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).
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.
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)