Who is listening to the cry of the Earth?

September/October 2013, Volume VI, No. 1

We all hear about the Earth-wide ecological crisis, but the news often falls on dull ears. The response is often contentious, contradictory, sceptical or passive. In this edition of Open Space, we explore these issues and look for the signs of hope. We also bring some voices of small-holder farmers from Mali and Indonesia to tell us about land grabbing which destroys both the environment and rural communities.

A haunting compelling cry is rising in our time from every corner of the Earth. The cry comes from neighbourhoods, regions, islands and whole peoples suffering from polluted water, extremes of temperature, rising oceans, unusually severe storms, droughts or floods and the degradation of forests, vegetation and soil.

The cry is heard by many people as the human family peers nervously ahead in this young and stormy century. Scientists are often the first to speak: individual researchers with a single, unique finding; university-based teams with a long-running project; international committees of scientists, compiling the results of linked studies done on many continents.

Urgent words are coming from thousands of non-governmental organizations, big and small, who are fighting in many locations for a greener, more careful and more just economy. Crucial words are coming from religious voices and Indigenous leaders, speaking in the languages of various faiths.

These voices are not new. In 1990, twenty-four distinguished scientists asked spiritual leaders to join them in a public declaration, “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commit-ment in Science and Religion.” They understood the need for the help of religions in dealing with a problem of such magnitude and complexity. Their hope was to restore in our common consciousness a sense of the sacredness of nature, so that the biosphere would be treated with more care and respect.

They wrote: “We are now threatened by self-inflicted, swiftly moving environmental alterations about whose long-term biological and ecological consequences we are still painfully ignorant – depletions of the protective ozone layer; a global warming unprecedented in the last 150 millennia; the obliteration of an acre of forest every second; the rapid-fire extinction of species; and the prospect of nuclear war that would put at risk most of the populations of the Earth. … We are close to committing – many would argue we are already committing – what in religious language is sometimes called Crimes against Creation.”

Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it many centuries ago: “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.”

Yes, there is much speaking. Now, who is truly listening to this cry of the Earth?

LISTENING WITH ‘DULL EARS’

The problem isn’t that we haven’t heard all about the Earth-wide ecological crisis. It’s that, all too often, the news falls on dull ears. The response is often contentious, contradictory, sceptical or passive.

Resistance to the frightening news about the environment is to be expected because the new ecological analysis challenges all of us to break habits that are powerful and entrenched. Corporate and financial leaders are boxed into a competitive race where there is no let-up from their system’s demand for financial growth, for more, for getting there first, for staying focussed on the bottom line.

Political leaders hear environmental activists and worried voters, but they fear being judged on problems that seem more immediate: debt, unemployment, infrastructure decay, the need to compete with other jurisdictions for investment, the tension between maintaining needed social programs and offering an investor-friendly tax environment. Facing such a hail of demands, where can they find time and wisdom to consider a revolution in how the world economy should relate to this planet’s natural systems?

And we ordinary citizens can all too easily settle for a dazed life as mere consumers. We like our comforts. The prospect of living a more careful, decisive, environmentally alert life gives some of us a bad headache.

To date, after several intense international conferences on ecology, world leaders remain unable to reach agreement on a workable global plan of action to prevent catastrophic climate change. At Copenhagen in 2009, the long-time polluters could not reach a binding agreement with the new polluters among the “emerging” countries, led by China. Poor countries still struggling with hunger and deprivation were largely kept on the margins of the negotiations.

Nevertheless, government negotiators did agree that we cannot let global temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius without incurring staggering negative consequences. At least we have officially agreed that there is a problem!

WHAT IS THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM?

One way to sum it up is to look at our crisis as an energy problem. In brief, on Earth all our energy comes from the sun. We experience its heat each day and we transform only a small part of that sunshine into electricity and other types of energy to sustain and enrich human and other forms of life.

Most of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels. Nature has stored vast amounts of sun-energy in the earth through the decomposition of ancient forests and other vegetation which can now be taken out of the ground in the form of oil, gas and coal.

Oil has become the central source of power for transportation by air, sea and land. Oil is used in thousands of different products, including medicine and food. In fact, oil has come to dominate our economy and our daily lives so decisively that most people cannot imagine doing without it. So the “demand value” of oil keeps increasing, giving rise to ever more costly efforts to find new sources of it ever deeper in the earth and under the oceans.
And so politicians, corporations and profit-seeking (or just comfort-seeking) citizens deny or minimize the dark side of the oil industry. The short-term returns of our oil-based economy are indeed spectacular, given the countless ways in which our technology, from the 19th century on, has invented techniques for using oil to meet human needs and wants. The longer-term consequences – polluted air, lakes and rivers and destruction of forests, vegetation and soil – are more difficult to observe, and easier to ignore.

Nevertheless, beginning steps are already being taken in many countries and cities and in the lifestyle of individuals and families. There are efforts to engage, more decisively and creatively, renewable sources of energy in nature, such as wind, sun, geothermal heat, biomass and hydropower. Green technology is being promoted and developed in many quarters. Oil companies publicize their recent efforts to clean up their own waste. Some jurisdictions (for example, Saskatchewan) are spending millions to develop so-called “clean coal” technologies, while others experiment with burying carbon dioxide underground.

But all the while, rapidly developing countries such as India and China are using ever more oil, and very few industrialized countries have actually cut back on how much they use. So the steady increase in global warming, climate change and air pollution continues.

WHERE DOES HOPE LIE FOR THE FUTURE?

On the national level, several countries, primarily in Europe, have been making progress in breaking their dependence on oil and coal by engaging nature’s renewable resources of wind and sun. To mention one shining example: for one day in May 2012, Germany gave the world a gift of hope by providing almost 50% of the energy needed across the country through the use of solar panels.

Ecuador launched a remarkable initiative in 2007 when it offered to leave oil under the ground in the Yasuni National Park, one of the world’s most biologically rich areas of rainforest, if it could raise funds to compensate for half of the loss of revenue. Unfortuntely, President Rafael Correa is now allowing oil extraction in the Yasuni. (See sidebar page 6.) Nevertheless, the ecological movement continues its efforts to internationalize the concept of leaving oil in the soil.

Canada is, sadly, not a good example. Traditionally seen as a country supportive of international efforts towards peace and order, Canada enthusiastically signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, which included an agreement to cut its carbon emissions to 3% below their 1990 levels by 2012. But when the price of oil soared, the potential profits in developing the Alberta oil sands proved too big an attraction. Canada withdrew from the Protocol in December 2012 before facing fines for failing to meet its commitments. Canada has now set a target of reaching 17% below its 2005 level of emissions by 2020 (the equivalent to 2.5% above its 1990 level). Given that extracting bitumen from the oil sands generates three to five times more greenhouse gases (by volume) than conventional oil extraction, it is highly unlikely that Canada will meet even this unpretentious target.

The Conference Board of Canada ranks this country 15th out of 17 richer countries when measured on items that reflect ecological responsibility. Canadians generate more waste per capita than any other country and Canada is one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. Canada’s diminished reputation as a progressive country overshadows the hundreds of exemplary provincial, city, local and non-governmental organization (NGO) initiatives being taken to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint.

THE PEOPLE LEAD THE WAY

It appears that our best hope for sparking substantial change lies at the level of civil society. Poll after poll shows that the people are ahead of their governments on the issue of ecology, while governments struggle with shorter-term issues and cling to established sources of revenue.

What is required is a conversion, a change of mindset of how one looks at the world. We need those changed minds to grow and spread from one person to another, and we need vital democratic community groupings to take action at all levels of society.

This is the message that dozens of national and international NGOs are preaching as they offer creative alternatives to our present development model. Many churches and inter-church organizations have taken seriously the need for a new vision of how the human-made economic system should relate to the natural biosphere on which the whole human family depends.

The World Council of Churches has been hosting conferences on every continent through its Poverty, Wealth and Ecology Project. In Canada, churches are working ecumenically through KAIROS in producing leading-edge analysis and research on climate justice. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has a long history of engagement with ecological issues in Canada and internationally.

A recent book by Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, is one example of hopeful new thinking. He explores how internet technology and renewable energy are merging in ways that could create a powerful third industrial revolution. Rifkin asks us to imagine hundreds of millions of people producing their own energy in their homes, offices and factories and sharing it with each other in an “energy internet,” just as we now create and share information online. He describes how the Third Revolution could create thousands of businesses and millions of jobs. He also hopes it could usher in a fundamental reordering of human relations – from hierarchical power to lateral power – that will impact the way we do commerce, govern society, educate our children and engage in civic life. The European Parliament and cities such as Rome and San Antonio, Texas, have plans to implement elements of Rifkin’s model.

THE EARTH WILL TAKE CARE OF US

What is common to the many projects proposed or implemented is that they require serious institutional change, made possible by what Partha Chatterjee called “a decolonized imagination.” But institutional change will not benefit everyone unless it is embedded in the context of social justice and strong, respectful community. To use religious terms: the natural environment is God’s good creation. It will respond generously to human effort when its inhabitants are living by the Creator’s fundamental law of life: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

From Genesis to Revelation, biblical images have reminded us that the Earth rejoices to take care of us when we take care of each other, especially when we “defend the cause of the poor ... and give deliverance to the needy.” It is then that “the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness” and “people blossom in the cities like the grass in the fields.”

On the other hand, those who live like Cain, letting jealousy and anger lead to fratricidal action, will receive diminishing returns from the natural environment. “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. …When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

If you read chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus with sympathy and imagination, you can see how the writer’s concern for those who depend on the land is matched by concern for the land itself. Sabbath rest, communal feasts and sabbatical years are mandatory for people – but for biblical Israel, the land has similar needs and rights. Today, we tend to forget that letting the earth rest from ploughing and sowing every seventh year was also a religious duty.

TRUST THAT NATURE WILL BE GENEROUS TO HUMANS
WHEN WE RESPECT ITS RENEWING RHYTHMS

And once in every generation, every fiftieth year, the land must be free of human interference: “You shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.” Trust that nature, treated with reverence as God’s property, will be generous to humans when we respect its renewing rhythms. Leave your pragmatism aside for a while, and learn again to watch and wonder and be grateful, on the bosom of the Earth that you did not invent or design.

The idea of Sabbath every week, and the even more dramatic idea of a Jubilee year in every generation, is richly suggestive. It tells us that true care for the natural environment involves a way of life that is attentive, restrained, trusting, communal and contemplative.

Our security does not depend on getting every ounce we can get out of the land and its resources, all the time. Our security is deep-rooted in the mysterious fact that the whole Earth belongs to One who loves all of us. We can learn the ways of that One – and in doing so, we will learn how to be better Earth-keepers, and better neighbours for each other.

And there will be peace.

Bill Ryan sj