Ecology and Metaphysics

As we shall see, unless we first define the terms properly, we won’t know whether, for ecology, we’re talking about science, philosophy or political doctrine, and, for metaphysics, whether we’re talking about religion or first principles. Hence the initial clarifications that follow.


Ecology, no more than metaphysics, is not amenable to simplistic definition. At its simplest, the definition is at least threefold: natural science, natural philosophy and socio-political doctrine.


In science, this is the part of biology that studies the interactions of living beings with each other and with their environment, making up an ecosystem. Etymologically, it is the study (logos) of the house (oïkos) – inhabited! The term was coined by the German zoologist and biologist Haeckel (1834-1919)1 in the form Ökologie and eventually in French, via the English œcology (English translation of Haeckel’s book in 1873).

In addition to the global ecosystem: the Earth (or even the universe), a forest or lake can be studied as an ecosystem in its own right. In addition, specific points of view can be adopted, such as human, animal or plant ecologies, or even the ecology of a cherry tree or a frog.


In philosophy, the Greek origins of ecology can be found in the fertile nature-culture dialectic that, via Descartes, continued right up to Heidegger. Parallel to the relentless industrialization of the 19th century, an “ecological conscience” was born in the United States, with the notion of wilderness and the creation of American national parks2.

Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and above all Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) laid the foundations of modern environmental ethics, which later became known as the ethics of sustainable development.


In politics, ecology is the set of doctrines aimed at achieving a better balance between man and his natural environment, as well as at protecting natural habitats.

Hence the proposals to protect ecosystems, their biodiversity and, more generally, the environment. From this point of view, the environment and its protection from human impacts (greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation…) constitute only one part of ecology, with its own notions of biotope (natural setting) and biocenosis (the organisms that interact there). Climate change has made governments and populations increasingly aware of the need to protect them.

Hence the notion of “sustainable development”, which was finally defined fifteen years after the Meadows report: “The Limits to Growth” (1972), warning of the dangers to the environment and humanity of economic and demographic growth3.

The ecology we’re talking about here, based on a science of the Earth’s ecosystems, will essentially be the ethics of sustainable development, whose underlying metaphysics we’ll have to uncover.


The definition of metaphysics adopted here includes, on the one hand, the two branches established by Aristotle, founder of science (knowledge by causes) and scientificity (Aristotle is also the founder of logic, i.e. the conditions of correctness of rational discourse) and, on the other hand, access to a “beyond being”, as established by Plato by distinguishing reason and intelligence.

The two branches of metaphysics established by Aristotle

These two branches are :

  • being as being, i.e. the study of being or of the ultimate principles of substances, which in modern times (Clauberg, 1622-1665) is called ontology (etymologically, the science of being);
  • first being, i.e. the study of the “First Motor” or “Immovable Motor”, which Aristotle called “theology” (science of God).

Let there be no mistake about this “theology”. Science is knowledge through causes, and, having ascended from second causes to a necessary first cause or cause of causes, it is a matter of studying them. Today, a complete metaphysics necessarily comprises these two branches. Physics, by virtue of its modern scientific constitution, deals with everything that exists, from the atom to the stars, but legitimately refuses to consider the final cause or that which gives rise to existence.

The metaphysical possibility established by Plato

Since Plato – and right up to the present day – a distinction has been made between dianoia: discursive reason with its hypothetico-deductive constructions, and noèsis: the intellect and its direct intuition. This intuition is that of sense; intelligence is the instance of sense, which it does not, however, create. Sense – and knowledge are one and the same – is unmanageable (Jean Borella). On the one hand, we can’t force ourselves to understand what we don’t understand (Simone Weil, George Moore); on the other, we know only by reminiscence (Plato); in other words, if meaning is received, it’s because we have a suitable receptor. This receiver is the intellect. Its power lies in the fact that it does not come from man, but “comes through the door” or “from outside” (Aristotle). This explains why “speculation” comes from “mirror” (speculum in Latin); the intellect reflects the Ideas (Borella).

An integral metaphysics necessarily comprises these three elements: the two objects of study (being and prime Being) and access to the “world” of signifiance (the Platonic “world of Ideas”), without which the calculations and reasonings performed by reason would be meaningless. This is the approach adopted here.

Sustainable Development

A commendable epic…

Sustainable development! This quasi-oxymoron is an impossible balancing act, the goat being economic development and the cabbage the environment, or more precisely the Earth’s ecosystem, whose governance is divided between 197 countries with divergent interests (including, in 2022, 21 so-called “democratic” countries4.

Nevertheless, it has been part of the zeitgeist for over half a century:

  • The creation of the Club of Rome within the OECD in 1968 was intended to address the “problems of modern society” and a looming “planetary crisis”.5
  • The Earth Summits, ten-yearly meetings of world leaders under the aegis of the UN, aim to define ways of stimulating respect for the environment on a global scale; the first, in 1972, coincided with the Club of Rome’s Meadows Report.
  • It seems that IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) first mentioned the term “sustainable development” (officially) in 1980.
  • In a report by the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development6: “Our Common Future”, sustainable development is finally defined as follows:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The conclusions of this report were discussed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Incidentally, in France, a Charter for the Environment was incorporated into the Constitution (2005)7 and the Grenelle Environment Forum (end 2007) committed 3.5 M€ of the 4.5 M€ allocated (State budget for the 2009-2011 period).

We have in mind the results of the Paris Agreement, concluded at COP8 21 in December 2015 and ratified by 191 countries, acknowledging that despite all efforts some climate change was deemed inevitable.

