Patriarch, Pope and a Bishop’s ‘Radical Ecology’
Religion & Liberty Online

Patriarch, Pope and a Bishop’s ‘Radical Ecology’

Met. John of Pergamon
Met. John of Pergamon

At the Vatican press conference on Thursday for the launch of Pope Francis’ enviromental encyclical, a high ranking Greek Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, said the document, titled Laudato Si in Latin or Praise be to You in English, comes at a “critical moment in human history” and will “undoubtedly have a worldwide effect on people’s consciousness.” He thanked the pope for “for raising his authoritative voice to draw the attention of the world to the urgent need to protect God’s creation from the damage we humans inflict on it with our behavior towards nature.”

Zizioulas, an advocate of what he calls “Radical Ecology” (more on that below), was in Rome as the representative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew whose church for more than three decades  has taken to the bully pulpit of this ancient and oppressed see to advance Christian stewardship of the environment. This is why Bartholomew, who just concluded another environmental conference in Istanbul, is known as the Green Patriarch.

You can read the full text of Zizioulas’ remarks on the Vatican Radio site. How to understand the Orthodox role here? Five things, for starters.

1. Persuasion, not jurisdiction.

Bartholomew’s pronouncements on the environment have been applauded widely by environmental and media elites. Yet his numerous statements and declarations are met with little interest in the self-governed Orthodox churches outside the Greek Orthodox world. Certainly, his statements and endorsements of various United Nations climate treaties are not binding on other churches in any way. In the Orthodox Church, major theological controversies are settled by a council or synod. Debatable environmental stewardship policies and prescriptions don’t rise to this level. When you hear Bartholomew described by his own church or the media as the “spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians” that is true if he were to sit in synod with other Orthodox hierarchs where he is the “first among equals.” An Orthodox Council is in the works for 2016, but there are no momentous theological disputes on the agenda. Bartholomew, while widely revered, would not typically be considered by a Russian or Egyptian or Romanian or Serb or Bulgarian or Syrian as their pastor. They have their own patriarchs and popes. Nor does Bartholomew wield jurisdiction over the self-governed churches in Greece and Cyprus — although closely linked by language and culture and theological tradition to these lands.

So what about the Green Patriarch project? It is promoted by the official communications organs of Bartholomew’s largely Grecophone flock and his bishops in the United States, Canada, Australia and western Europe. But it has had next to no effect in promoting any change in the day to day choices and habits of those in the pews. Believe me, on that one. As a Greek Orthodox Christian who has visited many parishes, I have yet to see any evidence of a mass movement to lay monasticism or rejection of the American standard of living. The American Dream is alive and well in these parishes. “No more fooling around, not in this place,” Alexis Zorba famously said. “We’ll pull our pants up and make a pile of money.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with Pope Francis, during his visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Nov. 29-30, 2014
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with Pope Francis, during his visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Nov. 29-30, 2014

The waves of mass emigration from Greece, beginning in the late 19th century to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, and then again after WWII,  saw millions of Greeks leave for greener pastures in the United States, Canada, Australia (thank God for Anglosphere legal customs!) and western Europe where they prospered in ways they never could have at home. They enjoyed rule of law, property rights, and a relatively lower level of corruption compared to Orthodox cultures like Greece, Cyprus, Ukraine or Russia. Greeks, especially those who are young, educated and ambitious, are once again fleeing Greece, now in state of complete fiscal meltdown.

What’s more, Bartholomew’s Greek Orthodox flock, wherever it is, ranks among the wealthiest, most entrepreneurial and best educated faith communities in their home countries. Today, they or their children and grandchildren are managing Fortune 500 companies, working in financial markets in London and New York, everywhere present in the professions, and growing major family businesses. In the United States, the Greek Orthodox hierarchy frequently celebrate their  billionaires and centi-millionaires with church honors for their philanthropy. The ranks of the honored include — to name just a few — billionaire John Catsimatides, who runs a chain of supermarkets and markets heating oil; or Andrew Liveris, president, chairman and CEO of the Dow Chemical Co., or the late George Mitchell, widely considered the modern day father of fracking.

