Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 2, February 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The Patriarchal Roots of the Ecological Crisis

Luis T. Gutiérrez

February 2019


Cultural Dimension of the Ecological Crisis

In 1967, historian Lynn White came up with a seminal hypothesis to the effect that, other factors notwithstanding, the ecological crisis is fundamentally rooted in cultural issues that intersect with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Much mental energy has been spent dissecting his analysis, originally published as The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. A more readable online version of White's article is available here. The essence of the controversy is aptly summarized in this video.

The search for key drivers of ecological deterioration, and potential remedies, continues as the global crisis intensifies. See, for example, The Long Reach of Lynn White Jr.'s "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (Michael Paul Nelson, Ecology & Evolution, 13 December 2016) and The Anthropocene Atlas of Geneva (Gene Ray et al, Geneva University of Art and Design, December 2018). Russian and Chinese expansionism (a new form of overt imperialism?), and the bizarre ascendance of "populist" demagogues such as Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who promise a quick resolution of economic inequities by exacerbating social tensions and exploiting natural resources for short-term political expediency, are further signs of a worsening predicament for humanity and the biosphere.

The pivotal Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome (1972, 1993, 2004), and Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si" on the care of our common home (2015), have been mostly ignored, if not dismissed as irrelevant by most politicians and, perhaps understandably, by most people immersed in the frenzy of 21st century human civilization. WHY? Lynn White was right. The crisis is not primarily an economic or technological issue. It is a cultural issue that has been breeding since the inception of human history. More precisely, the ecological crisis is rooted in the patriarchal culture whereby human/nature relations are a mirror of man/woman relations, and vice versa.

Intertwined Dynamics of Gender and Ecology

Overpopulation is the elephant in the room, and it is intrinsically a gender relations issue. It is hard to understand why most people seem to ignore this obvious reality. Of course, the ecological impacts of overpopulation are further exacerbated by overconsumption, but there is a limit to how much human metabolism can be supported in a finite planet even if all inhabitants embrace a minimal, subsistence level of consumption. Likewise, given the inexorable laws of thermodynamics, it is hard to imagine that any miraculous technologies can be found to energetically sustain "green" perpetual growth of industrial civilization. Space eventually would become limiting, and other biophysical resources would eventually become limiting, even if we optimistically assume that the planetary climate will remain stable no matter how much carbon energy is burned.

The ecological impact of gender relations is pervasive. There is no such thing as an ecological variable that is not impacted by human reproduction and population growth. Given that 7 billion humans already inhabit the planet, and there may be 10 billion by 2050, we need to figure out how population can be stabilized in a manner consistent with both human rights and sustainable biophysics. It is well known that, with surplus supply of energy, animal populations in ecosystems tend to overshoot carrying capacity, with consequent depletion of resources and eventual population decline. Can "rational" humans do better, given that we have a huge reserve of "cheap" surplus energy in the form of fossil fuels? Not as long as the patriarchal culture of male domination and female subordination remains normative, as it has been since pre-biblical times (Cf. Genesis 3:16). As long as the patriarchal culture remains normative for gender relations, appeals for responsible parenthood are futile.

Patriarchal Gender Ideology

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the creation stories in the book of Genesis capture the essence of human nature and natural gender relations. Human beings -- men and women --- are ontologically homogeneous body-persons made for each other in the image and likeness of God. The human body is the "substratum" of the original, natural unity of man and woman. This unity was corrupted by "original sin", thereby degrading gender relations from communion to domination/subordination. The consequence is an artificial culture of gender relations in which man and woman become body-objects to lust after, i.e., sexual objects to each other, and become possessive of each other and possessive of the entire community of creation (Genesis 3:16-19).

From them on, man and woman created in the image of God became man or woman created in the image of man, and this deformation of gender relations has prevailed until modern times with nefarious social and ecological consequences. By 1000 BCE, when Genesis was written, unnatural patriarchy had emerged as the "natural order of things," and this patriarchal order engendered all manner of misogynistic aberrations manifested as gender role stereotypes and other tragicomical misconceptions. Aristotle regarded women as "defective males" (a philosophical view that not even Thomas Aquinas was able to refute). Eventually, man recreated God in his own image and, as Mary Daly once pointed out, "when God is male, man is God." Religious patriarchy is the most harmful bad fruit rooted in "original sin," and one that remains entrenched in most religious traditions. Ecologically, Genesis 2:15 was conveniently forgotten in favor of Genesis 1:28. Thus fossil fuels and the ensuing industrial revolution are but the triggers of an ecological crisis that had been breeding for millennia and is now endangering both humanity and the biosphere.

For those who believe that the "signs of the times" are the voice of God that continues to resound in the events of history, the ecological crisis may be a blessing in disguise. The events of recent history include the emergence of women as persons of equal dignity with men. Patriarchal gender ideology is increasingly being challenged culturally and scientifically. Economic theories that do not take into account the ecological costs of industrial activity are no longer tenable (cf. ecological economics, biophysical economics). Homo patriarchalis, and his cousin Homo economicus, are running out of time. We are at the threshold of Homo sapiens becoming wiser.

An Adequate Anthropology for Integral Gender Relations

Corporality and sexuality are not simply identical. Gender and sexuality are not simply identical either. To equate body and sex, and to equate gender and sex, effectively reduces human beings to non-human animals, if not to mere sexual objects.

An adequate anthropology for integral human development must be based on an integral vision of the human person and, therefore, must be based on an integral vision of gender relations. The reason is that men and women become what they are by way of relationships with other men and women, and gender relations are always crucial in this process. Racism is terrible, because it impairs human relations between people of different races. Sexism is even worse, because it impairs all human relations, in all families, in all races, in all ethnic groups, in all nations. For this reason, sexist patriarchy, as succinctly defined in Genesis 3:16, is the first and most universal consequence of "original sin."

Gender shapes the world, including the religious sphere. To this day, most religious traditions are deformed by absurd rationalizations rooted in ancient patriarchy, as evidenced by edicts such as Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Specifically in the Catholic Church, 2000 years after the resurrection of Jesus witnessed by both male and female disciples, every conceivable rationalization is still being used to perpetuate the exclusion of women from apostolic succession. The recent eruption of the clergy sexual abuse crisis may be a "sign of the times." The time is now for all Christians to understand that the redemption included the redemption of the body and the redemption of gender relations, in the family and in all other dimensions of human life (Galatians 3:28).

Sex and gender can be distinguished, even though they cannot be separated. Each human person is unique, but all human beings are "of the same flesh," and the consequent "unity in diversity" is essential for healthy human relations. Natural sexuality is not the problem. The natural diversity of gender identities is not the problem. In the Catholic Church, sexist patriarchy is the problem, and sexist matriarchy would be the same problem. Integral gender relations, with gender balance in the church hierarchy, is the only way to go. Else, when it comes to issues of social/ecological justice, the church is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Integral Gender Relations for an Integral Ecology

Human languages were developed in conjunction with human cultures, and the limitations of the languages we use today are in good part due to patriarchal gender ideology. What about masculine terminology to imply dominance and feminine terminology to imply subservience? What about "Father Almighty" and "Mother Nature"? As long as the planet was sparsely populated, such metaphors and implied assumptions were of little ecological consequence; but, with cheap fossil energy driving population and consumption growth, the ecological repercussions are becoming increasingly visible.

This visibility is good, in the sense that biophysical realities make visible what otherwise might remain invisible. It is becoming increasingly evident that human dominance over natural resources must be tempered by the ethic of caring for our common home. It follows that human/nature relations should be balanced, just as gender relations should be balanced for the mutual benefit of man and woman. Gender and ecology issues are no deeply intertwined that they cannot be separated. For this reason, there can be no integral ecology without balanced gender relations, and we need a cultural revolution to balance gender relations for social/ecological justice. Gender solidarity and ecological sustainability are the defining issues of the 21st century.

A Theological Anthropology for the 21st Century

The conflation of the Christian tradition with patriarchal gender ideology is a theological paradox and a significant obstacle to resolve the unavoidable social/ecological justice issues of the 21st century. Since the patriarchal culture emerged after "original sin," it is clear that patriarchy is not natural law. But how can we disentangle biblical truths from the patriarchal language that is pervasive in biblical texts, and is still enshrined in most Christian institutions? There is a theological anthropology, the Theology of the Body, that provides a sound basis for understanding that patriarchal gender ideology is not intrinsic to the Christian faith. Since the ecological crisis is rooted in patriarchal gender ideology, and about one third of the 7.5 billion people who currently inhabit the planet are Christians, clarifying this doctrinal issue is crucial for moving toward a sustainable human ecology.

