In 1997, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople coined the term “ecological sin” and since then his idea has come to influence a number of thinkers both within the Orthodox Church as well as others; the most prominent of which has been Pope Francis, who cites Bartholomew in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (sections 7-9) and who, in 2019, called for the inclusion of “ecological sin” within the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, what precisely does it mean to commit sins against nature? What exactly does sin have to do with the natural environment? Isn’t sin about breaking God’s laws? And, since there are clearly no explicitly ‘environmental laws’ to be found within the scriptures or historical canons of Christianity, or even the other Abrahamic faiths for that matter, how can it be possible to transgress a law that does not seem to exist?
Well, this all depends on how one understands the ideas of “sin,” “transgression,” and “law.” The idea of “sin” is commonly thought of as entailing a transgression and, “transgression” is commonly thought of as violating a command. Yet, a “transgression” may also be thought of as exceeding a limit, or overstepping a boundary. Further, in religious contexts “laws” are often thought to connote divine “commands.” However, as we came to understand in the first part of this essay, St. Maximus Confessor had articulated an understanding of divinely authored “natural law” that was itself to be found not within scripture but within the “book of nature” itself. When trying to wrap our heads around the idea of “ecological sin,” rather than think of sinful acts solely in terms of disobeying scriptural commands, one way in which we might make sense of ecological sinfulness is for us to think about the notion of “transgression” in terms of the various planetary boundaries scientists have discovered by studying the natural world itself.
“climate change is a grave and mounting threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. We are not on track to achieve a climate-resilient sustainable world.”
As the years pass, the IPCC’s reports grow more and more dire, yet humanity continues to fail to take the appropriate actions to alleviate our ecological crises. Back in September 2021, our global ecological reality had grown so severe that, despite the theological and doctrinal differences of their churches, the hierarchs of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican branches of Christianity came together for the first time in history to issue a joint statement to address the world’s Christian oecumene with a single moral voice. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Pope Francis, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for the protection of creation claiming that the “current climate crisis speaks volumes about who we are and how we view and treat God’s creation” (A Joint Statement for the Protection of Creation, 1 September 2021, p. 3).
Warnings of an impending world food crises are currently being issued by multiple organizations and media of mass communication. A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation press release points out many factors that are threatening to bring about a famine of Biblical proportions: climate change, legacy of COVID-19, public debt burdens and, last but not least, shock waves of geopolitical conflicts. The website of the World Food Programme tells us that “there are 50 million people in 45 countriesat the ‘emergency’ phase of food insecurity in 2022, just one step away from a declaration of famine.”
It is tempting to conclude that there is not enough food to go round, and new and more intensive ways of producing it should be sought. But such a conclusion would be false. The same sources continue to affirm that enough food is produced on this planet to feed everybody. A more likely answer might lie along the lines suggested by a traditional English football fans’ chant: “Who ate all the pies?”
As it turns out, a staggering amount of food produced in this starvation-threatened world is not eaten by humans at all. The Economist magazine article, aptly entitled “Against the Grain”, states that 43% of grain is either burned as biofuel or fed to animals, who are then going to be consumed by humans. (The overwhelming majority is used for animal feed, rather than biofuel.) The quantities thus used, the article informs us, “equal to six times the grain output of Ukraine and Russia combined”. The animals are, of course, ultimately intended for human consumption, but this process is incredibly wasteful, since for every 100 calories contained in the grain, only three get to the person if the grain is fed to a cow and the person eats the beef (“Against the Grain: most of the world’s grain is not eaten by humans”, The Economist, June 25th 2022).
With the fifth Halki Summit on the environment scheduled to take place in June 2022, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which we, as Orthodox Christians, can more fully embrace the ecological message that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has repeatedly delivered for more than thirty years. The Patriarch has called upon Orthodox Christians and people of goodwill across the globe to recognize that the environmental catastrophes that we have caused, and continue to perpetuate, are sins and that we ought to be repentant for having committed them by engaging in a transformation of our mindsets and daily lifestyles. Two crucial aspects of our daily behavior that are contributing to environmental destruction, yet which have historically received little attention from Orthodox Christian theologians, are global society’s food cultivation and distribution practices as well as humanity’s current consumption habits.
Reflecting on the ethics of food is of utmost importance, for it ties together the economic and ecological dimensions of our daily lives on both individual and collective levels. Ultimately, our attempts to live the “good life” by pursuing a vision of “prosperity as abundance” have led to our failure to truly achieve a state of flourishing as a global community and has led us to forego our responsibility to care for creation as we attempt to achieve such prosperity through industrial means. We must come to realize that to carry on with business as usual without amending our consumption practices and without altering our food systems is to perpetuate one of the primary sources of ecological harm. As with any authentic repentance (metanoia), an ecological metanoia entails a transformation of each individual’s personal lifestyle, in this case: what we consume, the way we consume, as well as the method and location of our food sourcing. By raising awareness of this aspect of the ecological crisis and by advocating for more sustainable methods of food cultivation, the global Orthodox Christian oecumene can help humanity begin to sincerely repent for its ecological sins by transforming our relationship to our food, our lands, our seas and ultimately to creation itself.