Elizabeth A. Johnson
At the start of this third millennium, a new awareness of the magnificence and uniqueness of Earth as one intertwined community of life is growing among people everywhere. The image of our planet seen from space, a blue marble swirled around with white clouds, promotes realization of how fragile but tough life is. So too scientific study of the origins of the cosmos, the solar system and then the surprising uprising of life under conditions that are just right fosters insight into the wonder of life in this one little place. Gorgeous videos on public television about little-known species and the working of ecosystems, along with national wildlife conservation efforts, teaching units in schools, naturalistic zoos and an abundance of photo books bring the beauty of the world before millions of eyes and boost a sense of how interrelated all species of life truly are.
At the same time, however, the present moment is marked by a strange paradox: the more we gaze in wonder at Earth, the more we realize that human actions are ravaging and depleting the natural world. Two major engines of destruction are overconsumption and overpopulation. Every year, the 20 percent of Earth’s people in the rich nations use 75 percent of the world’s resources and produce 80 percent of the world’s waste. An example: Chicago, with 3 million people, consumes as much raw material in a year as Bangladesh, with 97 million people. Such overconsumption is driven by an economy that must constantly grow in order to be viable, one whose greatest goal is a bottom line in the black. It does not factor in the ecological cost.
Simultaneously, human numbers multiply exponentially. In 1950 the world numbered two billion people. On Oct. 12, 1999, the announcement was made that we now number six billion; current projections envision that by the year 2030 there will be ten billion persons on the planet. Earth’s human population will have multiplied five times during the average lifetime of someone born in 1950….
The capacity of the planet to carry life is being exhausted by these human habits. Not only is our species gobbling up resources faster than Earth’s ability to replenish itself, but our practices are causing damage to the very systems that sustain life itself: holes in the ozone layer, polluted air and rain, clear-cut forests, drained wetlands, denuded soils, fouled rivers and lakes, polluted patches of ocean. Appallingly, this widespread destruction of habitats has as its flip side the death of creatures that thrive in these ecosystems. By a conservative estimate, in the last quarter of the 20th century, 20 percent of all living species have become extinct. When these creatures, these magnificent plants and animals, large and small, go extinct, they never come back again. We are killing birth itself, wiping out the future of fellow creatures who took millions of years to evolve. We live in a time of a great dying off caused by human hands.
On the one hand, we gaze in wonder at the world; on the other hand, we are wasting the world. This is a sign of our times and should be filled with meaning for people of faith. But the odd thing is that, with some notable exceptions, many religious people and church business as a whole go on ignoring the plight of the earth….
Much food for thought and action can be gleaned by rereading Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 entitled Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation. Faced with widespread destruction of the environment, the pope wrote, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to plunder the earth as we have in the past. Making this despoiling very concrete, the message reels off a list of the ways humans have ravaged the earth. What is the root cause for this behavior? In a word, lack of respect for life. Our disrespect is also due to placing economic profit for a few ahead of the common good of all peoples on the earth, to ignoring the interconnection of all processes and to ignoring the well-being of future generations (the earth is our common heritage).
In order to grow in due respect for nature, the pope continued, we need a morally coherent worldview. For Christians, such a worldview is grounded in religious convictions drawn from revelation. These beliefs include the story of creation, sin and redemption; they also draw on incarnation, Eucharist and hope of future glory. God created this beloved world very good (Gen. 1:31) and delivered it into the care of human beings. As they turn their back on God’s plan through sinning, they create disorder to the point where all creation is groaning in travail (Rom. 8:22). The great act of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is intended not just for humanity but for the whole cosmos, for God reconciled all things, whether on earth or in the heavens, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). The view that the earth bears religious importance is also rooted in the rich biblical themes of incarnation (the Word becomes flesh, and so the divine joins with the matter of this world), Eucharist (sharing through bread and wine in the body and blood of Christ) and hope centered in Christ, the firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15) that in the future the cosmos will enjoy fullness of new life in the glory of God. In view of this faith, Christians must inevitably conclude that the ecological crisis is a moral problem.
To address this, the pope proposes a series of righteous actions: be converted from a consumerist lifestyle, address poverty, avoid war and its devastating ecological effects, promote education in ecological responsibility starting with the family and appreciate the beauty of nature, which tells of the glory of God. All of these lead to peace within the human heart and between nations. Grounding these steps is a stunning principle: Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation. This extends also, I suggest, provides a doorway through which Catholics conversant with the church’s stance of respect for life can be led to see the critical import of the ecological crisis. Pragmatically, humans will survive together with other creatures on this planet or not at all. Religiously, respect for life cannot be divided; not only human life but the whole living Earth is God’s beloved creation, deserving of care.