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Krijn Pansters: Theology and ethics essential in sustainability debate to better behavior

Published: 05th March 2020 Last updated: 05th March 2020

The Ethics of ‘Not I’

In March, the volume Duurzame duurzaamheid [Sustainable Sustainability], edited and co-authored by historian and theologian Krijn Pansters, will be published. In this volume, he outlines a more prominent role for ethics in the sustainability debate. Pansters, who is a staff member of the Franciscan Study Center at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, argues that the transition can only be sustainable if it originates from people’s own behavior.

‘Ask people: what are the four most important virtues, mentioned by philosophers and theologians 2000 years ago, and there you have a sustainability agenda. Be wise, moderate, courageous, and just. You can learn a lot from history and the theological traditions. That is why I think that theology and ethics can and should play a much larger role in the current debate on sustainability than has been the case so far. Anyhow, ecology and theology are closely related because of the creation story and thus the respect for the Earth. I am sorry to see that the debate on sustainability is now often dominated by climate scientists and economists; time and again I ask myself: what about  ethics? Of course, all these disciplines have to work together, but the ethicists also have a contribution to make. They definitely deserve to be heard.’

Pansters explains that, inspired by the Franciscan tradition to make a contribution to society in the fields of leadership, care, sustainability, and poverty, he has increasingly focused on questions of ecology and ethics. He was originally educated as a historian specializing in the Middle Ages. When he started working for the Franciscan Study Center, he had to make a change: a step from being a theoretical historian to becoming a socially committed theologian. That was a difficult thought process: ‘I asked them: ‘Give me some time.’ When you have a busy life, socially and at work, with publication pressure, supervising students, etc., you also need a quiet place: for rest and reflection on what is really important. I gradually came to understand that texts from the past also have important answers to today’s questions.’

Pansters entered into a dialog with other societal stakeholders. For instance, he went to the National Sustainability Conference in 2012 and 2018. ‘I heard lots of inspiring stories, by important speakers from the business sector, municipal executives, politicians, scientists. But I missed the ethical perspective. For example, it was very inspirational to hear Philips tell that they don’t want to sell people lamps, but ‘light’. But external measures like a speed limit of 100 km/hour or paying climate tax are not enough. The emphasis was on marketing, strategies, and global issues. But still, you can see that ‘sustainable’ sustainability, as in ‘of or relating to the environment’ and ‘capable of being sustained’ according to the dictionary, is not going to work if approached from this perspective only. Ultimately, it’s about human behavior and how to change it. And you can only do so by understanding the essence of the human being – as so often explained in our rich intellectual traditions.’

The Ethics of ‘Not I’

It is not easy to make people who are used to a certain pattern of behavior understand that they have to adapt. How should this change to sustainable behavior take place?

‘Actually, all good, virtuous behavior starts with understanding yourself and with respect for your fellow human beings. Theology shows that everything is related to everything, whether you call it Creation (God saw that everything was good) or Oneness or something else. We are good by nature, we also have the ability to do the right thing, even if we often do the wrong thing. That feeds the hope that everyone can achieve that awareness. What is an attractive perspective to help you persuade people? If you are a good, conscientious person, you are not only a better, but also a happier human being. The transition from pursuing worldly matters to being a conscientious person makes you happy, because you feel rich and know that you are contributing to the world. It is the transition from a material to a spiritual orientation. This constitutes the important contribution by theological ethics. I call it the ethics of ‘Not I’: the awareness of a perspective that transcends us. So my approach is individual ethics, that you can change yourself from being center-stage to serving the community around you.’

Environmental virtue ethics

Many people think that everyone is free to choose; and politicians, the liberals least of all, will not impose moral standards.

‘Moral awareness must develop bottom-up, in people, and subsequently be picked up and supported by politicians. As a researcher and member of the Franciscan Study Center, I think that scholars must contribute to society. The Friars Minor, who founded many universities, were active in the center of society and contributed where they could to human well-being. I also see that tradition at Tilburg University, the role of socially involved research, in which we lead the way. Politicians must help support this process from the pursuit of self-interest to the pursuit of the public interest, the common good. Thus, everybody contributes to solving those ‘wicked problems’ like environmental pollution. Leaders can lead by example. Pope Francis shows this, for instance, with his encyclical Laudato Si’ from 2015, in which he defends the idea of an integral ecology: care for our common home, our planet. Climate, ecology, and social issues are directly linked to our relationship with our fellow human beings. And that is exactly where those four cardinal virtues come in. Both the Pope and St. Francis are inspirational figures of temperance and justice: you should not ask for more than you really need. You must do the right thing for the greater good – this requires prudence and courage. This is referred to as environmental virtue ethics. You can revive these virtues by exploring ancient wisdom.’ 

By Tineke Bennema

The book that Krijn Pansters co-authored with other specialists from various disciplines will be presented at the conference on ecology and theology, on March 12-13. Duurzame duurzaamheid: Ecologische bekering en betrokkenheid (Eburon, Utrecht 2020). ISBN 978-94-6301-268-3

Conference "Duurzame duurzaamheid: Ecologische bekering en betrokkenheid"

Contact: Dr. Mult. K. Pansters E: