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Vol 38 No 1


Frank Fletcher MSC

Neil Brown

Veronica Lawson RSM

Peter Price

Matthew C Ogilvie

Kevin Mark


Conscience and the ecological crisis


WHEN WE THINK of conscience, and the hurly-burly of our lives probably guarantees that we don’t often think of it, the image that more often springs to mind is that of a little voice within; something like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket.

That image is potentially misleading: the little voice, modern psychology tells us, is more often than not the voice(s) of our childhood authority figures instilling in us the basic ‘dos and don’ts’ that they hope will guide our whole lives.

We need those ‘dos and don’ts’, but, under certain conditions, they can take over and cripple our emotional and moral lives. More-over, while they do provide a basis for conscience, they are not ‘conscience’.

Adult Conscience is not anyone else’s little voice, but ultimately our own voice, our own sincere conviction that this or that is the right or wrong thing to do in these particular circumstances. Conscience is the judgment, emerging from all that we are, about what is good or bad in a particular situation.

Often ‘conscience’, particularly a sensitive conscience, is regarded as a burden, but actually it is crucial to our being fully human. Conscience is that inner ‘space’ that allows us to consider the needs of the world around us along with our own wants and desires.

Without ‘conscience’, and there are people who lack conscience, we would remain fixated on our own individual wants regardless of what havoc we are causing in the lives of others.

More than that, conscience is the inner space where our own personal moral stances, beliefs and convictions are stored. It defines who and what we personally are and protects our own individual responsiveness to the world around us. Without conscience we would be simply pushed and pulled by every influence acting on us.

Conscience allows us to walk softly and justly around the needs and feelings of others, to respond to the world around us with sensitivity and respect, to acknowledge that there are other demands on us besides the often imperious demands of our own wants.

Without conscience, there is no space for others to enter our lives, no understanding that others might be different from ourselves, and have different needs. Conscience allows us to come to know others—it teaches us attentiveness, acceptance, respect, responsiveness, justice, sensitivity, and so forth. Others, then, can enter our personal space in all their difference and so enrich our lives.

Without conscience the whole world would be seen only as a monochrome extension of ourselves, there solely for our own use, without diversity, without uniqueness, and without its own integrity and beauty.

Without conscience, true love is impossible, for the other would not be able to be there in his or her own uniqueness, but only as an object for our own satisfaction. With conscience, love is more than a feeling, though this is, of course, essential: it is enabled to be a true vision of who and what the other is, in all their uniqueness and difference from ourselves, a constant source of wonder at this irreplaceable gift that has entered our lives.

In case this all seems rather idealistic, we need also to add, that in a world such as ours, with imperfections, suffering and evil, ‘difference’ and real-life circumstances can also be challenging and painful, with the loss of those we love the worst pain of all. Conscience makes everything worthwhile, possible, but the costs can also be high, even unbearable.

We also must acknowledge that conscience in our own lives is more often than not a fragile and fallible guide. It does emerge from our own depths which can be murky. It is founded on the dos and don’ts which may or may not be well planted within us, depending on the circumstances of our early lives. If they are planted with anxiety or fear or insecurity or some such disabling affect, then there is already the strong possibility of stunted growth.

The basis of conscience early on is encoded in memory and emotion, before it ever becomes conscious and somewhat guided by our own powers of learning and reflection. Moreover, and this is of crucial importance to the other focus of this paper, the ‘environment’, what is encoded within us is very much a function of our own culture and social customs.

Our own culture’s worldview is a mix of many ingredients, from Australia’s white settlement in the age of Enlightenment, through the predominantly liberal mindset, with a modern input of economic rationalism, and an ever more global economy, all made more potent in recent decades by mass communication systems.

The resulting conscience, given such a mixture, is more likely than not to be focused on private concerns rather than issues of public or social morality. A loss of interiority in the pell-mell of modern artificially induced wants and desires probably also means much less frequent attention to conscience and more likelihood of simply following public opinion and consumer demands.

The difficulty of changing this situation is quite considerable. While conscience is in the last analysis a judgment of ourselves about the right or wrong of a particular situation, still that judgment can’t be disassociated from the depths within us or from the history of its own formation in our lives.

If our encoded emotional responses and personal memories remain focused on private issues, it can be quite difficult to alter the code, so that new interests and concerns can exist alongside the old, and even more difficult to give them the weight they deserve to combat the wants and interests already firmly in possession.