In the immediate international climate calendar, COP27 was held in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt) in November 2022, “bridging the gap between COP26 in Glasgow (2021, UK), which finalized the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement, and COP28 in Dubai (2023, United Arab Emirates), which will draw a first global assessment of climate action”9.

… but impossible to achieve

Certainly due to the divergent interests of the world’s nations and the absence of global governance, it is almost certain that the only measures left on the agenda of the next COPs will be those to adapt to climate change and the increase in disasters.

This is because the balance sheet is rather bleak, on both the goat’s and the cabbage’s side.

The goat or the economy

Without going into too much detail, we note that monetary exchanges (stock exchanges, etc.) now reach one hundred times the Earth’s GDP, that August 2, 2023 was, this year, the day on which “we consumed all the resources our planet can regenerate in one year”10 and that the responsibility of companies (state or private) is very far from being established.

Cabbage or the Earth ecosystem

Global warming continues, with “the hottest decade 2011-2020 in about 125,000 years”, “CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere unseen for 2 million years, reaching +1.5°C in the early 2030s”11, that’s tomorrow!

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise (CO2, methane).

“Policies in place at the end of 2022 would lead to a global warming of 2.4 to 3.5°C by the end of the century […] with a median value of 3.2°C. The vulnerability of ecosystems and populations is increasing” (access to water and food, health, vector-borne diseases, increased mortality, humanitarian crises, particularly in Asia).

“Between 2010 and 2020, mortality due to floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable countries than in less vulnerable countries”12.

Faced with the depletion of natural resources, the degradation of natural areas, air and water pollution, unhealthy living conditions… all problems linked to man’s ill-considered actions on his natural environment, ideas for solutions, although indispensable, seem very timid: circular economy for green growth, protection of biodiversity, lower energy consumption, use of renewable energies, better management of resources (drinking water, product life cycle, waste treatment, recycling…). The industrial revolution established a society of consumption and waste, and only a paradigm shift could resolve the situation: “The quest for profit must not be pursued at the cost of environmental degradation”13, so all we have to do is change, and favor the cabbage over the goat!

Environmental Ethics

A paradigm shift cannot be instantaneous – it cannot be decreed! Why are so many futile efforts being made? It’s because it’s human nature to be inspired by lost causes (NGOs, “restos du cœur” and other charitable organizations…) and to feel a sense of guilt: the usual “at least I tried!”

Besides, it’s not about saving the planet; it’s been through a lot in the last four and a half billion years14. On the other hand, it’s human life that’s in danger, and that’s what motivates us. This is the stuff of political correctness: neither cynicism nor incapacity! It’s also a question of ethics – what about them?


From the Greek êthos (place of life; habit, morals…), ethics – or moral philosophy – formulates prescriptions with regard to a collective standard of good. Prescriptive, ethics lays down rules (which may vary from one society to another), but which are quite distinct from those laid down by justice. To illustrate, prostitution, euthanasia or the exploitation of children may be legal, but not necessarily ethical; conversely, accepting refugees or abortion may be illegal, but possibly ethical15.

Historically, ethics has found its foundation in virtue (from virtus: “virtuosity” and associated with wisdom) and a duty to human nature at its highest level (Antiquity). Heidegger (1889-1976) went so far as to equate human nature with being itself, making ethics the “truth of Being”16. Today, ethics, which in the past had a universal aim, compared with morality (local rules at a given time), has been reduced to a practice based on argument and consensus (deontological ethics, for example), which, after all, was not absent in Socrates.17.

Ideologies or principles

As we can see, ethics, which would require foundations – whether in moral theology or, at the very least, in philosophical anthropology – has found itself reduced to pragmatism18. This pragmatism is not without practical interest (necessary evolution of legislation), but ethics runs the risk of confusing ideologies and principles.

Every ideology serves as a theoretical foundation and emotional justification for a social, political, economic, aesthetic, ethical or other practice. It provides the ideo-psychic nourishment it needs to establish itself. These are the “true mythologies of the modern world” (Jean Borella19

Ideologies invert the relationship between theory and practice; they present themselves as “noble principles”, seeking simply to justify practices that vary according to needs or desires. Yet it is principles that must govern practices (cf. Jean Borella20).

Environmental ethics

Natural philosophy

To situate environmental ethics, we need to start again with natural philosophy, inaugurated by Aristotle, and which in the Middle Ages became the “natural sciences” (astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology).

It was in the 17th century, as we know, that these sciences left their “rational” (or theoretic) status to become “scientific” in the modern sense (cf. in particular the experimental method and empiricism of Francis Bacon, 1561-1626).

Resurrected in the 19th century during the atheist “drift” of evolutionism, and without having been in any way assimilated by the natural sciences or (philosophical) epistemology, natural philosophy has regained all its rights right up to the present day, notably with the Cercle International de Philosophie de la Nature21 with ambitious and legitimate lines of research22.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let’s say a word about Naturphilosophie (literally “philosophy of nature”). This is a current of thought, essentially German23, that ran from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, establishing a “romantic science of nature” (Gilles Marmasse), going back to the Physica sacra (Antoine Faivre) and wishing to propose a metaphysical explanation for a “living totality”24, as opposed to specialized sciences that distinguish irreducible levels of objectivity.

