Christiana Z. PEPPARD and Andrea VICINI, eds., Just Sustainability: Technology, Ecology, and Resource Extraction. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015. Pp. xii + 292. $42.00pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-132-4. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727
Peppard and Vicini have gathered 28 essays from around the world, under the auspices of the CTEWC (Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church) initiative, to address environmental issues. They impose no unified approach, but many essays take their cue from the editors’ initial suggestion of “an exercise in honing twenty-first-century sensibilities about sustainability from a particular, thick set of descriptions” (3). The essays are divided into three units: the first a set of largely descriptive (and brief) essays on sustainability challenges in different contexts around the globe, a second set focused on naming key structural challenges to sustainability, and the third in developing more specifically theological language to address the situations and structures.
The initial descriptive essays highlight how varied the challenges are, from the problems of mining in sub-Saharan Africa to the salinization of water supplies in Micronesia to the destructiveness of industrial agriculture in North America. Brief as they are, the essays tend to combine three key themes in calling for sustainability: lifestyle change, reform of economic structures, and a better view of the intrinsic value of nature. Some of the essays in Part II are not that different in style (as the editors acknowledge), but tend to go deeper in their analysis. While all draw on some theological resources, most especially the social encyclicals, essays are often more informed by reliance on non-Catholic tools of analysis, like Anthony Giddens and Peter Singer. This is not a criticism, necessarily; as with the other CTEWC collections, the essays tend to be briefer than one might like, and so their analyses usually follow a straightforward pattern: name a problem, highlight the structural aspects, and apply a tool of analysis. Celia Deane-Drummond’s essay which closes the section is a bit more detailed and goes further than others. She engages cutting-edge topics (GM food, nanotechnologies) and develops a detailed response using Pope Benedict’s gratuitousness understood as “a sense of giftedness of relationship” (151). She notes that there is a tendency to evaluate any technology in terms of fixing a set of problems, and that there is a need to establish “positive fundamental relationships” first, prior to asking the more mechanical questions.
The essays in part III form the real heart of the constructive work of the volume, and seem to offer the most lasting value. The essay by Denis Edwards on “Humans and other Creatures: Creation, Original Grace, and Original Sin” is an extremely rich and nuanced account of this very fundamental question, one which avoids the polarized extremes of “anthropocentrism” and “biocentrism” in favor of a perspective that “centers on God and understands human beings within the community of God’s creatures,” and which also develops a theologization of evolutionary biology that supports an idea of original sin (159). For an essay whose text is barely over 10 pages, the overall theology of creation developed is remarkably rich. Nancy Rourke, in a similarly brief space, offers a very creative account of the “ecological virtues” of “integrity, wonder, temperance, and prudence” (194), while also explaining how a virtue account of human action coheres with scientific axioms about the nature of ecosystems (198). Christine Hinze’s essay on what modern economics can learn from Catholic social teaching about sustainability is also richly detailed and masterful. Both Erin Lothes Biviano and Daniel DiLeo offer accessible spiritualities for approaching environmental challenges. Biviano charts the alternative sense of what genuine freedom is according to the Gospel, and contrasts it with the way we have become dependent on energy sources that threaten the world. DiLeo draws deeply on Ignatian resources to encourage a challenging examination of conscience in relation to a sacramental understanding of the created order.One of the (appropriate) questions the collection raises is how the tradition might connect the specificity of particular environmental problems and their structures to the theology developed in the later chapters. In a sense, the collection might be said to indicate why serious environmental theology is so challenging: one needs fluency in the actual scope and workings of particular problems (which themselves vary enormously around the globe), some grasp of the socio-economic structures at work in creating environmental harm (because rarely is destruction of environmental resources a direct intention), and ability to name theologically the complex relationship between God, humans, and the rest of the natural world. The Catholic tradition has tended to focus on specific, act-centered problems; while these are by no means easy to solve or exempt from social analysis, they do not present the range of challenges that environmental problems do. Thus, this collection succeeds in offering a sense of the scope of these challenges, as well as offering some resources to begin to grapple with them. Yet we still have a ways to go in connecting all the dots.