This is made even more complex when we remember that conscience is our own sincere conviction, our own mindset or view of the world, the way we see the world around us – there is a certain inescapability about this view point, because it colours, filters, selects and arranges everything we see. To break through this window on the world to enlarge or change our view is no easy matter.

From the very start, such a breakthrough encounters our firmest convictions with their deep-seated roots in our own personal histories. Change, therefore, will never solely be a matter of mind, or of argument, for behind or beneath all our reflections and reasonings, there are emotions, attitudes, values, and motives, that dictate such things as what we are interested in, what concerns us, what affects us, what we are moved to do, and so forth.

We need to recognize this about the conscience of others as well: their conscience is the sincere way that they actually see the world—not how they ‘should see’ the world in another person’s view. This conscience view may be impaired in our view, may even be seriously impaired to the point of virtual non-existence, or even be fanatical, but it remains, more or less inescapably, that person’s only view of how things stand. We may think they should be locked up and even that the keys be thrown away, all issues of law and order, but not the point when conscience is in question.

Conscience is a person’s own convinced viewpoint. If we want conscience to change, it must be by aiding an individual’s own personal processes of feeling, thinking and action, so as to facilitate the changes required. This is just as true of ourselves as of others. If our own conscience is to change, it will only happen by respecting our own, often slow, processes of absorbing new information, readjusting our value systems, and learning to respond differently, This can be a personal sea change of the first order!

The Ecological Crisis
Here are some facts that conscience should take into account:

• Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rate in the world – 27 tonnes per person per year, about 20% from domestic use, 50% from the energy sector, the remainder primarily from land clearing, totalling 542.6 megatonnes in 2002 out of 7 billion tonnes worldwide, (a decrease of 0.4% on 2000);

• Because of the greenhouse effect, the earth is expected to be 1-3 degrees C warmer and ocean levels to have correspondingly risen 20 to 50cm by 2050;

• Australia has the highest rate of land-clearing in the Western world, the fifth highest overall, after Brazil, Indonesia, The Congo and Bolivia—in 1788, 10% of Australia had forest cover and 23% woodland, now reduced to 5% forest and 8% woodland (700,000 hectares are cleared each year, equivalent to 50 football fields per hour);

• 50% of Australia’s forest exports are woodchip;

• Forests in Australia are home to 75% of plants, 50% of known vertebrates;

• Australia has been responsible for 33% of the total world species extinctions in the past 400 years (including 22 Australian mammals and 21 birds)—presently, Australia is home to 10% of the world’s threatened species (a total of 1324 species), the second highest overall in the world, and sixth in the world with respect to mammals facing extinction;

• Each of us, on average, produces 1 tonne of waste per year, the second highest after the US in the world—approximately 3.5kg per person per day;

• 5 million hectares are presently affected by salination in Australia;

• Soil degradation is due 35% to overgrazing 30% to deforestation and 27% to poor agriculture;

• Loss of 1 tonne of soil per hectare per year is regarded as tolerable—loss of 130 tonnes has been recorded in fallow cane fields in Queensland (it takes 100 years to replace 1cm of topsoil naturally);

• The hole in the ozone layer appears to have stopped expanding due to 85% reduction in the emission of chloro-fluorocarbons over the past 15 years—in 2002 the hole was 20m sq km down from 27m sq km in 2000, but is expected to have risen again in 2003;

• In the Western world, people use 100litres of water a day more than 40 years ago—2.4 billion of the world’s population lack clean water and proper sanitation, resulting in 2.2m avoidable deaths each year;

• Presently Sydney uses 630 gigabytes of water per year and needs to save 40 gigabytes per year to avoid the need of a new dam;

• Overuse of available water resources has led to massively reduced river flows, wetland destruction, increased contamination—in 1991 the Darling suffered the greatest algae bloom ever recorded in any river in the world;

• It is estimated that 80,000 tonnes of nitrous and 11,000 tonnes of phosphorus chemicals flow into the Great Barrier Reef annually.

The crucial question now is: Are these facts able to speak to us in a way that will change our lives?

Responses will vary considerably, from ‘so what’, or ‘it’s all a lie’, or ‘it’s the farmers’ fault’, ‘it’s the price of progress’, ‘why doesn’t the government do something about it?’ to ‘I’m alright, Jack’. No-one likes to be challenged too directly or too much, so naturally there will be lines of resistance which we need to acknowledge honestly with ourselves.