Environmental philosophy

With its scope limited to the notion of the environment, this branch of philosophy covers several disciplines, including environmental ethics. Related disciplines include eco-feminism and ecotheology. The latter studies the links between religion and behavior towards nature, and posits that Christianity, having positioned man at the top of the pyramid of living beings, would have carried a model of man’s domination over nature, which would have led to the degradation of the environment up to the present ecological crisis25. We’ll come back to this later.

Ethic of the environment

A large number of environmental ethics have been developed; let’s mention, very briefly26 and with only one of their representatives:

  • deep ecology (Arn Haess, focused on living beings and their equality),
  • land ethic (Aldo Léopold, community of life and solidarity),
  • social ecology (Murray Bookchin, political society based on nature),
  • eco-feminism (Françoise D’Eaubonne, male-female equality and sharing with all forms of life),
  • environmental justice ethics (Charles A. Bowers, social-ecological power-sharing),
  • eco-socialist ethics (André Gorz, living environment shared by all living beings, equity),
  • critical environmental ethics (John Fien, a cross between Gaianist ethics 27 and eco-socialist ethics),
  • ethics of responsibility/future (Hans Jonas, solidarity between generations),
  • eco-citizenship (Joël de Rosney, implementation through democratic participation),
  • sustainability ethics (UN, UNESCO, Quality of life of the human species and intergenerational solidarity).

As we can see, while there is a great deal of often solid thinking, it is scattered and often divergent; what’s more, the more it is developed, the more consensus seems unattainable. On the positive side, the two notions of consideration for all forms of life and solidarity with future generations appear to be the most essential. As for the rather political ideas of broader participation in power, they do not seem to be able to contribute directly and rapidly to any change in global governance in environmental terms.

Environmental ethics

This type of ethics has been developed mainly in the United States28, Australia-New Zealand and Norway during the 20th century, and consists fundamentally in endowing sentient living beings (pathocentrism), all living beings (biocentrism) and the planet (ecocentrism) with moral rights29.

Seen from the Latin world, environmental ethics has a “sentimental” aspect, with a distant Rousseauist origin, then, closer to home, with Thoreau (1817-1862), and even with Leopold (1887-1948), and raises questions that can clash with basic notions of ethics. In particular, that of “respect” and “responsibility”30.

“Respecting nature” is certainly a proposition that, apart from industry to date, everyone is inclined to adopt. However, to consider all living species (and even inert matter) on an equal footing, the notion of respect becomes problematic.

In fact, philosophically speaking, it is based on the notion that man is an animal, but a rational one. It is this rationality that enables him to aim for a good greater than his primal desires; it is this rationality that makes him a moral being, i.e. one who obeys the moral law enacted by reason. Respect therefore consists in behaving morally towards those who can behave morally towards us. Of course, it’s not a question of denying other species the right to live, but the “respect” of this environmental ethic is unfounded – and unfoundable.

“Bearing responsibility” (in this case, eco-responsibility) poses another problem. Once again, freedom and responsibility, for which there is no longer any need to make the connection, are unique to man (a madman, a child or an animal is not responsible). Should we therefore recognize the intrinsic value of non-human species, or even endow them with a legal status? Here again, there are simpler solutions. To follow Catherine Larrère31, for it would be impossible to endow living species with equal or predetermined intrinsic values, when, depending on the scenario, it will be necessary to prioritize in one way or another, the solution lies in the notion of relationships, and even in the whole network of relationships woven with living things.

There’s another point to be made here: it’s not a question of maintaining a state of harmonious relations, but of being part of an evolving system. In this way, we can add to Leopold’s words:

a thing is just when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is unjust when it tends in the opposite direction,32

by positively reinforcing relations between humans and the rest of the living world, in a dynamic relationship with nature and its diversity.

Finally, environmental ethics renounces the centrality of the human being (anthropocentrism), even though it seems inescapable that this is linked to the status of the human being in the world: animals certainly have an Umwelt (environment), but only humans have the hindsight to “think the world”.

So, on the contrary, it seems fairer to start with man and work towards nature, rather than the other way round. Human dignity is no longer a consequence, but a principle.

We thus move from an environmental ethic to a social philosophy of nature, denouncing “the tense links between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of man by man”:

it’s by freeing ourselves from this productivist, consumerist and technicist ideology, which increases inequalities as it degrades the environment, that we achieve human dignity and respect for the natural balance.33

The Ethics of Sustainable Development

This is an anthropocentric ethic, based on the notion that the human being is the center of morality.

Human beings (because they are reasonable, free and conscious of being so) are considered ends in themselves: the field of morality and that of humanity are coextensive34.

From this flow the principles long listed by José Prades, notably those of responsibility, solidarity and sound management:

  • By virtue of their moral centrality, human beings have “a responsibility to safeguard and develop life on the planet,
  • The essential duties of human beings are autonomy, solidarity and stewardship of the world,
  • Aiming for the advancement of humanity, human beings must “manage their relationship with the world as good administrators,”
  • The principle of sustainable development must “guide the duty and ideal of human management of the planet”35.

However, the diversity of current points of view and the absence of a planetary society within which a consensus would be necessary, seem to mean that we must wait for awareness to blossom across the planet. These are of four kinds, we read:

  • an anthropological awareness of human unity in all its diversity (men, women, colors of skin, etc.),
  • ecological awareness: the shared sphere of life,
  • civic awareness: human solidarity and responsibility towards others and the Earth,
  • a spiritual awareness of the human condition36.

With this “spiritual consciousness”, we find again, at the very least, this “theological” dimension of a first cause scientifically established by Aristotle, this first cause being necessarily linked to a final cause (a finality), even if the latter remains to be determined and specified.