Nota bene: Some current interpretations of the Theology of the Body are biased by reading the text via a patriarchal lens. But if this bias is removed, a "feminist" theological anthropology emerges that utterly deconstructs patriarchal gender ideology and is relevant not only in the context of traditional Christian marriage but in the wider context of gender relations in all dimensions of human life. Thus it is a timely and reassuring confirmation that the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light.

Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body is monumental piece of work that provides an integral anthropology for integral human development. It also provides an integral anthropology for an integral ecology and arguably anticipates the cultural revolution advocated by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si'. Fundamentally, it shows the path from gender complementarity, ideologically understood as the patriarchal "binary," to integral gender communion in both the interpersonal/nuptial and social/ecological spheres of human civilization.

This is "where the rubber meets the road." It is true that man and woman complement each other in ways that go much deeper than what is required for sexual intercourse, but it is not true that such natural complementarity should dictate a rigid set of mutually exclusive gender role stereotypes. It is true that the human body is normally male or female, but it is not true that man and woman are ontologically mutually exclusive; for all human beings share one and the same human nature, "of the same flesh." It is true that each person is unique, and men and women are different as body-persons, but it is not true that men are exclusively masculine and women are exclusively feminine; for there is man in woman, and there is woman in man, and this is precisely what enables them to become a communion of persons (communio personarum) and thereby become fully human in the image of God, who is one and is also a communion of persons.

In light of these anthropological realities, it seems reasonable to infer that masculine and feminine polarities can overlap in every individual person, just as they can overlap in social life. Thus homosexuality is perfectly natural, just as heterosexuality is perfectly natural, as the psychological and social sciences have recently ascertained. Even though most people are heterosexual, there is a continuum, or spectrum, of gender identities, and there is no such thing as a human person who is exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine. This is an anthropological reality that should no longer be denied for ideological reasons, ancient cultural/religious misconceptions notwithstanding.

From Gender Complementarity to Gender Communion

Human development, if not engendered, is endangered. Furthermore, engendering human development is not only about balancing the masculine and feminine polarities; it is about uniting them, integrating them, fusing them into a renewed humanity for the common good. Gender complementarity is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient for integral human development and an integral human ecology. Gender complementarity must lead to a renewal of gender communion, a renewal of the original unity of man and woman, and a sustainable integration of humanity and the human habitat.

In the unfolding history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is only 3000 years old, this means that we should keep advancing on the long journey toward the renewed gender communion made possible by the redemption (Galatians 3:28) until the entire body of humanity socially becomes "one flesh" in nuptial union with Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). But this becomes possible if, and only if, gender communion extends to the nuptial unity between the Cosmic Christ and the entire community of the creation (Ephesians 1:10); for, if the human/nature relation mirrors the man/human relation, the converse is also true.

In this light, the ecological crisis could become a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to make significant progress toward the Omega Point. But, humans must cooperate. As Christian Wiman has pointed out, "faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart." It is time to dig up the patriarchal roots of the ecological crisis and build a new civilization of social/ecological justice by traveling the path from gender complementarity to gender communion. It is a long journey, but we are getting closer.


Durber, Susan. Of the Same Flesh: Exploring a Theology of Gender, Christian Aid, July 2014.

Francis, Pope. Encyclical Laudato Si' on the Care of Our Common Home, Vatican Press, 24 May 2015.

Francis, Pope. Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia on Love in the Family, Vatican Press, 19 March 2016.

Gutiérrez, Luis T. An Integral Anthropology for Integral Human Development, Mother Pelican, May 2018.

Gutiérrez, Luis T. An Integral Anthropology for an Integral Ecology, Mother Pelican, May 2018.

Gutiérrez, Luis T. Third Anniversary of the Encyclical Laudato Si', Mother Pelican, June 2018.

John Paul II, Pope. Theology of the Body, L'Osservatore Romano, 1979-1984.

John Paul II, Pope. Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, Vatican Press, 22 May 1994.

Meadows, Donella, et al. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2004.

Nelson, Michael Paul. The Long Reach of Lynn White Jr.'s "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Ecology & Evolution, 13 December 2016.

White Jr, Lynn. The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, Science, 155, 1203-1207, March 1967.

Young, Talia. Sex ≠ Gender, PLOS Ecology Community, 17 January 2019.


Luis T. Gutiérrez is the owner and editor of the Mother Pelican Journal.

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