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franciscan - May 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Nature is the New Poor: Ecology and Liberation

by Helen Stanton

 ‘The environment movement always thinks about the stress we put on the planet ... They always end up being anti-development without meaning to be.  If we carry on like that, the world will split in two’ (Clare Short).(1)

A green and poverty-free future was the twin vision of many of those who attended the Johannesburg Summit which met in 2002, but Clare Short’s statement, quoted above, points to a potential, and often real, conflict between these two aims.  The relationship between poor communities and nature (which is what I mean by ‘environment’ in this article) can be highly ambiguous. 

On the one hand, in the two-thirds world, there is habitat erosion when poor communities come into conflict particularly with large mammals, whose declining numbers may reflect the spread of human populations who have to live somewhere.  The two-thirds world also aptly questions the desire of the West to impose curbs on pollution which seem to deny poorer countries access to the industrial wealth from which the West has benefited.  This sense of injustice is clearly exacerbated when western countries, most notably, though not solely, the United States, refuse to take radical steps to curb their own greenhouse emissions.  On the other hand, and in stark contrast with the conflict I have so far described, there are heroic examples of many indigenous peoples, for example tribal peoples in Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, whose way of living with nature, of balancing human and environmental needs may provide a solution to this conflict.  The question remains however, whether their example is workable on a large scale.

The problem which I am describing is in many ways a classic Franciscan question, of the relationship between Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and Lady Poverty.  It is also a question which has become crucial in liberation theology.  Nature was not a major issue in the classic liberation writings of the 1960s to 1980s, probably because the violence of right-wing dictatorships, and the sheer human suffering which resulted, meant that liberation theology addressed the crisis of humanity.  In this climate the preferential option for the poor became a key doctrine.  Popularised in the UK through David Sheppard’s book Bias to the Poor, it argued, to quote Gustavo Gutierrez ‘The scorned of the world are those whom the God who is love prefers’.(2)

More recently, however, the influence of indigenous peoples and of women theologians has meant that the issue of nature has come to the fore.  It is unsurprising, given his Franciscan vocation, that Leonardo Boff has been a prime figure in taking liberation thinking forward in this area, in two recent books Ecology and Liberation, and Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. Although he seeks to prioritise humanity in terms of God’s preferential option for the poor, he widens the concept to include forest and mountains.  For Boff, the rich who oppress the poor also oppress nature, for they fail to recognise that the forms of society which serve their vested interests have also led to the environmental crisis. 

Boff reserves particular condemnation for those who are not interested in social transformation, but concern themselves only with the saving of a species - the whale, the giant panda; or an area of wilderness for their leisure activities.  Alongside them, however, he acknowledges Christianity’s responsibility in undermining respect for the earth, not least in the hierarchical dualism which divided earth and heaven, body and spirit and made it very clear which was to be valued and which was not. 

Instead of an environmental nature-led approach to ecology, Boff presents an analysis in which he asserts, quoting Josue de Castro, ‘poverty is our main environmental programme’. (3)  The liberation of poor and oppressed people and nature is closely connected, and the key to addressing the problem of liberation and ecology for Boff is the developing of ‘an alliance of solidarity with nature’.(4) In asserting this Boff recognises the interconnectedness of all things, citing the napalming of Vietnam as an example of political violence expressed in the destruction of the environment.  The solutions he looks for are likewise holistic and interconnected, and in this, as elsewhere, he is influenced by Jung.  For, Boff asserts, human beings need a mental ecology which recognises that ‘Sun, water, plants and animals are in us as emotional patterns and as archetypes’.(5)

Unsurprisingly it is in Francis that Boff finds his most significant model for a response to these issues:  Francis is the archetype of brotherhood and sisterhood with nature.  In this universal relation ‘the preferential option for the poor accords with tender love for the creation’.(6)

 In her key books, The Body of God, and Super, Natural Christians, feminist theologian Sallie McFague expounds a similar approach to that of Boff, though her models of Christian response include Hildegard of Bingen alongside Francis, and she is more critical than Boff of Gaia theory.  She powerfully challenges us to extend our understanding of the preferential option for the poor to include nature.  She demands that the world is not split in two, but that the whole - oppressed people, and oppressed nature - as God’s beloved creation, is liberated through right action in collaboration with God.

God’s love is unlimited and oriented especially towards the oppressed - whoever the oppressed turns out to be at a particular time.  The definition of who falls into this particular group has changed over the centuries...  One of the most fundamental aspects of the story of Jesus, the love that overturns conventional dualistic hierarchies to reach out to the outcast and the victim, ought, we suggest, to be extended to another dualistic hierarchy, that of humanity over nature. Nature is the “new poor”.. this does not mean that the “old poor” - poor human beings - are being replaced .. It does, however, suggest that nature is the ‘also poor’.(7)



1 Johannesburg Summit 2002, quoted in New Scientist 7 September 2002 p 9.

2 Gutierrez, G:  Essential Writings p 51.

3 Boff, L:  Ecology and Liberation p 3.

4 ibid p 14

5 ibid p 32.

6 ibid p 53.

7 McFague, S:  The Body of God p 164-5 f


Helen Stanton is Social Responsibility Officer for the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and is examining contemporary writing on liberation and ecology as part of her doctoral work.


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