We can see that human exceptionalism, the dignity of human birth, corresponds to an integral humanism; in other words, the simple pursuit of happiness, which has always and in every culture been given as the end of earthly humanity, is incompatible with “the alienation, exploitation and domination of man by man […] intrinsically linked to the domination of nature, by a technical attitude not regulated by ethics”37.

An integral ecology, founded on human dignity, directly responds to “the clamor of the earth as much as [to] the clamor of the poor”; “everything is linked, and the authentic protection of our own life as well as of our relations with nature is inseparable from fraternity”38.

Theology of Ecology

Rather than theology in the strict sense of the term, the aim here is, after recalling a controversy over the interpretation of a biblical text, to list more Judeo-Christian texts and to supplement them with the position of the Catholic Church, through papal declarations since the 1970s, when the alarm was sounded by the Club of Rome.

If there has recently been controversy over a biblical text, it’s because our civilization still has its Judeo-Christian roots. We can see this in the evolution of vocabulary: charity (defended by Voltaire himself), then fraternity (of the constitutions) and today’s modernist “vivre ensemble” (living together). Changes in vocabulary are trees that hide the forest.

Thus, to repudiate at all costs this third part of man, which has remained on all the earth body-psyche-spirit, would be to demonstrate neither the necessary intelligence nor the indispensable consensus in matters of ecology. Pope Francis’ proposal should therefore be relevant:

If we truly seek to build an ecology that allows us to restore all that we have destroyed, then no branch of science and no form of wisdom can be left aside, and neither can religious wisdom, with its own language.39

Ambiguities, interpretations, polemics

Lynn White Jr. has been mentioned as questioning Christianity and man “in the image of God” as enjoying a right to destroy nature40! Nothing could be further from the truth, and an answer was given to him in his own time41, instead denouncing thinkers such as Bacon and Descartes. Descartes has been criticized for the phrase “to make us like masters and possessors of nature”42, this attenuating “as” being interpreted as aiming to spare theological sensitivities (God being the only Master), but without realizing that, in the context, it’s not a question of domination, but of mastery – just as we speak of master-craftsmen, without forgetting that in Latin dominus is both the owner and the person in charge43.

While the Bible may be ambiguous, and Christianity may have been interpreted in one way or another, it is clear that, in the modern era, it is the development of science that has led to “a distancing of the spiritual or affective bond that bound man to nature”, with man believing himself to be “outside nature”, and that, it seems, “a relationship has yet to be found that is not based on unbounded domination or veneration”44. If science and religion have both contributed to anthropocentrism (today, still the most convincing option), it is indisputable that, during the modern rise of science and the advent of exploitative techniques, Christianity has never ceased to act as a brake on this deleterious supremacy.

Current texts, interpretations and exhortations

Biblical texts

With texts that have been rather lost sight of, and bits of phrases that are more often than not taken out of context, we thought it would be useful to bring together here a few eloquent texts, starting, of course, with the famous Genesis.

[27] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

[28] God blessed them and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be rulers over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves to and fro on the earth” (Gn I, 27-28).

Two comments are in order here:

  • The first is that the text immediately specifies, if not the existence of ecosystems, at least that a food chain is provided for living things:

To every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, to everything that moves to and fro on the earth and has the breath of life, I give every green herb for food.” And so it was (Gen I, 30).

  • The second is that, after reviewing the biblical occurrences of the terms “be fruitful” and “multiply”, they only appear in precarious initial situations where survival depends on them: at creation (Gn I, 28), in Egypt (Ex I, 5), at the new beginning, after the Flood, with Noah (Gn IX, 1)…45

Aristotle’s immobile motor is here called God. Not only is the world not the result of chaos or chance, but it is the fruit of a creative word, of a decision: there is a freely expressed choice. Added to this, in Christianity, is the fact that the universe is not the product of an arbitrary omnipotence or a desire for self-affirmation, but is of the order of love. The Creator is “goodness without measure”46, the “love that moves the sun and the stars”. He loves

indeed everything that exists, you have no disgust for anything you have done ; for if you had hated anything, you would not have formed it” (Wis XI, 24).

Man’s “infinite dignity”47 stems from his creation out of love, “in the image and likeness of God” (Gn I, 26): “even before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jr I, 5). His mission, then, may be to “subdue the earth”, but all the better to “cultivate and guard it” (Gn II, 15), for it remains God’s: “to the Lord belongs the earth” (Ps XXIV, 1), to him belong “the earth and all that is in it” (Dt X, 14), “the earth belongs to me, and you are but strangers and sojourners to me” (Lv XXV, 23).

Responsibility towards other living creatures is made clear: “If you see your brother’s donkey or ox fall along the way, you shall not shirk […]. If on the way you meet a nest with chicks or eggs, on a tree or on the ground, and the mother lies on the chicks or eggs, you shall not take the mother from the young” (Dt XXII, 4.6). Even the seventh-day rest is prescribed “so that your donkey and your ox may rest” (Ex XXIII, 12).

Other living beings have a value of their own before God: “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory”48. Thus, “every creature possesses its own goodness and perfection [… and reflects] each in its own way, a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. It is for this reason that man must respect the goodness proper to each creature, in order to avoid a disordered use of things”49.

