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Concept: Integral Ecology

Matilda Nassar 


Integral ecology refers to a concept recently popularized by the Catholic Church that advocates for a holistic approach to some of the political, social, economic, and environmental problems that plague our world today. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that a global focus on principles of integral ecology could rectify relationships among people, and between people and the Earth. The “cry of the Earth” and the “cry of the poor” have the same origins in the current capitalist and colonialist world order, in which the Global North has assumed hegemonic power. Thus, because of this, integral ecology also serves as a moral and ethical response to global challenges. However, while no exact unified methodology or practice of integral ecology exists at the policy level, there are numerous informal practices, two of which are examined here in this article. These two examples, of the Bethany Land Institute in Uganda and the Tent of Nations in Palestine, suggest that integral ecology as an approach is possible and realistic on a small scale. Elements of the practice of integral ecology include sustainability, relevance to local context, and the fostering of connection among people and between people and land. Nevertheless, we are left with questions about what the practice of integral ecology would look like on a global scale. By institutionalizing a practice of integral ecology, we run the risk of reinforcing, rather than dismantling, structures of inequality. 

I. Introduction

Integral Ecology, a concept recently popularized by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato Si in 2015, refers to an integrated and holistic approach to political, social, economic, and environmental problems. It’s relatively recent emergence as a term resulted from a broad and urgent need to address current global environmental concerns in a sustainable way. While there have been many (but not enough) previous efforts to counteract the effects of climate change, the notion of integral ecology attempts to capture the connection between humanity and the environment, offering a more comprehensive understanding of how we have arrived at the present moment in time. Laudato Si cites many examples of both human and natural disaster, shows how they are intertwined, and proposes integral ecology as the framework through which to address these issues and move forward. 

II. Conceptual Definition 

Although the first explicit use of the term “integral ecology” appeared in a 1958 marine ecology textbook by Hilary Moore (Moore 1958, 7), the reemergence of this concept in recent years has spurred a surge in theories and frameworks to address problems stemming from our continuously industrializing and modernizing world. These theories and frameworks include concepts such as ecofeminism, degrowth, the “Green Economy” model, and others. While each of these has a specific understanding of, and approach to, responding to our issues as a global community, the concept of integral ecology provides for a robust and holistic system that accounts for the varied relationships between different people, between different ecosystems, and between people and their ecosystems. 

The need for an integral ecology approach is clear in “the coupling of economic activities and wealth inequalities with environmental pollution and climate change” (Sorondo, Marcelo, and Ramanathan 2016). Giving attention to these relationships mandates that integral ecology be understood not only as an approach to political problems but also as a moral and ethical framework through which to address the intersection of the political, the economic, the social, and the environmental. Thus, the conceptual definition that arises from this understanding of the concept of integral ecology is a new international relations that recognizes “the ‘ecological debt’ that the Global North owes the Global South for its disproportionate consumption of and consequent harm to natural resources and local cultures (Laudato Si 51, 95, 143–44). Therefore, in addition to combining political, economic, social, and environmental issues, integral ecology advocates for an acute awareness of global power dynamics. 

III. Literature Review 

However neat the aforementioned definition of integral ecology may sound, critics of Pope Francis have pointed out that his encyclical Laudato Si did not posit a clear definition of the concept of integral ecology. Castillo (2016) highlights that although “any discussion of a ‘preferential option for the earth’ is necessarily bound up with the question of ‘the preferential option for the poor,’” Pope Francis “leaves somewhat less clear the question of precisely what type of politics—and for that matter, what type of political theology—the encyclical recommends for realizing these options” (Castillo 354). This leads us to an important question of how to put the concept of integral ecology into practice. Castillo (2016) continues on in his analysis to say that integral ecology should be construed as a liberationist concept, similar to Gustavo Gutiérrez’s concept of integral liberation, which could serve to combat a system built on developmentalism, colonialism, and globalization. Basically, a true practice of integral ecology (debt accounting, etc.) cannot be realized without the root causes of these issue being named and addressed. Without a liberation from and a restructuring of the current world order, which “perpetuate[s] an unequal ecological exchange at the global level” and emphasizes “economic growth and technological fixes as the primary means to establish eco-social justice,” Castillo (2016) asserts that the practice of integral ecology would not be possible (370). 

