When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. (LS 139)

We cannot fully understand environmental impacts without an analysis of the human and social contexts, and especially the economic system. Indeed, an economic system that needs unabated growth to sustain itself can only extract value from nature and human labour to accumulate wealth. Profit maximisation comes before the needs of people, human dignity and the balance of natural ecosystems. This is unsustainable, both environmentally, humanly and socially.

Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment. Here we see the importance of so-called ‘social capital’ – that is, institutions, civil society, social groups and the common good – for ecology. On the contrary, a positive, fraternal, solidarity-based social life has a virtuous impact even on environments that are at first sight unbearable, weaving bonds of belonging and coexistence, and promoting authentic community experiences. In this way, any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life (LS 148).

A careless approach to the natural heritage inevitably translates into threats to other human heritages, such as the historical, artistic and cultural. And it goes without saying that the disappearance of a culture can be as serious as the disappearance of an animal or plant species, and perhaps more so, just as the imposition of a hegemonic lifestyle linked to a certain mode of production – the liberal-capitalist one – can be as harmful as the alteration of ecosystems.

Integral ecology also requires care for the cultural riches of humanity. In addressing environmental issues, it demands attention to local cultures, while engaging in honest dialogue with scientific knowledge. It is necessary to assume the perspective of the rights of peoples and cultures, constantly respecting the leading role of local social actors, the keepers of indigenous knowledge and of their own culture. Laudato si’ emphasises:

In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. (LS 146)