As for plants, we note the sabbatical year instituted for Israel and her land, every seven years (Lev XXV, 1-4), complete rest, sowing or harvesting only the essentials (sustenance and hospitality) (Lev XXV, 4-6) and redistribution of the land every forty-nine years (Lev XXV, 10). And let’s not forget the poor man’s share:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you will not reap to the very end of the field. You shall not glean your harvest, you shall not pick your vineyard, and you shall not gather the fruit that has fallen in your orchard. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger (Lev XIX, 9-10).

We could leave the final word to Pope Francis:

We cannot have a spirituality that forgets the Almighty and Creator God. Otherwise, we would end up worshipping other powers of the world, or we would take the place of the Lord to the point of claiming to trample on the reality created by him, without knowing any limits.50


In her Book of Divine Works, St Hildegard of Bingen offers a convincing exposition. The starting point is that man, “the mirror of God, [is] the ultimate completion of creation”.

In the form of man, God has recorded the totality of his work.

Man contains within him heaven and earth and all other created things, and yet he is a single form: in him all is hidden.

Naturally, if man recapitulates Creation, if he is “a drop of water traversed by the forms of the world”, “everything is [certainly] consigned to the human form, but [it is] without perfection”, for only Christ realizes the perfect Man.

Insofar as man is the center, he shares the same structure with all other creatures:

God has consigned all creatures to man. Man, in the structure of the world, is, as it were, at its center. He has more power than the other creatures, who nevertheless remain within the same structure. For if he is small in stature, he is great in the energies of his soul.

With his head raised and his feet firmly planted, he is capable of moving the elements above as well as those below.

The inner man contemplates the creatures around him with his fleshly eyes, but through faith, he sees God. Man recognizes Him in all creatures, for he perceives their Creator in them.51

However, this dignity of man is above all a responsibility towards all the beings entrusted to his care:

But this dignity is a responsibility: “God entrusted all creatures to man, that he might penetrate them with his human strength, that he might study them and know them. For man is in himself all creation, and there is in him a breath of life that has no end”. And this responsibility is a spiritual one: “With harmony, love gives everything its just measure”52.

The leading figure in Christian ecology

The greatest “ecologist” figure in the history of the Christian Church is without doubt St. Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi, the mystical pilgrim par excellence, living in harmony with nature, others, himself and God, bearing witness “to the extent to which concern for nature, justice towards the poor, commitment to society and inner peace are inseparable.53

With regard to the Fall :

[17] …the ground will be cursed because of you. You shall eat of it with toil all the days of your life; [18] it shall bring forth thorns and briers, and you shall eat the grass of the field. [19] By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, until thou return unto the ground from whence thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. …. (Gn III, 17-19).

the harmony experienced by St. Francis of Assisi: “he called creatures, however small, by the name of brother or sister”54, was interpreted by his disciple, S. Bonaventure, as a “universal reconciliation with all creatures”, a return to the “state of innocence” before the fall 55.

Pope Francis says he chose this first name “as a guide and inspiration”, St. Francis of Assisi being “the example par excellence of the protection of the weak and of an integral ecology”56.

Papal exhortations

As early as the 1970s, Paul VI warned that “by an ill-considered exploitation of nature [human beings] run the risk of destroying it and in turn becoming the victims of this degradation”57. Social and moral progress is essential:

the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most astonishing technical feats, the most prodigious economic growth, if they are not accompanied by genuine social and moral progress, ultimately turn against man.58

In the 1980s, Pope John Paul II spoke of ecosystems: “taking into account the nature of each being and its mutual links in an ordered system”59.

In 2011, Benedict XVI will still have to remind us of man’s natural part:

We forget that “man is not just a self-created freedom. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but he is also nature.60

It is appropriate here, following Pope Francis, to mention the 2012 exhortation by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew asking everyone to recognize their ecological harms:

insofar as we all cause small ecological harm, [we are called to recognize] our contribution – small or large – to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.61

Of course, we’re talking about sin here, but also about freedom from greed or addiction:

Whether men degrade the integrity of the earth by causing climate change, stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; whether men harm their fellow men through disease by contaminating water, soil, air and the environment with polluting substances, all these are sins. […] A crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and a sin against God.62

[We must free ourselves] from fear, from greed, from dependence63.

While there may have been some ambiguity in the interpretation of biblical texts, these few quotations are, in any case, able to remove any doubt as to the position of the Catholic Church.

We can now mention Pope Francis’ recent reminder in his Apostolic Exhortation Laudate Deum64 about the climate crisis and its effects “in the areas of health, employment, access to resources, housing, forced migration, etc.” (§2), i.e. that “it is a global social problem that is intimately linked to the dignity of human life” (§3).

Given the global imbalance between human beings, the conclusion is unsurprising:

Let’s finally accept that this is a multifaceted human and social problem” (§58) and that “a widespread change in the irresponsible lifestyle of the Western model would have a significant long-term impact” (§72).

Towards a Metaphysics of Ecology

Religion may no longer be in vogue, particularly in France, but theology – “secular” at its foundation by Aristotle – nonetheless expresses a metaphysics; and, indeed, the “Christian language” enables metaphysics to develop where it would not have done so on its own. Just think of the Trinity, which converts persons into relationships (Father, Son) and the relationship of love into a person (Holy Spirit)! It may make you smile, but isn’t moving from a breathless metaphysics of being to a metaphysics of relationship one of the most essential foundations of an ethic of sustainable development?

We shall endeavour here to keep to a “secular” metaphysics, even though it would be impossible to ignore the anthropological tripartition of body, mind and spirit, even if it means, as some moderns do, making the spiritual a mere aspiration to immutability and timelessness.

