In his Encyclical on the Environment Laudato Si, Pope Francis deplores what he calls the “throwaway culture” and cites the obvious benefits of nature’s recycling processes: “It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.” (Laudato Si #22)
Who knew that the humble facts of the organic digestive cycle would get recognition in a papal encyclical? He contrasts the natural cycle with the obtuseness of industrial production… “…our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.” (Ibid.)
I thought of this passage in the encyclical as I watched a common grackle (above) feed her chicks in a nest along the Saranac River just outside of the historic Adirondack town of Saranac Lake.
I counted four baby birds crowded into this nest. They raised their heads expectantly when they sensed Mom Bird getting close with that delicious meal of dragonflies. Here’s natural recycling at its finest! Abundant dragonflies around the lakes provide food for birds that then drop nutrient-rich waste that helps to sustain the forest.
The chicks are hungry and demanding!
What mother hasn’t heard that “More! More!” scream from the kids?
She returns with yet another delicious looking treat.
The kids are satisfied for about three minutes. Then the cycle begins again. So it goes with wild families!
This grouse just dares anyone to get near her chicks:
While the mother duck just keeps her babies moving along…
Biodiversity is evident everywhere in the Adirondacks where the “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve is an example of the kind of “…sanctuaries on land and in the oceans where any human intervention is prohibited which might modify their features or alter their original structures…because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem.” (Laudato Si #37) Pope Francis specifically cites the vast Amazon and Congo basins as the most important and most environmentally endangered places in the world. While the Adirondack Forest Preserve is comparatively tiny, the principle of preserving natural habitat from any human intervention is evident here, but not without controversy. The tension between human economic development and environmental protection is constant.
The grackle and the dragonfly illustrate the importance of an appreciation for biodiversity. While I find dragonflies somewhat annoying when they fly at me on the lake, they are a vital food source for birds. They also are beautiful in their own weird way with those lacy wings and big bulbous heads. Pope Francis may have been thinking of dragonflies when he wrote that all creatures deserve appreciation for their part in God’s creation and we humans “have no such right” to destroy species. (#33)
“…the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions: human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. …A sober look at our worlds shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly…” (Laudato Si #34)
Protecting the environment, writes Pope Francis, is an imperative of social justice.
“We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, play the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.” (Laudato Si #36)
Next: Learning to See Nature