OUR FOCUS IN THIS issue is on the environment. The articles that follow provide alarming evidence, incontrovertible evidence, of the damage we human beings are doing to our planet earth. Surely no-one now needs convincing that the matter is very serious. We are constantly hearing and reading warnings from all the experts, people whose job it is to know about the situation and to inform the rest of us.
However, according to recent revelations from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, if we fit the profile of the average Australian, instead of being alarmed we are increasingly indifferent and deaf to the message. Not only are we not alarmed, we are not even vigilant.
The Bureau tells us that Australians are growing wealthier—statistically speaking. That will come as a surprise many Australians: the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council has just published a paper (No. 46 in the Catholic Social Justice Series) entitled A Fair Society? Common Wealth for the Common Good: Ten Years On, in which the nation’s prosperity is contrasted with growing inequality and poverty among Australians. But I am digressing!
As ‘the nation’ gets wealthier, the figures from the Bureau of Statistics reveal, the environment suffers, since the nation’s wealth comes at the price of over-consumption of scarce resources.
The next finding from the statistics is the most alarming of all: as the nation grows weathier, exploiting and plundering and degrading the environment, poisoning air, water and all things natural, we are caring less and less. (Michael Millett, ‘Wealth growing at environment’s expense as we stop caring’, SMH 22/2/03.)
The fall-off of concern is recorded in all age levels. In 1992 seventy-five percent of the population stated that they had a concern for the environment; in 2001 sixty-two percent expressed concern. It is among the 18 to 24-year-olds that the drop in concern is most marked: from seventy-nine percent who were concerned in 1992, fifty-seven percent stated a concern in 2001. From being the age-group that was more concerned than the average Australian in 1992, it was the age-group that was least concerned in 2001.
This spreading indifference to the degradation of the environment presents us with a special challenge. It is an individual and personal challenge—how we ourselves can find ways to take better care of this beautiful world that God has given us, and how we can encourage others to do the same.
In the last few years it has frequently been presented as a challenge to us as members of the believing community. In January 2001 Pope John Paul called us to an ‘ecological conversion’. He repeated the call in the ‘Common declaration of John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I’ of 10 June, 2002. Last year care of the environment was chosen as the theme for Social Justice Sunday, and we were each offered for our reflection the Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, A New Earth – The Environmental Challenge. For Catholics the call to be concerned for the environment is now a call to think and act with the Church.
I wonder how much the spreading apathy about environmental degradation springs from a feeling of powerlessness. After all, the major pollutants and degraders are the big players: agriculture, heavy industry, the logging industry, population growth and urban sprawl. It is difficult to see what the little person can do about any of that. Any personal efforts at conservation can seem insignificant by comparison.
The 2002 Bishops’ Statement, A New Earth, addressed that sense of helplessness in a way by saying that thinking globally and acting locally are both necessary:
Our personal choices—recycling, waste avoidance, composting, tree planting, car-pooling, prudent water and energy use—are important, but to achieve authentic sustainability, our personal actions must be reflected in the way in which economic and political systems are structured. As Christians we are challenged to analyse the social structures that force millions to live in squalor, burdened by crippling debt, while a tiny minority accumulate vast wealth from exploiting earth’s resources.
When the Bishops’ Statement goes on to inform us, citing the findings of the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation, that Australians are the worst emitters per person of greenhouse gases on the planet, and that Australia is the worst performed of all developed countries on three of the four major environmental problems of the early 21st century, it is time to be alarmed. We have a national crisis on our hands, and we have a heavy responsibility to work for change in our personal and national thinking and practice. We cannot continue to pollute, loot, consume, expand and clear—there will come a point when our very survival will be threatened.
To accompany the 2002 Social Justice Statement the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC) issued a leaflet entitled Ten Steps Towards Environmental Responsibility. In that leaflet we are urged to be informed, to discover the local environment, to value and conserve water, to care for pets (prevent them from doing damage), plant a tree, recycle, reuse, reduce, think globally and act locally, pray.
As long ago as 1990, in his World Day of Peace Message, Pope John Paul II identified the ecological crisis as a moral issue. Calling us to a conversion in our attitudes and behaviour towards the environment implies that we are to hear the message both as a personal and as a community-social issue. The environment is not the sort of thing that can be purely personal, nor can sins against the environment be committed solely alone and in private. Our own habits need to be reformed, that is a good start—but we also need to recognise how we collude in the sins against the environment that are perpetrated in our name and for the sake of our lifestyle by institutions that are much bigger than us.
Accordingly, I have made my own notes in the margin of the ten steps suggested by the ACSJC: accept that this is serious; take the path of ‘ecological conversion’; live simply; pester the politicians; use whatever leverage we can on big business (e.g. boycotts); talk about it; educate where appropriate.
This issue of Compass is another step along the way, promoting ‘ecological conversion’. Like all efforts at conversion, the ecological one calls for repentance, discipline and self-sacrifice. What better penance to undertake during this holy season of Lent (as I write this), and what a great way to celebrate the new life of Easter—to take seriously the need to care for life in all its manifestations!
- Barry Brundell MSC, Editor