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Destroying our home

30 November, 1999

Fr. Seán McDonagh draws attention to the failure of the developed world to care for God’s creation.

Since the end of World War Two, many First World people and the elite in the Third World have experienced unprecedented affluence. We enjoy the many benefits of recent science and technology discoveries. There is unprecedented access to education and communication technologies. With long-distance phone calls and email and web-sites we can keep in touch with friends and developments all around the world. We are much better fed and have better health care; as a result, we live much longer. Many of us now live in well-heated, comfortable houses. We are also much more mobile than previous generations, both at home and abroad. An overseas holiday in the sun is no longer seen as a luxury. We have, however, often been dazzled by the bright side of modern developments and have failed to look at the cost to the poor of our earth and to the earth itself.

The Church and ecology
While the Catholic Church had a commendable record in the area of human rights protection and social justice teaching since Rerum Novarum at the end of the 19th century, it was slow to recognize the gravity of the problems facing the planet. I once wrote that the Catholic Church arrived at the ecology question “a little breathless and a little late”. For example, although Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking study on the effects of pesticides on bird life was published in April 1962 there is very little reflection on the destruction of creation in the documents of Vatican II that met in Rome in the early 1960s.

The first papal document devoted exclusively to ecology came almost 30 years later with the publication in 1990 of’ Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation. The Pope attempted to alert the world to the extensive damage that was being wreaked on our planet and especially on vulnerable eco-systems, like rainforests, coral reefs and the oceans. The Pope was adamant.that Christians had an obligation to care, not just for other human beings but for the earth itself. He stated that “Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith”.

Ecological conversion
The Pope returned to the topic with greater urgency and alarm during a general audience on January 17th, 2001. He called for an ecological conversion. On that occasion the Pope stated:
“If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations. Man, especially in our time, has without hesitation devastated wooded plains and valleys, polluted waters, disfigured the earth’s habitat, made the air unbreathable, disturbed the hydrogeological and atmospheric spheres and turned luxuriant areas into deserts, and undertaken forms of unrestrained industrialization, humiliating the flower-garden of the universe, to use the image of Dante Alighieri (Paradiso, XXII, 151). We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss.”

Kyoto, America and us
In the past few decades humans have disturbed the atmospheric spheres, particularly by the way we have used fossil fuel. Scientists are now convinced that the climate change weare now experiencing is a direct result of the wasteful way people in First World countries have burned fossil fuel for decades. The pain and destruction that global warming is causing and will continue to cause has been highlighted during the past decade with various international conferencesculminating in the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997.

We know now that global warming will raise sea levels and intensify tropical storms. Unfortunately, the main victims of such climate change will be poor people who live in low-lying areas like Egypt and Bangladesh and the inhabitants of coral islands in the Pacific, which may no longer be habitable.

The scientists at Kyoto called for a 60% reduction in the use of fossil fuel to stabilise climates. Unfortunately,the politicians at Kyoto could only agree to a 5.20–7.00% reduction. Even this miserly figure was too much for the newly elected president of the United States, George W. Bush. He repudiated the Kyoto Protocol because, according to him, it was not in the economic interests of the United States.

There was considerable international criticism of Bush’s stance. Even Irish politicians criticized this unilateralist approach to addressing global challenges. The United States contributes over 25% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, even though only 6% of the world’s population live there. So there can be no effective global strategy on global warming unless it includes the US.

Ireland’s track record
But we in Ireland have little to boast about. At Kyoto we asked to be given a special dispensation since we did not industrialize during the 19th century. We were allowed to raise our greenhouse gas emissions by 13% above our 1990 level by the year 2010. The gallop of the Celtic tiger during the mid-1990s put paid to all that. By 1998 we had already exceeded these greenhouse gas emission levels. This will increase further if we push through with the huge road building programme envisaged in the National Development Plan. Many environmentalists feel that it would be much wiser to use the money to upgrade our rail system, move much of the freight back on to rail, promote efficient and affordable public transport, even in rural areas, and develop sustainable energy options.

Our common calling
The clearing of tropical forests has led to unprecedented soil erosion and the extinction of tens of thousands of species. This wanton destruction of life is an insult to the Creator. I lived for over a decade with the T’boli people on the island of Mindanao. These tribal people had a wonderful respect for their forests and all the creatures of their forests. The forests sustained them and also cured them, but they never felt tempted to destroy the forests and kill the golden goose.

After World War Two, lowland Philippine nationals and foreign logging companies moved into many areas of Mindanao. Without asking permission of the tribal peoples, they felled hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime tropical forests, leaving a legacy of barren, eroded hillside all over Mindanao. Today tropical forest cover in the country is below 15% of the land area. The same pattern of exploitation has been repeated in Indonesia, New Guinea, Malaysia, West Africa, and Central and South America.

Our misuse of chemicals like CFCs has led to the thinning of the ozone layer, which screens out the ultra-violet rays of the sun. As a result, we can expect a significant rise in skin cancer in the future. Finally, as we reflect on the waters of the world we have come to realize that pollution-free water, ground water and the oceans are at crisis point.

Avoiding hell on Earth
It is obvious that our present way of living is unsustainable. Unless we change our behaviour we will pass on an ugly and run-down planet to future generations. To avoid creating a hell on earth, each one of us must begin to live more simply, avoiding waste wherever possible. Political will is needed to promote environmental policies at local, national and international level designed to halt the present destruction and aimed at healing the damage already done. As Christians we need to gather our energies and to see caring for the earth as central to our Christian vocation.

God, our Creator, You have given us the Earth, the Sky, the Rivers and the Seas. Show us the way to care for the Earth, not just for today but for future generations. Let no plan of ours damage or destroy the beauty of your creation. Send forth your Spirit to direct us to care for the Earth.

This article was first published in The Word