In seeking to reconcile the dichotomy of nature (cry of the earth) and culture (cry of the poor), Pope Francis is opposing the “colonizing dynamic inherent in such a dualism” (Apffel-Marglin 2018, 58). And, in acknowledging the ecological debt that the Global North owes the Global South, he is criticizing the current structures that allow for economic domination of the former over the latter. Thus, there are several factors at play here. First, that humanity as a whole has failed to live harmoniously with the earth (our “common home”), which has resulted in high levels of environmental degradation and climate change. Second, that the effects of the damage that has been done to the earth predominantly by the Global North will be most experienced by the Global South, revealing a grossly unequal relationship of power. Consequently, the Global South is not only a direct economic victim of the Global North, but it is also an indirect environmental victim of the economic activities of the Global North. Carbine (2017) adds that “decreasing biodiversity, increasing climate change, deforestation, destruction of wetlands, and pollution of water, soil, land, and air by manufacturing, agribusiness, nuclear, and other industries… can then be construed as sins of eco-injustice against poor and marginalized peoples, especially indigenous peoples and women” (48), which echoes Pope Francis’ claim that the “human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together….the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet…” (Laudato Si, 48). 

The Global South, characterized broadly as “the poor” and “the vulnerable,” must be included in this integral ecology. However, it is not clear what this inclusion entails. Martins (2018) states that the option for the poor that Pope Francis discusses is “the participation of the poor in a process of transformation from a paradigm of exploitation to a paradigm of caring” (419). Yet, if the “cry of the earth” and the “cry of the poor” are one and the same concern, whose concern is it? It would seem that the answer to that question is that it is the concern of the Global North. Thus, although Pope Francis rightly brought to light the interconnectedness of our natural and our human-made problems, it may be argued that he is still reinforcing and advocating for the same structures of neocolonialism and relationships of paternalism and dependency that characterize our current system. In short, because integral ecology is an idea coming from the Global North, and because the practice of integral ecology would primarily be spearheaded by the Global North, it may be that it is merely strengthening the same structures of power and inequality that have brought us to this point in time in the first place. There is a certain danger in overconfidence (which can cause negative unintended consequences), when those in power believe in the inherent “goodness” of something and thus cannot see the ways in which it can uphold an unjust system.   

An integral theoretical framework must not be construed as an end in and of itself. As Mickey et al (2013) said, “understanding how to make fire does not do much good if one cannot also discern how the capacities of fire relate to experiences of safety and wellbeing” (12). In the same way, understanding that there is a need for an integral ecology is not helpful unless we are able to go beyond this first step and develop a methodology that leads to a robust practice. Integral ecology must be able to prove its soundness “by showing the usefulness, the fruitfulness, the practical utility of the concrete distinctions” that it draws on as a framework (Claus 2012, 417). Thus, although it is beyond the scope of this essay to extrapolate on integral ecology methodologies, it is essential to note that without a clearly-articulated methodology for the participation of the poor that integrates elements of decolonization and justice (among others), integral ecology as the Pope imagined it would not be possible.  

However, despite shortcomings in the definition of integral ecology, which some may claim is due to the relatively recent popularization of the concept, the awareness that the Pope raised about the need for integral ecology will hopefully translate to more research on and development of a methodology and practice. Therefore, it can be said that Laudato Si, while central to the initiation of dialogue on integral ecology, was not meant to be a policy document; rather, it was meant to animate governments and non-governmental actors to envision and enact policies based on this framework. According to O’Neill (2016), Laudato Si has contributed to public discourse in several ways. Theologically, it provides “a basis for those with faith convictions to translate environmental concern into action and become active participants in their lifestyle choices” (O’Neill 2016, 751). Philosophically, it provides “an accessible, ethical exploration of the relationship between people and nature, and highlighting the importance of ethical discussion in scientific debate” (O’Neill 2016, 752). Finally, in terms of public policy, the encyclical provides a catalyst for “discussions on the role of the market and problems of global inequality, and the roles of institutions and individuals” (O’Neill 2016, 753). 

