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Why we should develop an earth-friendly spirituality

The spiritual heads of all religions gathered at the UN stated, “We believe that the universe is sacred. We believe in the sanctity and integrity of all life and life forms. We affirm the principles of peace and non-violence in governing human behavior towards one another and all life.”

Why we should develop an earth-friendly spirituality

By Fr. Robert Athickal SJ
It was a simple woman scientist from USA, Rachael Carson, who warned the world of the growing environmental problems in 1962. Later 1600 scientists concerned about the ecological crisis met under the aegis of United Nations in 1992 and issued a serious warning to humanity. Of these, more than a hundred were scientists who were awarded with Nobel Prizes. Their warning was that the environment of the Earth was going through a period of unprecedented crisis and that it was time for humanity to mend its destructive ways. They began saying, “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.”

(Rachael Carson, woman scientist from USA)

It took more than two decades to get the message transmitted to the heart of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis continued what his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict stood for. He brought out perhaps the most widely read encyclical in the history of the Church, Laudato si. It is a document discussed by world leaders including the Chinese Communist Party. Veteran Catholic journalist late Allan Johannes called the encyclical “path-breaking, radical in nature; it makes one uncomfortable and touches every single dimension of our human existence.”

Indian environmental groups and governmental agencies are slowly awakening to the magnitude of the crisis. As a country with economy based on agriculture, Indians are much more vulnerable to the changes on the environmental front. When the UN Meeting on Climate Change took place in Delhi in 2002, there was a Japanese scientist, Dr. Osaki telling that Asia was heading for a serious water crisis borne out of the changes in the climate. He said that Indians would face an 80% increase of water stress in next 20 years. He projected a map of South India progressively drying up in a period of 20 years. Already, water conflicts are on the rise. The Tamil Nadu-Karnataka wrangle on sharing the waters of Kaveri intensifies each year. There is serious trouble brewing between Tamil Nadu and Kerala on sharing the water wealth of several rivers and dams. Farraka barrage did bring lot more water into River Hugli, but it also altered the long-established friendship between India and Bangladesh. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that 70% of India’s drinking water is contaminated. Every 3 minutes, a child in India dies of diarrhea arising out of contaminated water. Destructive pressure on the oceans is severe, particularly in the coastal regions which produce most of the world's food fish. The total marine catch is now at or above the estimated maximum sustainable yield. A person like Fr. Thomas Kocheril, an acclaimed human rights activist among the fishing people, knew the disastrous impact of this on the fisher folk. Not only the ocean, destructive pressures are polluting and killing all the elements in the nature like air, soil, forest and so on.

Every sixth person in Calcutta and eighth person in Delhi suffers from a chronic infection of the lungs. Fresh air is a rare commodity in the cities. Several “Oxygen Bars” have popped up in Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai where the citizens queue up for breathing fresh air. A study shows that over 5000 people become victims of air pollution and die in Mumbai. Most of them are slum dwellers or who inhabit themselves on the pavements. The Earth needs 1200 years to prepare the six inches of fertile soil which when left unprotected gets washed away in a single rain. Soil erosion is rampant in the hilly areas, especially in the north-east where people practice the traditional burn and slash cultivation (Jhooming).

And we have been pumping in pollutants on to the soil especially the lethal pesticides. One of the surveys conducted by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) shows that every adult Indian carries 2 mg of deadly pesticides for every kilogram of their body weight. For example, a person whose bodyweight is 70 kilos carried 140 mg of pesticides in their body. When consumed our bodies refuse to part with the pesticides, instead stocks them up in the fat cells. The Indian milk contains eight times more DDT than rest of the world. Add to this is the disappearing forests. Four fifth of earth’s forests have already been cleared, fragmented or otherwise degraded. On an average, 16 million hectares of forests are felled every year. This directly results in depletion of species, species-habitats and bio-diversity. And it indirectly results in depletion of topsoil and groundwater availability through decrease of ground water recharge.

(Crop Duster, An agricultural aircraft)

A person needs oxygen produced by 16 big trees. In India, 36 people share a single tree. In cities like Patna, over 2500 people share a single tree, in Calcutta 15000 people do the same. Any country needs 33% of its land under forest cover. India has less than 11% of forest land. On the contrary, a country like Germany has more than 50% of forest-coverage. At present rates, tropical rain forests, as well as tropical and temperate dry forests, are being destroyed rapidly. With them will go large numbers of plant and animal species too. India is one of the 12 mega-biodiversity regions on the globe. Depletion of the plant and animal species is perhaps the biggest environmental problem of a country like India. This is because the depletion of the bio-diversity effects irreversible changes on the earth. A survey shows that less than 60 species of trees are available in most parts of India. Very often less than 20 species of trees are seen in a number of localities while India is home for more than 1400 varieties of trees. Because of the interconnectedness of life, extinction of a single species affects the life of two dozen other species. Scientists say that every hour one species disappears for ever from the earth.