The metaphysical elements that follow, concerning the world, man, nature and society, seem to us to be capable of achieving a consensus among the constructive researchers of an ethic of sustainable development.

The world

a. While animals (and plants) evolve in an Umwelt (environment), only man has the free-will and reflexive thinking that enable him to think about the world. The world is thus clearly anthropic, and man’s centrality irrefragable.

b. Science, knowledge by causes, refers to a first cause, a source, a “first immobile motor”, according to the founder of science Aristotle, but this cause, by constitution, falls outside the scope of physics, which cannot study what precedes the physical existence of the universe.65

Note: It’s not for nothing that “thing” comes from the Latin causa (cause, reason, motive) to which it refers, while rem (from res, the thing) gave us “nothing”! Things are nothing compared to the being or cause that underlies them.

c. This is why, for Plato, any cosmology can only be “a plausible myth” (ton eikota mython) (Timaeus 29d). Metaphysically, we must agree with Plato that the world is “necessarily the image [symbol] of something” (Timaeus 29b).

This is because, in view of the established existence of an “ultimate cause”, every physical reality is necessarily the symbol of a metaphysical reality; an ontological link connects them. The conception of the universe “derives by way of sensible illustration from that which, in itself, is invisible and transcendent”. It is “in its very substance” that the world “is endowed with an ‘iconic’ function” (Jean Borella, La crise du symbolisme religieux, p. 41).

If, for Plato, “our science of nature remains hypothetical, it is not because of the weakness of our intelligence; it is because of the lack of reality of the object to be known. Hence, the only knowledge that is adequate to a deficient being is symbolic knowledge, because it first posits its object for what it is, a symbol, but a real symbol, i.e. an image that participates ontologically in its model”( Ibidem. “In other words, the hypothetical geometrism of Platonic cosmology is balanced by its symbolist realism. Platonism is not idealism to any degree” (ibid.)).

d. The name we give to this Cause of causes may well vary, but the existence of an origin, beyond the being we observe, and necessarily rich in all existential qualities, is irrefutable. We quote: the “cause before the cause” (Archaetetus), the “universal Principle” (Philólaos), the “first Cause” or the “first immobile Motor” (Aristotle), the “One-Good” (Plato, Plotinus), or, more recently, the “First Principle” or the “Infinite” (Descartes), the “last reason for things” (Leibniz), the Absolute, the All Possibility, Non-Being (Guénon), Super-Being (Schuon), Ultimate Reality (Chenique), etc., and of course God (religions). and, of course, God (religions), which is only a “dirty word” for a small proportion of the world’s inhabitants.

This source, since being comes from it, is necessarily “beyond being”. Physics may deal only with what exists, but it often comes up against the ontological, and hence the surontological, the double field of metaphysics 66.

The consequence for ecology is that the world is a gift, a given or, at the very least, a received.

The consequence in terms of ecological ethics is a kind of gratitude for what has been received, and a respect for the world.

The human being

If there is no such thing as human nature per se, it’s because man, in part, transcends nature. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, people spoke of man as a microcosm (a small universe) within a macrocosm, but summing up the whole universe 67.

More precisely, man is doubly part of nature, or within it (immanent) and at the same time above it (transcendent).

It is his coextensive supernature that delivers him from his responsibility to nature.

Admittedly, he becomes massively aware of this when his life is in danger (and not that of the earth), but this responsibility has always been that of traditional societies, and remains that of surviving traditional societies.

This is because man is a rational animal (Aristotle), a free animal (Rousseau), which is synonymous with responsibility68 (Sartre, in particular), but, first and foremost, it is a relational animal, in its supernatural being towards that which gave it being, in its natural being towards the nature that nourishes it. We would add his socio-cultural being, the dimension that makes his intrinsic relationship to others the most obvious.

So, where a metaphysics of being struggles to show it, a metaphysics of relation establishes it directly: being is first and foremost relational.

The consequence, in terms of ecology and the ethics of ecology, is that man, as the node and center of all relationships, is responsible for animating and managing these networks of relationships.


Derived from the Latin nascor (to be born), “nature” has come to mean, in particular, “the course of things” as well as “the universe”, to which have been added the meanings of the Greek word phusis (physical) and the verb phuein (to hatch), so that, in Antiquity and right up to the dawn of the Enlightenment, “nature” had a dynamic, living character, i.e. one that could not be reduced to the physical-chemical determinations of matter: in particular, an intrinsic or immanent power to engender.

In the Middle Ages, a distinction was made between natura naturans (from the verb naturare, meaning “to produce natural effects”), and natura naturata, designating the whole of “created” nature.

Thus natura naturans signified universal Nature, “an active virtue that resides in some great principle of the universe”69 or an envelope having an influential force on its content: “this great force seeks the good and the conservation of the universe, which requires alternation of generation and corruption in things”70

After a phase of reification (res extensa), albeit a method of science (Descartes) and geometrization of space (Galileo, Descartes…), the notion of a dynamic wholeness is found in contemporary evolutionary conceptions, and that of life in the current concept of the biosphere.

So much so, that the dual concept of nature naturans and naturata seems, on balance, still well established. So, if the dictionary defines nature as simply “the physical world, the universe, all things and beings, reality”71, the notions of ecosystems and biodiversity correspond, complementarily, to “letting (the forces of) nature do its thing”.

Not endowed with a “human nature” per se, as we said, man is, as he was in relation to the World, both natural (of nature) and “supernatural” (above it).