The appeals to one’s theological, philosophical, and policy standpoints that Pope Francis makes are meant to illustrate the interconnectedness of the political, the economic, the social, and the environmental. The need for an integral ecology is made apparent in the face of Western “attachment to technologies and consumerism, such that the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are excluded” (Deane-Drummond 2018, 921). Now, although many may agree, on some moral or philosophical level, that the participation of the poor and other vulnerable members of society should be incorporated into policy, it is perhaps accurate to say that not many would agree on the best way to do this (i.e. on the methodology). This may be especially true since Pope Francis sees that “decreased growth is necessary in some parts of the world so as to resource ‘healthy growth’ in other parts and to repay some of the global North’s ‘ecological debt’” (O’Neill 2016, 753). This refers to the related concepts of “degrowth” and “right-sizing” that others have proposed but that have not received widespread political traction or support. This may be explained, in part, by the reality that the Global North would not willingly downsize its lifestyle or quality of life so long as the dominant world paradigm remains based on capitalist ideals and colonial structures. 

Similarly, Laudato Si represents a religious document, reflecting Pope Francis’ role as the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. His religious beliefs are foundational to the arguments of Laudato Si. The encyclical is, in essence, a kind of theological paradigm that provides an alternative to the current world order. Therefore, objections to policies of integral ecology may be raised against the concept’s theological basis rather than on the basis of the practice of integral ecology, which could further weaken the effectiveness of proposed policies. 

This raises several questions about the relationship between policy and morality. If integral ecology were to be rejected by some because of its clear religious origins, or if it were to be accepted precisely because of this fact, then we must be aware of where we derive our moral code. Schweiker (2018) suggests us to explore four questions related to this: 1. Is religion the source of moral norms and values? 2. Is religion necessary to motivate people to live by moral values and norms, no matter their source? 3. How do we perceive and know a moral value, norm, or obligation? And 4. How does one show one's moral claims to be true? (Schweiker 2018, 482-483). Having both an individual and a collective understanding of the answers to these questions may help us to better discern a successful methodology and practice (leading to the development of effective policies) of integral ecology. Finally, and more broadly, is it true that the “end point” or “goal” of the practice of integral ecology is a theological world view? Is this ethical? Right action necessarily mandates a certain universal truth about humanity. In this case, integral ecology is the right course of action that is built on a theological truth; yet, this theology is a Western, Christian, and modern truth. Then, finally, we can ask: whose truth is it? 

IV. Integral Ecology and Integral Human Development 

The field of integral human development (IHD) is a field that combines elements of peace, development, ethics, and economics to arrive at a holistic understanding of a human-centered theory of development in an ecologically minded context. IHD focuses on the development of the whole of each and every person, deriving its ethics from principles of Catholic Social Teaching with a particular emphasis on human dignity. IHD recognizes the universalism of human rights but contends development should be done with the goal of developing each and every whole person. People, then, are not merely means to a development end, but an end in and of themselves. 

Although there is yet no clear methodology for achieving a sustained practice of integral ecology, it can be said that integral ecology is a part of the contribution to a development that is human-centered. Integral ecology pays special attention to those whom have been stifled by the effects of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental degradation, and calls upon those responsible to take action to rectify this debt, even though the manners in which this could be achieved remain up for debate. Integral ecology makes it clear that any human-centered development must also be environmentally sound. Because both integral ecology and IHD have strong roots in the teachings of the Catholic Church, we can say that they are interconnected in the sense that they are derived from the same worldview. Thus, they are compatible with each other. However, it is important to note that neither the field of IHD nor the concept of integral ecology is exclusive to the Catholic Church nor to the Christian worldview. There are many religions and practices that advocate for humanism and environmentalism, albeit in different ways. Therefore, we can say that integral ecology as Pope Francis intended it is a western interpretation and manifestation of humanism and environmentalism. 

V. Integral Ecology in Practice at the Bethany Land Institute in Uganda 

Many of the challenges that were outlined in the literature review are related to the lack of specificity regarding the methodology and practice of integral ecology. However, although this is indeed a challenge, it also provides opportunities for people and organizations to interpret and implement integral ecology principles through their own worldviews, in their own languages, and through different processes. One such organization is the Bethany Land Institute, located in rural central Uganda. 

Three Ugandan Catholic priests founded The Bethany Land Institute (BLI) in 2015 on the basis of Laudato Si as a “demonstration of the kind of integral ecology that Pope Francis calls for” (BLI website). The main visionary behind this project is Fr. Emmanuel Katongole who, prior to founding BLI, traveled to Palestine. In Palestine, he visited the village of Bethany (Al-Azariyyah in Arabic), which was the biblical home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was from there that he drew his inspiration for the BLI. 

BLI was created to address problems of deforestation, land depletion, and poverty in Uganda. It is first and foremost an educational program that aims to include vulnerable populations in learning how to care for and rehabilitate the Earth. Thus, BLI builds directly on Laudato Si 139, which states that “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (Laudato Si, 139). 

There are three main programs that carry out this objective: Mary’s Farm, Martha’s Market, and Lazarus’ Forest. Each has its own role in facilitating the practice of integral ecology. Mary’s Farm, based on the principle of interconnectedness, lies on 20 acres of land where young people are trained in the practices of sustainable agriculture. The produce that is harvested on Mary’s Farm is sold at Martha’s Market, generating income. The training in this program is focused on entrepreneurship, innovation, business skills and sustainability, and leadership (Interview with Fr. Katongole). Finally, Lazarus’ Forest is an attempt to reverse some of the deforestation that is happening in Uganda. With more than 162 acres dedicated to this ecological renewal project, the founders of BLI hope to plant one million trees by 2050 (Ibid). 

While the BLI plans to launch the project and take its first cohort of students in 2021, much of the construction has already been completed. BLI has been able to do this through its integral approach to addressing the specific social, environmental, and economic problems that are present in Uganda. This has included cultivating local and international partnerships, conducting fundraising efforts, and settling disputes with squatters who were displaced by the construction of the institute (Ibid).  

The ecosystem of the BLI functions as a practice of integral ecology and IHD. Its manifestation of integral ecology is unique to the needs of the local context in which BLI operates. Although having no clearly defined methodology and praxis for an integral ecology strategy may be seen as a weakness on a global scale, in this instance, such a conceptual ambiguity has lent itself to the BLI’s strength, which is to say that it is tailored to the local context rather than adhering to a universal theory that may or may not be applicable. The BLI’s approach to integral ecology could be used as a model for curating other methodologies that are sensitive to local contexts based on the broader and more universal principles/goals that Pope Francis elaborated on in Laudato Si.  

In an interview that I conducted with Fr. Katongole, he expressed the following: 

“There is something about doing a program like the BLI that integrates economics, ecology, education, working on the land where everything is connected to everything else, where nothing goes to waste. This is exactly what we are talking about when we talk about IHD. It’s not just a set of principles. It’s a form of engagement. It’s a praxis. Not just an application of principle, it’s a journey. But it becomes also a spirituality. Because we are involved totally. In the project and other people. Not just the economics of other people, but their spirituality, their dignity. This is a transcendental practice… For me, it has been about discovering IHD in the very praxis of BLI. In the farm, the market, the ecosystem. At the same time, it is an experiment. It’s not a guarantee of success. The test of which will be, ten years from now, to see what they [the students] will be able to do in their communities. I am learning that it is never complete. Everything we do is always incomplete. I am an impatient person. I say to myself, “it is taking too long. It is too small.” It’s tiny, fragile, fragmented, broken. When I think of IHD, I think of all that. It is in this context of doing, the process and the journey. IHD happens here.”

VI. Tent of Nations as a Practice of Integral Ecology in Palestine 

My family has owned and farmed a 100-acre piece of land near Bethlehem, Palestine, for five generations since 1916. For almost 30 years, we have been in a court battle to prove ownership of our land. Although we have presented all the necessary legal documents that show proof of ownership, the Israeli courts have repeatedly and intentionally delayed a final verdict, the result of which has been a heavy financial and emotional burden on the entire family. Over the years, we have dealt with Israeli settler violence, destruction of private property, uprooting of trees, obstruction of access roads, and many other challenges. In 2001, we founded the Tent of Nations (ToN) project on our farm to protect it from confiscation by the Israeli authorities. Since then, and with worldwide financial support from churches, peace organizations, and individual donors, as well as the physical presence of international volunteers and visitors on the farm, we have been able to preserve our land and protect it from confiscation.

The Tent of Nations is another model for a practice of integral ecology. In fact, in my interview with Fr. Katongole, he revealed that Tent of Nations, which he had visited a few years ago, was a significant source of inspiration for the BLI. Tent of Nations exemplifies the practice of integral ecology in several ways. First and foremost, it is a sustainable and educational farm. My family founded this organization as a way to resist the injustices of the Israeli occupation and to facilitate meaningful engagement with volunteers and visitors about the life of Palestinians under occupation. The mission of the Tent of Nations is “to build bridges between people, and between people and the land. We bring different cultures together to develop understanding and promote respect for each other and our shared environment” (Tent of Nations website). To do this, we facilitate several programs and activities that fulfill this broad objective. For example, we invite local Palestinians and international volunteers and visitors to participate in one tree planting and five harvests throughout the year. In addition, we run an annual children’s summer camp for Palestinian children who live in refugee camps and we have established a women’s center in the nearby village that facilitates creativity and literacy among women and girls who do not have the opportunity to attend school. We also have livestock, a beehive, and a vineyard where we produce our own wine. 

The 1992 Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas: A, B, and C. Area A encompasses densely populated cities under total Palestinian control and constitutes approximately 18 percent of the West Bank. Area B, comprising approximately 22 percent of the West Bank surrounding Palestinian cities, is under joint Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control. Finally, Area C makes up 60 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli military control (B’tselem Website). Under Oslo, Area C was to be returned to Palestinian control in phases. However, Israel has instead confiscated private Palestinian farmland and used it for the construction of Jewish-only settlements. Today, more than 600,000 Israeli citizens live in more than 200 settlements in Area C of the West Bank (Ibid). 

We as a family have been able to grow the Tent of Nations despite extreme political hardship. Because the farm is located in Area C of the West Bank, we are unjustly prohibited by the Israeli authorities to develop our land. This means that we are forbidden to be connected to water lines and electricity grids, and we cannot obtain building permits. However, we have been able to find creative solutions to these problems. For example, we built solar panels in order to have electricity. We constructed irrigation lines that connected our wells to the rest of the farm. Finally, instead of building above ground, we built underground, expanding on the many caves that are dotted throughout the farm. Implementing creative solutions to our problems not only allowed us to overcome obstacles, but it has also been a way for us to peacefully resist the injustice of the Israeli occupation. 

Thus, the Tent of Nations is rooted in, and is relevant to, the local context, incorporating language, culture, land, and the political environment into a complete practice of integral ecology. Yet, integral ecology was not the goal. The purpose of creating the Tent of Nations was and is our continued existence on our land. However, this purpose – our survival – led us to where we are now. Our engagement with different people and our relationship to the physical land mandated a practice of integral ecology, without which we could not survive. 

In my time serving in a leadership role at the ToN from 2015-2016, I discovered something about the nature of humankind. When faced with dire circumstances, people have the capacity to think creatively about solutions and practices of integral ecology. This is because when everything is functioning well, there is no apparent need for change. However, when the stability of life begins to crumble, the need to pursue creative pathways is urgent in the face of the alternative—destruction and erasure. Perhaps Pope Francis saw that the trajectory the world was moving toward this when he called for a practice of integral ecology. Perhaps there is not yet a global experience of the urgent need to pursue integral ecology. Or, at the very least, the Global North has not yet been affected in such a way as to begin, on a global scale, implementing practices of integral ecology, whether formally (i.e. through policy) or informally (through private organizations).  

VII. General lessons

Through a review of the literature and two examples of practices of integral ecology, we can draw several generalizable lessons. The relatively recent popularization of the concept by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si came amidst other calls for more environmentally minded approaches to current global problems. Integral ecology is a holistic understanding of global challenges in relation to human activities, behaviors, and relationships. While some economies, businesses, and individuals have adopted “green” practices, the global system as a whole is still far from any practice of integral ecology. 