2. Some familiarity with basic economics would be helpful.

Those allied with the Green Patriarch project, like Zizioulas, seem not to be acquainted with simple, non-controversial economic insights (scarcity, incentives, trade offs, the need for growth, etc.).  Or, for that matter, do they acknowledge the hard practical realities of implementing policy and political prescriptions in a modern democracy with often conflicting interests. Fortunately, environmental policies are not set in motion just because they are the pet projects of church and environmental elites. We have a major debate on the Obama administration’s environmental policies going on right now and, earlier, we’ve seen sweeping initiatives like cap-and-trade fail when they met the test of the legislative process. Yet Bartholomew and his clergy continue to scold, seemingly unaware that theological platitudes about “charity over greed and frugality over wastefulness” don’t cut it when economic growth and jobs are on the line.

See these quotes from Bartholomew which are characterized by alarmism and serial predictions of impending catastrophe. In fact, the language used by Bartholomew and Zizioulas and Rev. Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, who authors much of the patriarch’s stuff in English, is eerily similar to the language and tone of Francis’ new encyclical. The statements often begin with a lyrical lament for the destruction of nature (if you can personalize creation by describing it as a “sister” or “mother” so much the better), then lay on thick certainties of imminent doom, and close with a demand for swift action from some “global authority” or other.

“Even on this distant island, however, one could not escape the chatter of the seabirds or calls from the minarets,” Chryssavgis writes from the latest conference in Halki. “Still, there seemed to be an unspoken appreciation for this quasi-divine and organic soundtrack.” Read the joint declaration that Francis and Bartholomew issued in Jerusalem last year if you want more of this sort of thing. See also Bartholomew’s just issued statement on Laudato Si in Time magazine, or his “Climate Change and Moral Responsibility” opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday, co-authored with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of England is moving fast down the road to fossil fuel divestment. Now, with Justin and Francis and Bartholomew linking arms on environmental matters, look for the Roman Catholic and Ecumenical Patriarchate churches to fall in line. Watch also for more and more official statements from their churches in support of the United Nation’s climate treaty conference in Paris at the end of this year.

The statements issued by the various spokesman associated with Ecumenical Patriarchate about the waste and degradation and poverty wrought by developed countries in the West (with frequent jabs at western Christianity) are remarkable for their complete obtuseness about how the modern world was shaped by the very things they decry. They seem to be not at all aware that hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty in the developing world in recent decades by the very economic globalization they find so aesthetically unpleasing. Nor do they seem to be aware that the more than 1 billion people still without electricity in this world won’t leapfrog themselves to affordable and reliable power supply, clean water, sanitation and decent employment by turning over their futures to the UN’s busybody Klimate Kops (“UN 0fficials criticize Detroit water shutoffs”)

This just in:

China and Japan have plans to build massive amounts of coal-fired power plants, while the United States is not only not building new coal-fired power plants, but it is also shuttering many of its existing coal-fired power plants because of Obama Administration policies. China is building one coal-fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, while Japan plans to build 43 coal-fired power projects to replace its shuttered nuclear units. The United States, on the other hand, cannot build new non-CCS coal-fired power plants and is shuttering existing coal fired power plants. These existing coal-fired power plants retiring in the United States are among the cheapest source of electricity generation in this country. To replace these plants with new generating capacity will cost the nation and thus taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars.

Yet, Bartholomew offers this, for example:

Poverty is not caused by the lack of material resources. It is the immediate result of our exploitation and waste. There is a close link between the economy of the poor and the warming of our planet. Conservation and compassion are intimately connected. The web of life is a sacred gift of God — ever so precious, yet ever so delicate. Each of us dwells within the wider ecosystem; each of us is a part of a larger, global environment. We must serve our neighbor and preserve our world with both humility and generosity, in a perspective of frugality and solidarity.