The ecological consequence is that man, as a natural being (who lives and begets), must logically preserve the natural life that shelters him and his descendants.

The consequence in terms of ecological ethics is that man, by virtue of his “supernature”, is in a position and duty to do so.


Even when hundreds of millions of human beings are threatened (climatic deportations, premature heat wave deaths, famines…), planetary governance does not emerge, so divergent are the respective interests of nations.

Societal responsibility, which emerged in the 2nd millennium BC (Hammurabi), in classical Greece, and even in the modern era in the so-called democracies (21 out of 197 countries), is not establishing itself at the necessary speed.

It’s that the democratic project, essential to ecology72, is that of a sharing of power, a diacracy therefore73. And yet, as the saying goes, power isn’t given, it’s taken. It’s also customary to be fascinated by those who speak louder than you, or, of course, to be subservient to those who speak louder than you.

As we can foresee, the pragmatism of individual or associative initiatives, those of private companies (the “entreprises pour l’environnement” association, for example) and of a few local, national or regional authorities, however disorganized, will make far more positive contributions, however inadequate, than waiting for the advent of a global democracy (diacracy)!

The ecological consequence of this state of affairs is that, whatever the type of society in which they live or survive, every human being, endowed by the simple force of circumstance with planetary citizenship, must act responsibly towards nature, even if their contribution is insignificant.

The consequence, in terms of ecological ethics, is that individual responsibility is self-evident, whatever the collective results achieved.


  1. Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche Vorträge über die Entwickelungslehre im Allgemeinen und diejenige von Darwin, Goethe, und Lamarck im Besonderen… (Berlin: Reimer, 1868) – “Natural history of creation. Scientific lectures on the theory of evolution in general, and that of Darwin, Goethe and Lamarck in particular.…”[]
  2. See Anne Dalsuet, Philosophie et écologie, Paris: Gallimard, 2010.[]
  3. For the record: 3 million humans in the Paleolithic, 900 million in 1800, almost 8 billion today.[]
  4. according to The Economist Group, i.e., only some 10%[]
  5. Its current program is ambitious, with five themes: 1. planetary emergency; 2. reframing economics; 3. rethinking finance; 4. Emerging New Civilisations, Planetary Emergency, Reframing Economics, Rethinking Finance, Youth Leadership & Intergenerational Dialogues; see the Club’s website.[]
  6. Chaired by the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Norway, Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtlandle, 2nd term (1986-1989).[]
  7. 1789: civil rights, 1946: economic and social rights, 2005: rights to the environment.[]
  8. This is the Conference of the Parties (COP), established when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.[]
  9. Cf. Website of the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion. We underline “make the connection”, which does not suggest any significant contributions.[]
  10. Calculated by the Global Footprint Network. That’s the corresponding need for an Earth whose surface area would be 1.7 times greater than it is, or, put another way, the remaining five months are severely depleting our natural capital. We were at the end of December in the early 70’s.[]
  11. Cf. What we need to know from the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report.[]
  12. Ibidem.[]
  13. Cf.[]
  14. 4.543 billion years according to the uranium-lead dating method.[]
  15. Ethics commissions (bioethics, end-of-life…) can lead to new laws; cases where a convergence between ethics and justice is sought.[]
  16. Lettre sur l’humanisme (1947), in response to questions from Jean Beaufret (1907-1982), in particular: “Shouldn’t ontology be supplemented by ethics?” We can recognize in this the Dharma (duty or ‘conformity to being’) of Hinduism[]
  17. For the record, we should point to conceptions of ethics known as procedural ethics (Rawls), discussion ethics (Habermas), teleological ethics, consequentialist ethics, meta-ethics (Ricœur), etc.[]
  18. to the point where we note an inversion among some philosophers (Deleuze, Ricoeur, Comte-Sponville, Misrahi) defining morality as duties towards an absolute Good and ethics as a set of reasonable solutions on a case-by-case basis (bioethics, for example).[]
  19. Le sens du surnaturel, ed. de la Place Royale, 1986, Ad Solem, 1996, pp. 17-23 (republished by L’Harmattan, 2012).[]
  20. Ibidem.[]
  21. Founded in 2008 by Miguel Espinoza (University of Strasbourg) and well established in South America (Scripta Philosophiæ Naturalis journal created in 2011). []
  22. Notably the continuity of science with metaphysics.[]
  23. Cf. Herder, Goethe, Baader, Novalis, Schelling, Hegel.[]
  24. Cf. the statement “hen kai pân” (“One and All”… “I know nothing else”) that Lessing (1729-1781) said to Jacobi (1743-1819), cf. Lettres à Moses Mendelssohn sur la philosophie de Spinoza (1785).[]
  25. Cf. Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”, Science, vol. 155, Issue 3767, Mar 10 1967, pp. 1203-1207.[]
  26. These too succinct indications certainly don’t do them justice.[]
  27. De Gaia: Mother Nature.[]
  28. “For an American, it goes without saying that man’s relationship with nature is moral: it involves not only the individual, but also the community, and values are invested in it. This is due to the central role played by nature in the formation of the American national identity”, Catherine Larrère, “Éthiques de l’environnement”, Multitudes 2006/1 (no. 24), p. 76.[]
  29. Masterly description in C. Larrère, op. cit.[]
  30. Here we follow Clara Ruault, “Faut-il se méfier de l’éthique environnementale?”, Foundation Jean Jaures, 07/01/2021.[]
  31. Invitation by Clara Ruault, op. cit. Cf. Catherine Larrère, Les Philosophies de l’environnement (1997) and, with Raphaël Larrère: Penser et agir avec la nature: une enquête philosophique (2015[]
  32. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Almanach d’un comté des sables, Aubier, 1995, p. 283), emphasis added.[]
  33. Clara Ruault, ibidem.[]
  34. C. Larrère, op. cit., p. 81.[]
  35. José A. Prades, L’éthique de l’environnement et du développement, Paris: PUF, 1995. Emphasis added.[]
  36. Éthique et développement durable, with Yvan Droz, Jean-Claude Lavigne, Liliana Diaz, Raymond Massé, Isabelle Milbert, Paris: Karthala, 2006.[]
  37. Clara Ruault, op. cit.[]
  38. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, “On safeguarding the common home”, §49 & §70.[]
  39. Encyclical letter Laudato Si’, On Safeguarding the Common Home, §63.[]
  40. 1967, cf. supra, n. 25. Notably the “dominion” of the earth in Genesis I, 28.[]
  41. John Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature. Ecological Problems and Western Tradition, London: Princeton University Press, 1974. A more recent one, in 2005, is no less interesting: Jacques Arnould, “Les racines historiques de notre crise écologique”, Lettre à Lynn White et à ceux qui s’en réclament, Pardès 2005/2 (N° 39), pages 211-219.[]
  42. Discourse on Method, Part 4: The rules of morality by provision.[]
  43. Sandrine Petit, “christianisme et nature une histoire ambiguë”, Courrier de l’environnement de l’INRA, n° 31, August 31 1997.[]
  44. Sandrine Petit, ibidem.[]
  45. Maurice Gilbert, “Soyez féconds et multipliez”, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 96 (1974), p. 729-742.[]
  46. S. Basil the Great, Hom. in Hexaemeron, 1, 2, 10: PG 29, 9.[]
  47. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto XXXIII, 145.[]
  48. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2416.[]
  49. Ibid., n. 339.[]
  50. Laudato Si’, op. cit., §75. We have taken the references from it.[]
  51. Book of Divine Works, 2; quoted by Fr. Pierre Dumoulin (rector of the Institute of Theology in Tbilisi, Georgia), “Hildegard calls for the conversion of Man”, La Croix, 08/11/2012 (online).[]
  52. P. Pierre Dumoulin, op. cit.[]
  53. Laudato Si’, op. cit., §10.[]
  54. S. Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, VIII, 6: FF 1145, Laudato Si’, op. cit., §11.[]
  55. Legenda Maior, VIII, 1: FF 1134; Laudato Si’, op. cit., §66.[]
  56. Laudato Si’, op. cit., §10.[]
  57. Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens (May 14 1971), n. 21: AAS 63 (1971), 416-417; Laudato Si’, §4.[]
  58. Paul VI, Address on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the FAO (November 16, 1970), n. 4: AAS 62 (1970), 833; Laudato Si’, §4.[]
  59. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30 1987), n. 34: AAS 80 (1988), 559; Laudato Si’, §5. (Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus (May 1 1991), n. 37: AAS 83 (1991), 840; Laudato Si’, §5.[]
  60. Address to the Deutscher Bundestag, Berlin (September 22, 2011): AAS 103 (2011), 664; Laudato Si’, §6.[]
  61. Message for the Day of Prayer for the Integrity of Creation (September 1, 2012); Laudato Si’, §8.[]
  62. Speech in Santa Barbara, California (November 8, 1997); cf. John Chryssavgis, On Earth as in Heaven: Ecological Vision and Iniciatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Bronx, New York 2012; Laudato Si’, §8. Emphasis added.[]
  63. Conference at Utstein Monastery, Norway (June 23, 2003).[]
  64. of October 4, 2023, addressed “to all people of good will on the climate crisis”. []
  65. For example, the current cosmological model (big bang) only describes what happens after the beginning (Planck’s Wall).[]
  66. Cf. Supra, chapter 1.[]
  67. See chapter V, Hildegard of Bingen.[]
  68. Both in the sense of “duty”, “obligation”, and “fault”, “guilt”. []
  69. S. Thomas Aquinas, Summa de Theologiae IA IIAE, Q 85, art. 6, Answer.[]
  70. S. Thomas Aquinas, ibidem. Hence, “God is called by some ‘the naturating nature'” (ibid.). It should be pointed out that Aquinas sees a symbiosis between science, philosophy and theology, and here he explicitly distinguishes between “the point of view of nature in general, and [the] point of view of a particular nature” (ibid.), rather than between natura naturans and natura naturata.[]
  71. Larousse dictionary.[]
  72. Joëlle Zask, Écologie et Démocratie, Premier Parallèle, 2022. Also: Robert Misrahi, “Pour que la terre reste humaine : l’écologie a-t-elle un lien avec la métaphysique”, Forum Universitaire de l’Ouest Parisien, 2016; Ghaleb Bencheik (ibid.); Elisabeth Ellis, “Democracy as constraint and possibility for environmental action”, in Cheryl Hall, John M. Meyer, and David Schlosberg (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015; Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’évènement Anthropocène, Paris, Seuil, 2014. More by Victor Petit, Bertrand Guillaume, “Quelle ”démocratie écologique”?”, Raisons politiques 2016/4 (N° 64), online.[]
  73. See La démocratie du futur. Le partage du pouvoir (L’Harmattan, 2022).[]