We must recognize that there are caveats to institutionalizing integral ecology at the policy level, especially if responsibility for this project is to be primarily assumed by the Global North. Such caveats include reinforcing structural inequality and colonial relationships, maintaining paternalistic relations to the Global South, and/or using a framework of integral ecology to justify intervention and neo-imperialistic behaviors. The current global paradigm based on capitalist ideals and colonial structures cannot remain if we are to practice integral ecology on a large scale. In short, we cannot institutionalize integral ecology at the policy level without pivoting away from the current world order. The current world order is what gave birth to the need for integral ecology in the first place. 

The two examples of informal practices of integral ecology suggest that integral ecology is possible, at least on a small scale. The forte of these informal methodologies and practices is that they are relevant to the local context. Their relevance to their respective local contexts is essential to their sustainability and successful practice. Central to the integral ecologies of both the BLI and ToN are the principles of environmental sustainability, the cultivation of connection between people and the land, and the attention to local challenges, resources, and traditions. Now, we must ask the question of whether a globally or nationally institutionalized practice of integral ecology would be as successful. What would a large-scale practice of integral ecology look like? 

VIII. Conclusion 

Integral ecology as explored in this article has two distinct but related meanings: first, as a concept; second, as an approach. While the concept of integral ecology has been in existence for several decades, mostly in the domain of marine science, Pope Francis popularized the concept in 2015 in his encyclical Laudato Si. Integral ecology can be understood broadly as the connection between humans and our environment, and more specifically as an approach to global problems that would rectify the ecological debt that the Global North owes the Global South. Although the conceptual definition of integral ecology is clear, what is less clear is the methodology that would lead us to a practice of integral ecology. However, even though integral ecology has not been institutionalized on a policy level, the Bethany Land Institute and the Tent of Nations illustrate that unique practices of integral ecology are possible at the local, informal level. While there are caveats to the institutionalization of integral ecology, including the reinforcement of colonial and paternalistic relationships, humankind as a whole must pursue a practice of integral ecology in order to address the multitude of global challenges that we face today. 



Apffel-Marglin, Frédérique. 2018. Post-Materialist Integral Ecology. Worldviews 22 (1): 56–83.

Bethany Land Institute: Forming Leaders for Rural Transformation and Integral Ecology in Uganda. Updated in 2020. 

B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Updated in 2020. 

Carbine, Rosemary P. 2017. Imagining and Incarnating an Integral Ecology: A Critical Ecofeminist Public Theology. In “Planetary Solidarity: Global Women's Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice”, edited by Kim Grace Ji-Sun and Koster Hilda P., 47-66. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. Accessed January 17, 2020.

Castillo, Daniel P. 2016. Integral Ecology as a Liberationist Concept. Theological Studies 77 (2): 353–76.

Claus Tirel. 2012. Two Ways to Get an Integral Theory: Ken Wilber's Method of Integration. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 24: 405–18.

Deane‐Drummond, Celia. 2018. Living Narratives: Defiant Earth Or Integral Ecology in The Age of Humans? Heythrop Journal 59 (6): 914–28.

Fr. Emmanuel Katongole. Zoom interview.  April 23, 2020. Transcript Attached. 

Martins, Alexandre A. 2018. Laudato Si’: Integral Ecology and Preferential Option for the Poor. Journal of Religious Ethics 46 (3): 410–24.

O'Neill, Eoin. 2016. The Pope and the Environment: Towards an Integral Ecology? Environmental Politics 25 (4): 749–54.

Pope Francis. Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 4 (2016): 266+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed August 31, 2020).

Sam Mickey, Adam Robbert, and Laura Reddick. 2013. The Quest for Integral Ecology. Integral Review 9 (3): 11–24.

Sánchez Sorondo, Marcelo, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan. 2016. Pursuit of Integral Ecology. Science (New York, N.Y.) 352 (6287): 747.

Schweiker, William. 2018. The Destiny of Creation: Theological Ethical Reflections on Laudato Si'. Journal of Religious Ethics 46 (3): 479–95.

Tent of Nations: People Building Bridges. Updated in 2020.