We also must be aware of how deeply ingrained and how strongly reinforced these lines of resistance are. As we have seen, habits of feeling, thinking and acting go back to our earliest days—we are creatures of habit, both good and bad. For those of us brought up in cities, there has always been plenty of water to use however we want. We can’t do without a car. Life is inconceivable without modern appliances, and so forth. Most of our presuppositions, habits, and attitudes are pre-conscious, and it is only with the greatest effort that we bring them before our conscious minds.

More insidious is the manipulation of our responses by the mass media. It has been alleged that we are the most controlled people who have ever lived. We have our own ‘bread and circuses’ in the form of Hollywood endings, Rambo images, advertising stereotypes, glamorous lives making up for the boredom of our own, reality substituted for by reality TV, the cult of sporting heroes covering up our own ‘ugliness’, the controlled build up and release of emotion in TV dramas, the prevalence of misinformation, and so forth. A healthy suspicion of our own ability to respond in any fully human way is certainly warranted.

Consumer demand is the most significant driving force of modern capitalist societies. If we do not ‘buy’, the implications for the market place are enormous. There is a vested interest in the citizens of modern states being readily susceptible to market-induced wants and desires. It would seem that, provided people are made law-abiding, ‘character’ should remain manipulable: preferred modern virtues would seem to be competitiveness, efficiency, productivity, style, glamour, technical proficiency, tolerance, adaptivity, and mobility, all aimed to make us ‘fit’ the demands of the marketplace.

Amid all this shift and change and the smorgasbord of possible life-styles, belief systems and choices that modern life puts before us, self-identity is precarious: when nothing seems fixed around us, securing a durable understanding of who and what we are will be difficult. Fragile self-identity is, then, a major factor in the contemporary social disorders of substance abuse, drug addiction, suicide, particularly amongst the young, eating disorders, and domestic violence, all cases where people seek false substitutes to secure a much needed feeling of well-being.

The point of all this is to show that the current environmental crisis should not be separated from the kind of people we are, the market economy we benefit from, the social goals we subscribe to, and the kind of entertainment we seek. Since all of these facets of the problem can be slated home to the choices of human beings, we can only conclude that it is we ourselves who are the ecological crisis. It is we ourselves, therefore, who must change if the crisis is to be faced.

The Christian Conscience
At the very heart of who we are and what we are like are our beliefs. Every moral system and arrangement of human purposes has at its base some set of beliefs about human beings and about the kind of world we live in. These beliefs may be explicit or largely implicit, coherent or fragmentary, religious or secular, but however or whatever they are, they will form the framework of all our feeling, thinking, valuing and acting.

Our belief system answers our basic questions about ourselves and our world: Has the world a creator? Or is chaos the ultimate principle? Does life have purpose? Why is there evil in the world? In an ultimate sense, who am I? Why be moral at all? Is there any meaning in suffering? Our culture tends to distract us from such ultimate questions, but they remain the fundamental issues of human life.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, as the culmination of God’s self-disclosure within the history of Israel, is the God-given answer to these ultimate questions. Yes, there is a Creator God who is love itself. Yes, creation matters, it will be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Yes, I have an eternal destiny to share the life of God. Yes, my moral life is an expression of my new life in Christ, shaped after the pattern of Christ’s own teaching and practice.

Like any belief system Christianity is influenced by culture and history, so it is important to examine our own beliefs for any distortions that have occurred, particularly, in this case, due to Western Christianity’s involvement in the industrial revolution of the past three hundred years.

There may be many such distortions, as, for example, the emphasis on the individual soul, the work ethic, Western missionary zeal and belief in its cultural supremacy, authoritarianism, and so forth. Perhaps, however, the most ecologically worrying feature is Christianity’s influence on the West’s attitude to ‘nature’, understood as everything that is not subjective reality and that is potentially open to being manipulated by ‘mind’. This worldview has its origins in Greek philosophy, but has been transmitted by Christianity in its understanding of the human rational soul as the pinnacle of God’s creation. This quotation from St Augustine (354-430) demonstrates what is involved:

Because, however, man has a rational soul it makes everything he shares with brutes subserve the peace of his rational soul, so that he first measures things with his mind before he acts, in order to achieve that harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction which I call the peace of the rational soul (The City of God, Bk XIX, 14).