Climate change is much more than an issue of environmental preservation. Insofar as human-induced, it is a profoundly moral and spiritual problem. To persist in our current path of ecological destruction is not only folly. It is suicidal because it jeopardizes the diversity of our planet. Moreover, climate change constitutes a matter of social and economic justice. For, those who will most directly and severely be affected by climate change will be the poorer and more vulnerable nations (what Christian Scriptures refer to as our “neighbor”) as well as the younger and future generations (the world of our children, and of our children’s children).

3. Zizioulas is an advocate of Radical Ecology.

At a 2012 environmental summit organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the Halki Theological School (closed by Turkish authorities), Zizioulas began by citing the thoroughly discredited 1967 article by Lynn White Jr. (Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis) which blamed Christian theology for global despoliation. He went on to things he didn’t very much like about the modern world, like computers, technology in general, and the Enlightenment (westerners again). He then posed two ways of looking at the natural environment (emphasis mine):

In my opinion, there seems to be two kinds of ecology; one that I would call “radical ecology” and another that could be called “managerial ecology.” Radical ecology would use the minimum means of technology, or none at all, and would be prepared to sacrifice economy or reduce the living standards, thereby advocating what we call an “ecological asceticism.” The other kind of ecology, the managerial one, would not only avoid renouncing technology but would use it by placing it in the service of a safer, improved environment. This kind of ecology would not only retain economy, but would use the environment to enhance it with the assistance of technological innovation.

Where does religion belong in all this? If it is to be true to its nature, religion cannot but belong to what I have called radical ecology. This is particularly true about the Orthodox Church with its strong eucharistic (sacramental) and ascetical (monastic) tradition. Science, on the other hand, nowadays turns toward the managerial type of ecology inasmuch as it is increasingly absorbed by technology. Our confidence has been dominated, as we all know, by a managerial ecology and the element of religion has been either deliberately withdrawn or sadly absent from it. This only highlights the need for a real dialogue between these two kinds of ecology. Surely it is an exciting prospect for the future.

This is complete, utter nonsense. It is a vision of someone who hates the modern world and completely misunderstands the practical benefits of technology that supports the living standards of billions of human beings. There is no evidence that this bishop understands how people are raised from abject poverty. If Zizioulas wants a glimpse of what his demand for economic “sacrifice” or reduced living standards would bring, go talk to a few Athenians who are standing in bread lines or burning firewood in their homes because they can’t afford heating oil. Could you persuade them to sacrifice more “economy” at this point?

4. The secular allies of Green Patriarchy are a very mixed bag.

Let’s begin with Bill McKibben, founder of and a speaker at the 2012 conference at Halki. He has campaigned relentlessly to dismantle the fossil fuel economy and was a notable critic of the Keystone XL pipeline. The 2012 event also featured speakers such as chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, scientist James Hansen, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. “The issue is not development versus environment,” Indian activist Vandana Shiva helpfully explained. “The issue is survival versus extinction.” She also informed the gathering that the “deregulated” economic growth of the “rich North” was collapsing.

Jane Goodall and friend
Jane Goodall and friend

The Halki conference that wrapped up earlier this month — with a focus on the arts — included a birdwatcher, a mountaineer, literary theorists, poets, philosophers, film producers, clergy and others described as “activists.” The conference organizers, including Zizioulas and Chryssavgis, tell us that at the core of their effort “is the belief that no effort can be successful without a fundamental change in values as manifested in ethics, spirituality, and religion.”

5. This unbalanced approach is a missed opportunity.

The faithful will continue to tune out the Green Patriarch, Met. Zizioulas and other Christian leaders until they advance a view of environmental stewardship that has some practical application to their own lives, not just church or media elites. You cannot get a hearing from people who need to make a mortgage payment, educate their children and save for retirement when you’re telling them to ditch technology and reduce their living standards. And who could blame them?

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.