“With an amber heat warning blanketing much of the UK today, America’s east coast disappearing under an eerie orange fog, and numerous floods and droughts happening elsewhere in the world, humanity is finally having to confront a disturbing new climate reality.
In just the two and a half centuries since Britain kick-started the Industrial Revolution, our planet has shifted from a balanced agricultural ecosystem to a vast, destructive biosphere where human life is becoming in very real danger of self-extinction. Fuelled by the relentless power of consumerism, the once cherished chattles of the West are now being demanded by all, and there’s no rational or moral argument for depriving developing countries of the luxuries that we’ve been enjoying for decades.
The core problem of our post-industrial age lies in the lack of physical materials and resources to supply such demand, and the increasingly obvious consequences for the planet in trying to do so.
Here in the West even the most indisputable evidence of eco-collapse is failing to move those in power to meaningful action, as a now wearisome list of annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) and Group of Twenty (G20) summits demonstrate. Cop 1 took place 28 years ago, the first G20 meeting was 15 years ago and since then a lot of money has been spent and a lot of paperwork produced, but next to nothing has been achieved in reducing an accelerating planetary decline. Greenhouse-gas emissions continue to increase, plastics continue to pollute our waters and food chain, and industrialisation and urban expansion despoil the landscape and strip the planet of its irreplaceable resources.
Such is the crisis, that scientists are now no longer able to predict and anticipate the negative impacts of climate change, moving us into a realm of unimaginable uncertainty. What we do know is that climate change is now upon us, and represents the single biggest threat facing humanity.
All of this seems a very long way from the days of Victorian biblical certainties, when we were told that mankind had a solemn duty to go out and subdue the earth, and make the most of the bountiful resources that God had apparently placed there purely for our benefit and personal enrichment. Such Capitalist theology was well-suited to patronise and embolden the industrial entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, but it was little grounded in the broader Christian message of the gospels, and certainly didn’t square with the sentiments and theology of the tract that defines and categorises humankind’s relationship with our planet – the book of Genesis.
In my younger days Genesis was more than any other the disputed text of the bible. After all, here wasn’t just a memorised narrative of miracles and prophetic quotations, but an apparently dogmatic calendar of physical events from the moment of Creation to Toledoth of Jacob. At Sunday school classes we were obliged to acknowledge that the world was created in seven exact and actual days, and that all human suffering was the result of the nefarious Eve and that irresistible apple. These days most biblical scholars and theologians favour allegory, though the strength and mysticism of the Genesis narrative remains as strong as ever.
Indeed, it’s a text ‘whose time has come’.
The centrality of Genesis is a relatively simple message that I hear echoing in shouts around our streets every day – live in unison with and respect for God’s creation and all will be well with the world; do otherwise and life will be reduced to a desperate scratching in the dust of our miserable achievements. It’s the very stuff of environmental protest, but it’s been the hardest of all truths to get through to those with the hard power to save the planet.
Back in 2015 in Paris, 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) signed a legally binding international treaty on climate change. Described as “a landmark in the multilateral climate change process” the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
However, in recent years, world leaders have stressed the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. That’s because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that crossing the 1.5°C threshold risks “unleashing far more severe climate change impacts, including more frequent and severe droughts, heatwaves and rainfall”.
As we’re already experiencing, it looks like we’re moving into another summer of record high temperatures, extreme weather fluctuations, damaging environmental events and the dreaded El Niño weather phenomenon which has just started firing up in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s said there are no atheists before a shipwreck, and even the most sceptical of observers are starting to recognise that we are now moving into a new stage in the earth’s history, far distant from the guarded gates of Eden.
Speaking on World Environment Day on Monday, Pope Francis said that the humanity of the post-industrial period: “may be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history,” and he hoped that “the humanity of the early 21st Century may be remembered for generously assuming its grave responsibilities.”
In his yearly message for World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, which occurs on 1st September and was presented at the Vatican on Thursday 25th May, Francis was even more specific, saying that modern societies, more interested in profit than in future generations, are responsible for the disharmony between humanity and the environment.
“Consumerist greed, fueled by selfish hearts, is disrupting the planet’s water cycle. The unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests are pushing temperatures higher and leading to massive droughts. Alarming water shortages increasingly affect both small rural communities and large metropolises,” he said.
“Predatory industries are depleting and polluting our freshwater sources through extreme practices such as fracking for oil and gas extraction, unchecked mega-mining projects, and intensive animal farming,” he added.
“Economic policies that promote scandalous wealth for a privileged few and degrading conditions for many others, spell the end of peace and justice.”
In his great 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ (on care for our common home), Francis counterpoints these modern challenges very directly with the tarnishing of the “original Blessing” described in the book of Genesis.
“Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.” (Laudato si’ 66)
For Francis, the reversal of the Fall, both practically and philosophically, is the need to avoid the “dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures … Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.” (Laudato si’ 222–3)
Unfortunately repenting for our ecological sins isn’t going to be easy, especially when we have a small elite of incredibly powerful material wealth creators driving a world where so many with nothing are being offered the promise of prosperity at the expense of our environmental stability.
Traditionally our Church has not focussed its attention greatly on the environmental debate, as its challenges and solutions are intertwined inextricably with the crude politics of power and free market capitalism. In particular the loss of many local Justice and Peace groups over recent decades, which were perceived to be too ‘left of centre’ orientated, has left something of a void in the debate at the very time when the voice of lay Catholics on the politics of environmentalism is needed most urgently.
Laudato Si’ has given us the mandate to speak, and this we must if we are to avert a looming environmental catastrophe and – rather than seeing the world ‘through a mirror dimly’ – find ourselves once again face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian