The ecological crisis and the struggle for a healthy environment is very much a concern for the pro-life movement.
On the negative side, environmentalism threatens to become an anti-people movement, as indicated, for example, in two recent Interim stories on the Green Party in Britain. At the same time, a resurgence of pagan religion and worship threatens to bur what is left of Christian civilization under savagery and selfishness.
The following address on the ecological crisis and the environment places the issue in its proper theological perspective. Lack of respect for life, above all human life, is part of the assault on the environment. At the same time true respect for the dignity of human life and for the beauty and goodness of all creation go hand in hand.
The text is the 1990 World Day of Peace address delivered by People John Paul II in Rome on January 1, 1990, and entitled “Peace with God the Creator, peace with all of Creation” (L’Osservatore Romano, December 18-26, 1989.)
- In our day there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.
Faced with the Widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.
- Many ethical values fundamental to the development of a peaceful society are particularly relevant to the ecological question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated solutions based on a morally coherent worldview.
For Christians, such a worldview is grounded in religious convictions drawn from Revelation. That is why I should like to begin this message with a reflection on the biblical account of creation. I would hope that even those who do not share these same beliefs will find in these pages a common ground for reflection and action.
I. “And God saw that it was good”
- In the Book of Genesis, where we find God’s first self-revelation to humanity (Gn. 1-3), there is a recurring refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” After creating the heavens, the sea, the earth and all it contains, God created man and woman. At this point the refrain changes markedly: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gn. 1:31). God entrusted the whole of creation to the man and woman, and only then – as we read – could He rest” from all His work” (Gn. 2:3)
Adam and Eve’s call to share in the unfolding of God’s plan of creation brought into play those abilities and gifts which distinguish the human being from all other creatures. At the same time, their call established a fixed relationship between mankind and the rest of creation. Made in the image of likeness of God, Adam and Eve were to have exercised their dominion over the earth (Gn. 1:28) with wisdom and love.
Instead, they destroyed the existing harmony by deliberately going against the Creator’s plan, that is, by choosing to sin. This resulted not only in man’s alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in the earth’s “rebellion” again Him (Cf. Gn. 3:17; 4:12). All of creation became subject to futility, waiting in a mysterious way to be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty, together with all the children of God (cf. Rom. 8:20-21).
- Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Christ accomplished the work of reconciling humanity to the Father, Who “was pleased…through (Christ) to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Creation was thus made new (cf. Rv. 21:5).
Once subjected to the bondage of sin and decay (cf. Rom. 8:21), it has now received new life while “we wait for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). Thus, the Father “has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery…which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, all things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10).
- These biblical considerations help us to understand better the relationship between human activity and the whole of creation.
When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order. If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace: “Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and even the fish of the sea are taken away (Hos. 4:3).
The profound sense that the earth is “suffering” is also shared by those who do not profess our faith in God. Indeed, the increasing devastation of the world of nature is apparent to all. It results from the behavior of people who show a callous disregard for the hidden, yet perceivable requirements of the order and harmony which governs nature itself.
People are asking anxiously if it is still possible to remedy the damage which has been done. Clearly, an adequate solution cannot be found merely in a better management or a more rational use of the earth’s resources, important as these may be. Rather, we must go to the source of the problem and face in its entirety that profound moral crisis of which the destruction of the environment is only one troubling aspect.
II. The ecological crisis: A moral problem
Indiscriminate use of technology
- Certain elements of today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. First among these is the indiscriminate application of advances in science and technology. Many recent discoveries have brought undeniable benefits to humanity. Indeed, they demonstrate the nobility of the human vocation to participate responsibly in God’s creative action in the world.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the application of these discoveries in the fields of industry and agriculture have produced harmful long-term effects. This has led to the painful realization that we cannot interfere in one are of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.
The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and its effects on the related “greenhouse effect” have now reached crisis proportions as a consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and vastly increased energy needs.
Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants and propellants, all of these are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.
While in some cases the damage already done may well be irreversible, in many other cases it can still be halted. It is necessary, however, that the entire human community – individuals, states and international bodies – take seriously the responsibility that is theirs.
Lack of respect for life
- The most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of respect for life evident in many of the patterns of environmental pollution.
Often the interests of production prevail over concern for the dignity of workers, while economic interests take priority over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an unnatural and reductionism vision, which at times leads to a genuine contempt for man.
On another level, delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well-being, is ultimately to mankind’s disadvantage.
Finally, we can only look with deep concern at the enormous possibilities of biological research. We are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say noting of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself.
It is evident to all that in any area as delicate as this, indifference to fundamental ethical norms or their rejection would lead mankind to the very threshold of self-destruction.
Respect for life, and above fall for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.
The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all. There are, however, certain underlying principles which, while respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of those involved, can direct research toward adequate and lasting solutions. These principles are essential to the building of a peaceful society; no peaceful society can afford to neglect either respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to creation.
III. In search of a solution
- Theology, philosophy and science all speak of a harmonious universe, of a “cosmos” endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance. This order must be respected. The human race is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity.
On the other hand, the earth is ultimately a common heritage, the fruits of which are for the benefit of all. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “God destined the earth and all it contains for the use of every individual and all peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, 69). This has direct consequences for the problem at hand.
Stop unjust policies
It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extend to which greed and selfishness – both individual and collective – are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.
- The concepts of an ordered universe and a common heritage both point to the necessity of a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth’s goods. In many cases the effects of ecological problems transcend the borders of individual states; hence their solution cannot be found solely on the national level.
Recently, there have been some promising steps toward such international action, yet the existing mechanisms and bodies are clearly not adequate for the development of a comprehensive plan of action. Political obstacles, forms of exaggerated nationalism and economic interests – to mention only a few factors – impede international cooperation and long-term effective action.
The need for joint action on the international level does not lessen the responsibility of each individual state. Not only should each state join with others in implementing internationally accepted standards, but it should also make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within its own borders, giving special attention to the most vulnerable sectors of society.
The state should also actively endeavor within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere by carefully monitoring, among other things, the impact of new technological or scientific advances. The state also has the responsibility of ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes.
The right to a safe environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated charter of human rights.
IV. The urgent need for a new solidarity
10. The ecological crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized. States must increasingly share responsibility for the promotion of a natural and social environment that is both peaceful and healthy.
The newly industrialized states cannot, for example, be asked to apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging industries unless the industrialized states first apply them within their own boundaries.
At the same time, countries in the process of industrialization are not morally free to repeat the errors made in the past by others and recklessly continue to damage the environment through industrial pollutants, radical deforestation or unlimited exploitation of non-renewable resources. In this context, there is urgent need to find a solution to the treatment and disposal of toxic wastes.
No plan or organization, however, will be able to effect the necessary changes unless world leaders are truly convinced of the absolute need for this new solidarity, which is demanded of them by the ecological crisis and which is essential for peace. This need presents new opportunities for strengthening cooperative and peaceful relations among states.
11. It must also be said that the proper ecological balance will not be found without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist throughout the world. Rural poverty and unjust land distribution in many countries, for example, have led to subsistence farming and to the exhaustion of the soil. Once their land yields no more, many farmers move on to clear new land, thus accelerating uncontrolled deforestation, or they settle in urban centers which lack the infrastructure to receive them.
Likewise, some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural heritage, at the price of irreparable ecological imbalances, in order to develop new products for export.
In the face of such situations it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures as well as new ways of relating among peoples and states.
12. But there is another dangerous menace which threatens us, namely war. Unfortunately, modern science already has the capacity to change the environment for hostile purposes. Alterations of this kind over the long term could have unforeseeable and still more serious consequences. Despite the international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the balance of nature.
Today, any form of war on a global scale would lead to incalculable ecological damage. But even local or regional wars, however limited, not only destroy human life and social structures, but also damage the land, ruining crops and vegetation as well as poisoning the soil and water.
The survivors of war are forced to begin a new life in very difficult environmental conditions, which in turn create situations of extreme social unrest, with further negative consequences for the environment.
13. Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serous look at its lifestyle. In many parts of the world, society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which it causes.
As I have already stated, the seriousness of the ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis. If an appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is lacking, we will also lose interest in others and in the earth itself.
Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.
An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth. This education cannot be rooted in mere sentiment or empty wishes. Its purpose cannot be ideological or political. It must not be based on a rejection of the modern world or a vague desire to return to some “paradise lost.”
Instead, a true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior. Churches and religious bodies, non-governmental and governmental organizations, indeed all members of society, have a precise role to play in such education. The first educator, however, is the family, where the child learns to respect his neighbor and to love nature.
14. Finally, the aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God (cf. Gn. 1:4ff; Ps 8:2; 104; Iff; Wis 13:3-5; Sir 39:16, 33; 43:1-9).
More difficult perhaps, but no less profound, is the contemplation of the works of human ingenuity. Even cities can have a beauty all their own, one that ought to motivate people to care for their surroundings. Good urban planning is an important part of environmental protection, and respect for the natural contours of the land is an indispensable prerequisite for ecologically sound development.
The relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked.
V. The ecological crisis: A common responsibility
15. Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone. As I have pointed out, its various aspects demonstrates the need for concerted efforts aimed at establishing the duties and obligations that belong to individuals, peoples, states and the international community.
This not only goes hand in hand with efforts to build true peace, but also confirms those efforts in a concrete way. When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations.
I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral crisis.
Even men and women without any particular religious conviction, but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to address the problem.
Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty toward nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith. As a result, they are conscious of a vast field of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation opening up before them.
16. At the conclusion of this message, I should address directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, in order to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all of creation.
The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, for their recognition of the efforts of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of reaction, which is called to join man in praising God (cf. Ps. 148:96).
In 1979, I proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi as the heavenly patron of those who promote ecology (cf. apostolic letter Inter Sanctos). He offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, St. Francis invited all of creation – animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon – to give honor and praise to the Lord.
The poor man of Assisi give us striking witness that when we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from peace among all peoples.
It is my hope that the inspiration of St. Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of “fraternity” with all those good and beautiful things which almighty God has created. And may he remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with care, in the light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists within the human family.