The Nobel laureates at the U.N wrote, “The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious. We are losing the potential they hold for providing medicinal and other benefits, and the contribution that genetic diversity of life forms gives to the robustness of the world's biological systems and to the astonishing beauty of the earth itself.” In the day to day life in a village there has been a phenomenal growth of mono-cultures of crops and trees which has pushed out the traditionally poor-friendly tubers, yams, beans and fruit trees. And the poor are the most vulnerable.

Take any environmental disaster, the first and the worst victims are the poor. A degraded, deforested, waterless, polluted land will force the poor Indian woman to walk longer and work harder. Of the 5000 plus people who die in Mumbai because of air pollution, most of them are the homeless on the pavements. We have a very high-density infection of TB and leprosy among the poor mining population of the district of Dhanbad in Jharkhand. The rich survive all the environment related disasters. The poor are the most vulnerable. One of the evil effects of globalization is the loss of the bargaining power of the poor countries which results in greater environmental degradation that in turn further causes greater poverty. Regeneration of the earth, especially the rich bio-diversity, is directly proportional to the bargaining power of the poor.

There is an urgent need to interpret our commitment to the poor in relation to the ecological crisis taking responsibility for the destruction of our planet. While it is easy to say that humanity as a whole is responsible for the environmental destruction, Lyn White, a scientist wrote in Christian Science Monitor putting the whole blame squarely on the Christians. The Christian spirituality is accused of being very humano-centric i.e., our eco-justice is primarily in relation to ourselves. Other forms of life have a right to exist only if they are useful to us. Eco-justice is a new concept based on the ethical principle that we (humans, plants, animals etc) are all interdependent. Symbiosis, i.e., living together with mutually helping relationships, is the basis of life. In other words, totality of life must be kept in view when we define justice. It can never be just human centered.

150 years back, the Red Indian Chief Seattle summed up the meaning of eco-justice, “This way, know, the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.” Among the varieties of human beings that inhabit the earth, the rich and affluent consume and waste most of the resources of the earth. Whether it is the rich people, or rich countries, the earth is at the mercy of the callous consumerist world. Only a new spirituality can heal our planet. Unfortunately, the Christian world view has had an other worldly orientation right through the history of the church. The spiritual writers predominantly were unhappy with this world and its histories. The popular Catholic prayer Hail Holy Queen gives us glimpse of the other worldly orientation where human beings are the banished children of Eve…wailing on this earth which is a basically a valley of tears.

On the contrary when we reflect on what is happening in the light of the Bible, we are convinced that this assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith. The Bible tells us that God created this world, (Gen 1:1); that he loves His world and is pleased with it (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 and 31); and that He created man and woman in His image and charged them to be stewards of His creation (Gen 1:27-28).). Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) approved a very significant pastoral letter in 1998 titled, What is happening to Our beautiful Land? They wrote, “As we look at what is happening before our eyes, and think of the horrendous consequences for the land and the people, we would do well to remember that God, who created this beautiful land, will hold us responsible for plundering it and leaving it.”

The salvaging effort to heal the earth mainly has been to resort to scientific solutions. Pope John Paul II begs to disagree and consider the ecological crisis as an outcome of a deep moral, spiritual desolation from within. Having been working with Indian students for more than a decade on the ecological front through the Taru-Mitra (Friends of the Trees), I find that our children have been progressively getting alienated from the Earth. The Earth has become a commodity to be exploited rather than a mother to be treated with respect. Indian youth is being tempered by technocratic values which have little time to spare for relationships. We need to develop an earth-friendly spirituality. Both in the East and West people have tried to transcend the Newtonian determinism and foster a world view that sees the earth as a spiritual whole. The spiritual heads of all religions gathered at the UN stated, “We believe that the universe is sacred. We believe in the sanctity and integrity of all life and life forms. We affirm the principles of peace and non-violence in governing human behavior towards one another and all life.” Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth's regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well being.

To quote the Philippino Bishops, “This earth is our home: we must care for it, watch over it, protect it and love it. We must be particularly careful to protect what remains of our forests, rivers, and corals and to heal, wherever we can, the damage which has already been done.” The responsibility to look after God’s creation rests on all people who are devoted to God. Just as the longest journey begins with the small steps, the campaign for God’s earth begins with our own personal decision to lead an environment friendly life in small and tiny steps. An activist in the Appalachian Mountains, Fr. Al Fritsch SJ once wrote that we need to prod ourselves into action however insignificant it may be. Earth-friendly activities must become part of our everyday life. Anybody can take up activities to protect the land, its water and air through small unremembered acts of thoughtfulness.

(Jesuit Father Robert Athickal belongs to Patna Province whose efforts to found Tarumitra (Friends of Trees) in 1988 has created an ecological and environmental consciousness in thousands of high school and university students in Bihar and North India. It has over 200,000 members in over 1000 high schools and colleges. UN has conferred a Special Consultative Status to Tarumitra since 2005.)

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