19Jun Churches should be more ecologically sensitive

THE UN Conference on Sustainable Development, called Rio+20, will take place in Rio de Janeiro from tomorrow until June 26th. It will be attended by heads of state, politicians, environmentalists, journalists and members of civil society organisations.

The conference will focus on two themes: how to promote a green economy in the context of sustainable development and the eradication of global poverty; and on the institutional framework required to underpin sustainable development. This is not the first time these have been discussed.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published the book Limits to Growth which questioned whether the life-sustainable role of the biosphere was being undermined by the demands of the affluent world on the natural resources of planet Earth.

The link between human development and the finite resources of Earth got another airing in the World Commission on Environment and Development in the 1980s. These deliberations culminated in the publication of a landmark report entitled Our Common Future. The book championed “sustainable development” which it defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The next chapter in the development/ecology debate took place at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Civil society organisations and poor countries spoke of rights that poor people had to develop. This would mean more affluent countries would have to lessen their impact on the planet, otherwise human demands would destroy vital life-support systems.

Political leaders from across the world, environment and development activists and a huge press corps assembled in Rio to discuss the future direction of Earth. Leaders had seven minutes to make their speeches. Many were well-crafted and seemed to indicate that they were beginning to understand that continual economic growth cannot be achieved without destroying the environment.

On closer analysis though, rich countries were not willing to reduce their standard of living so that poorer countries could improve theirs. What became known as the Rio Declaration was approved – a set of principles to guide future multilateral environment agreements. The conference also gave rise to some very important environmental agreements – the UN Framework Conference on Climate Change and the UN Conference on Biodiversity. Agenda 21, which was supposed to guide development and environment decisions at local and national level, failed to have the impact it should have had.

In the 20 years since 1992, the world has seen profound changes. Communism collapsed while today, the economies of the US and Europe, with the exception of Germany, are under enormous pressure. China is a major economic player, but the ecological and human costs have been enormous.

From a religious perspective, the World Council of Churches, in its Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation programmes, has led the way in promoting sustainable living. On the Catholic side, the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences has produced an excellent document on climate change, entitled The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace presented a comprehensive and insightful paper at the sixth World Water Forum in Marseilles last March. Unfortunately, the theme of the 50th Eucharistic Congress last week, Communion with Christ and One Another, did not include communion with creation. Furthermore, many ecologists argue the Catholic Church’s position on population is untenable. At a local level, an ecumenical organisation called Eco-Congregation Ireland (info@ ecocongregationireland.com) is helping churches to be ecologically sensitive in the way they worship and live their lives.



3 Responses

  1. Sean O'Conaill

    Once more we are indebted to Sean McDonagh for keeping us up to date on where the churches stand in relation to the deepening global ecological crisis.

    The potential of all religion for getting to grips with this crisis is enormous, but I have to say that I have yet to hear a Mass homily that showed a deep understanding of, as well as a serious interest in, this issue.

    In affluent societies needless consumption is driven primarily by a distorted spiritual hunger – the desire to be ‘well thought of’. Why does L’Oreal cling to the slogan ‘because you’re worth it’? Because most people don’t actually believe they are worth anything unless others tell them so. And the quickest route to the approval of others appears to be the acquisition of a multitude of status symbols – from the latest designer technology to the latest in plastic surgery. Even the possession of the latest ‘app’ or the latest shade of lipstick can determine (for about five minutes) the sense of personal wellbeing of millions in a media-driven global market

    Christianity is especially handicapped in its response to this problem by an inadequate understanding of covetousness. According to the Catholic philosopher René Girard, that isn’t simply the desire for more of everything. We ‘covet’ what our neighbour has to the extent that we secretly believe that possession of what he owns will add to our own status. In the ancient world the most powerful ox in the village would have belonged to the richest man – and that’s why the ox is the chosen example of covetousness in the decalogue. Nowadays the equivalent would be the latest powerful ‘Beamer’ or even Lamborghini.

    Why don’t our clergy typically critique as a spiritual problem all status-seeking through ‘I’ll be worth it’ consumption? Others can comment on this here, but I can’t resist the temptation to add that not a million miles away from me lives a clergyman who owns a seriously up-market hybrid vehicle with personalised number plates!

    It must obviously be the church’s role to convey to all that a strong sense of self-worth (dignity) does not depend upon the acquisition of symbols of status. A leadership system that rewards careerism and fails to promote those who humbly serve will never get to grips with the environmental crisis. Here too, real leadership will come from below.

  2. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Fr. Seán’s litany resonates with me. I touched on some of the points in a 2007 post on Blog Action Day on the Environment.
    And as he says, the rich baulked and extinction beckons.

  3. michael malone

    i am pretty much an athiest and for sure a very mixed critic of most religions but is overpopulation not an issue that requires the catholic church to re-evaluate its stance on. I very much agree with most of what the author has to say but a more complete assessment of the situation my lead to a more balanced solution.