While this is not in itself the modern Western technological understanding of nature as an unlimited resource, totally accessible to human scientific investigation, and available to human exploitation without restriction, it is clear that it underpins such a view. It is easy to see also, given this modern mindset, how God’s original blessing of humanity in the Book of Genesis is taken out of context and twisted so as to become a justification of contemporary attitudes to planet earth:

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (1:28).

The first chapter of Genesis in no way endorses the modern sense of ‘dominion’ but rather refers to the responsibility that human beings have to include all living things in their communion with each other as made in the image and likeness of God. This misinterpretation of such a basic text of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is a serious warning to us that we should re-examine our basic beliefs about God’s creation to avoid further complicity in the ecological crisis.

Chapters 38-41 of the Book of Job use the language of all creation—the ‘whirlwind’, the ‘foundations of the earth’, the ‘sea’, ‘rain’, wild animals, and so forth, to portray the unimaginable power of the Creator God: ‘Where were you’, God demands, ‘when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ The Letter to the Romans echoes these same sentiments: ‘O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable his ways!’ (11:33). Our modern lack of connectedness to nature has meant a loss of all of this rich language in our relationship with God. It perhaps explains at least to some extent the problematic nature of ‘spirituality’ in contemporary society.

Without denying the unique place of humankind in creation, we need to recapture a sense of the immense diversity, interconnectedness, organic integrity, and beauty of the whole of creation as expressive of God’s immensity, goodness, and full purpose as Creator. This means seeing our arrogation to ourselves of total supremacy over creation as wrong. Correspondingly, it must mean a curtailment of our own pursuits so as to accord a proper respect to the place and role of other species and of the nurturing earth itself in God’s creation as a whole.

Reconciliation with all of creation, often tied also to the concept of humankind, especially in the person of Christ, as the image and likeness of God, is an important theme in the Pauline writings: ‘For in him (Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col 1:19).

This ‘reconciliation’ presumes that there is harm, endangerment, dispossession or some such serious or tragic disruption of relationship that needs to be addressed and restored. More often than not also it must struggle against such things as rationalizations, stereotypes, blind spots, prejudices and apathy, in order to take the first step to repair the broken relationship.

That first tentative step, therefore, is a change of heart, of mind and in the destructive pattern of living—in short, an acknowledgement of the situation as it really is. Nor will it move far forward without such new traits as attentiveness, listening, appreciation, recognition, respect, hope, contemplation, love and delight.

The next step must be a dismantling of the social structures, policies and lifestyles that imprison people in false beliefs, prejudices and illusions and prevent them from seeing the world around them in a non-destructive, non-explosive way.

Such a task is far from easy, given how embedded such features are in our way of life and how deeply vested are the interests in maintaining the present economics of social life.

In reconciliation, it is the victim, not the perpetrator or violator, who must offer the possibility of a new relationship, a new life, a new future. For Christians, the Son of God is the Supreme Victim, the one made ‘to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2Cor 5:21). This ‘righteousness’ is a new reconciled relationship with God, each other and all creation. But the fundamental focus of this righteousness is identification, in union with Christ the victim of injustice, with all victims down through history—otherwise it is empty religious rhetoric.

Paul concludes that the Christian has a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2Cor 5:18). If this is to mean anything at all, it must be a radically new way of seeing, of relating, and of acting, in the world, characterized by a vivid consciousness of the plight of all those affected by destructive human behaviour.

I have suggested that we as Christians need to re-examine our belief systems in the light of the ecological crisis, to unravel some of the distortions of the past few hundred years, and to return to the sources of our faith to recapture more of its authentic spirit.

An important aspect of this examination will be revaluation of our place in God’s creation and of the place and role of other creatures and of the earth itself. Such an earthquake in our belief system will produce a tsunami effect through our values, attitudes, emotional responses and ways of acting.

In conscience terms, such a change will enlarge the ‘space’ within us to allow more of our world into our lives, more of its rich diversity, more of its wonder, more of its beauty, and more of its sheer naturalness. Despite its material affluence, modern life can be emotionally and spiritually fragmented and impoverished. As is always the case in genuine reconciliation, that which has been previously devaluated and rejected, once allowed in, becomes the source of a new, richer form of life.

Fr Neil Brown is President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney and lecturer in Christian Ethics.