Environmental Ethics

The Green Patriarch and Ecological Sin

Published on: September 3, 2021
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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the enthronement of Patriarch Bartholomew I to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1991. As is well known, Patriarch Bartholomew has been dubbed the “Green Patriarch” for his longstanding commitment to environmental issues. He recently marked the dawn of 2021 by holding the 4th Halki Summit on the environment, from the 26th to the 28th of January of this year. Beginning in 2012, the Halki Summits have been the most recent instantiation of the Patriarch’s commitment to the environment and is part of a long line of ecumenical, interfaith and interdisciplinary conferences he has held on environmental issues since his Patriarchy began. One of the watershed moments that earned Bartholomew his ecological moniker was when he first expressed the idea of ecological sin while delivering a speech in Santa Barbara, California in 1997.  He claimed,

For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation… For humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands… For humans to injure other humans with disease, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances… These are sins.

(Address at the Environmental Symposium, Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Santa Barbara, California, November 8, 1997)

Yet, what is a sin? In Greek, the word for “sin” is: amartia, which literally means to “miss the mark.” Sin as amartia makes sense within the framework of a teleological, or goal-oriented, ethics and therefore we could say that “sin” means to fall short of attaining our personal and communal goals of becoming virtuous persons striving to live the good life within excellent communities as we pursue closeness and union with the divine. In other words, the concept of sinning does not necessarily imply a breach of law but also speaks to the goals we pursue, the mindset we adopt, and the type of ethos we foster as persons and communities; all of which influence the ways in which we relate to: one another, the natural world, and the divine.       

More recently in 2015, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of “the need to broaden our narrow and individualistic concept of sin[1]”. Patriarch Bartholomew’s comment calls attention to the fact that it is not only individuals but also collectives that are capable of sin. We often recognize the phenomena of group agency and communal identity and the shared goals, values and characteristics they embody. When an entire civilization abides by a shared value system and engages in shared behavioral patterns that result in common dispositions, habits and lifestyles, we may wish to call this a civilizational ethos. By guiding the patterns of thought and behavior, the values and ideals that inform a civilization’s ethos help determine whether that civilization will act sinfully and miss the mark attaining the good life or if it will pursue a virtuous way of life.

In 2009, Patriarch Bartholomew argued that “[t]he root cause of our environmental sin lies in our self-centeredness and in the mistaken order of values, which we inherit and accept without any critical evaluation.[2]”  Arguably, the root cause of our ecological sinfulness is our personal and civilizational egoism and our disordered value system, which seems to be based upon the pursuit of vice rather than virtue. This is in larger part because our contemporary civilizational ethos has been permeated by an economic understanding of the person and of well-being, which aims for perpetual material and financial growth at the expense of ethical and psycho-spiritual maturation. As a result, we often pursue immediate pleasures and short-term goals rather than taking longterm benefits into consideration as we live our daily lives. Rather than being guided by the Christian virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, as a global civilization—especially within the industrialized world—we have allowed ourselves to be governed by the vices of avarice, in the guise of economic growth, and gluttony, in the guise of maximal consumption and enrichment.

Valuing excessive consumption and perpetual industrial expansion to further our financial growth are inherent features of neoclassical economics—especially in its neoliberal form, which took root in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.[3] As the predominant economic model operative in global society, the values of the neoclassical economic paradigm has deeply influenced our global civilizational ethos for the better part of the last century. The values of this ethos have become so ingrained in our psyches over the course of the past few generations that for most people today, it is the values of this economic paradigm that are predominant in governing their social lives and molding their daily lifestyles rather than the virtues and values of the Christian tradition. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1999, Patriarch Bartholomew claimed,

the highest pursuit of humanity is not economic enrichment or economic expansion…We cannot live by economic development alone, but we must seek…the values and principles that transcend economic concerns. Once we accept this, the economy becomes a servant of humanity, not its master.

(Address at Davos Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, 1999: Orthodoxy Today)

Our overly narrow view of human flourishing, defined primarily in terms of financial and economic success, has led to the ways in which humanity has missed the mark in terms of living sustainably within our living biospheric home, or oikos. Global civilization, especially in the industrialized world, must finally come to recognize that the economic system to which we all adhere perpetuates the vices of gluttony and avarice and that by abiding by its models and values we are destroying ecosystems in the name of economic development and we harming the health of the humans who live within them in the name of financial prosperity. We must come to realize that to carry-on with business as usual without altering our economic models and processes of production and consumption is to perpetuate one of the primary sources of our ecological sin. To this end, Patriarch Bartholomew has claimed that what the world truly needs is an authentic metanoia, or a ‘repentant conversion’ in the most existential sense of the term, that would entail an ecological a transformation of each individual’s personal lifestyle as well as humanity’s communal patterns of behavior grounded in a new civilizational ethos. Bartholomew claims:

We need a new way of thinking about our own selves, about our relationship with the world and with God. Without this revolutionary ‘‘change of mind,’’ all our conservation projects, however well intentioned, will remain ultimately ineffective.

(Message at the International Conference on Ethics, Religion, and Environment, University of Oregon, April 5, 2009)

Ultimately, we must heed Bartholomew’s call and cultivate an ethos grounded in a sincere sense of belonging to a larger ecological and intergenerational community and discover ways in which our socio-economic thinking can go beyond financial considerations to incorporate genuine human well-being into the ways in which we determine what is best; not only for our bank accounts but for our future generations and our living planetary home. A good place to begin our journey toward an ecologically sustainable future would be to return to the traditional Christian virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, as a measure of excellence as well as the communal and relational ethos that accompanied it.

[1] Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Ecology, Economy and Ecumenicism in TIME magazine, June 18 2015. This article appeared amidst the convening of the Paris Climate Accord & the issuing of Pope Francis’ encyclical: Laudato Si,

[2] Message of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the International Conference on Ethics, Religion, and Environment, University of Oregon, April 5, 2009

[3] Too often we want to believe that all of our actions, or the actions of our recent ancestors, are and were, good and noble because of the psychological satisfaction and contentment it gives us.  We must come to understand that we can continue to love our ancestors even after we have realized that they have sinned.

This essay is a highly condensed version of, and expresses ideas originally put forth in, Dr. Durante’s article entitled: “Ecological Sin: Ethics, Economics & Social Repentance” that appeared in volume 3 issue 2 of the Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies in December of 2020.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Chris Durante

    Chris Durante

    Associate Professor, Theology Department, Saint Peter’s University

    Chris (Χρήστος) Durante is an Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Peter’s University in N. J., USA. Durante’s primary research and teaching interests are in Religion, Ethics, Science & Society broadly construed to include: Political & Moral Theology; Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University