paragraph of his 2015 encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis reflects on the ways in which the human species has mistreated and abused the Earth, which he calls our “Sister, Mother Earth” in the tradition of his namesake St. Francis of Assisi. The pope then states: “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
This single sentence says a lot. It acknowledges what both the second creation narrative in the Book of Genesis and natural sciences affirm about our human bodies being composed of the same material as the Earth, while also noting that we have “forgotten” – or, perhaps better, willfully ignored – our inherent creatureliness over the centuries. As is clear from the rest of the text, Francis believes that a major cause of the environmental crises that the Earth faces today are caused in part by the self-centeredness of the human species.
Too often, we humans live as if everything is about us and all nonhuman creation is intended for us to do with as we please. Francis is among those religious leaders who have strongly critiqued anthropocentrism, noting that nonhuman creatures are also loved into existence by God and have their own inherent dignity and goodness. Theologians have made constructive arguments for a renewed understanding of nonhuman creation and our place within the cosmos that takes science and religion, reason and tradition seriously.
But what has been surprising to me is the interesting uptick in coverage of such ideas in major secular publications in recent months. Explorations of the idea of nonhuman animal personhood or the worlds of meaning-making they inhabit had been generally reserved for ethologists and other scientific specialists. Likewise, considerations of complex networks of plant-life communication and cooperation were the domain of researchers and graduate students. Most of the general public has not given these themes much thought.
In the June 13 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert published an article based on the work of Atlantic science writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong, whose new book is titled “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.” His book is the latest in the development of biosemiotics by the Estonian philosopher and zoologist Jakob von Uexkull. Among his key concepts was the notion of umwelt (German for “environment”), which he used to describe the world as sensed and understood by a given animal.
We all – humans, ants, birds, squirrels and so on – may inhabit a similar space (such as a garden), but our experience and understanding of that space is conditioned by biological makeup. The resulting “environment” we experience is our respective umwelt. Uexkull did not claim that all creatures were of the same value or dignity. Instead, he made the claim that just because a squirrel does not experience the world as we humans do does not mean that it does not have an experience of the world in its own manner.
Rather than pretend that the world around us is just some kind of inert backdrop to human living, we might open our minds to recognize that nonhuman creatures also are living in this world, what Francis calls “our common home.” We would do well to acknowledge our connectedness to the rest of creation. Such a shift in the view of nonhuman animals may not solve all our ecological crises, but it can help renew the way we see, think and pray in the world. And that is just one way to embrace the “ecological conversion” Pope Francis continually calls us to pursue.