The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development had announced a Special ‘Laudato Si’ Anniversary Year from 24th May 2020 – 24th May 2021. It started with the Laudato Si week in the Month of May, 2020. For us here in the Archdiocese of Lagos, it was a time of lock down when we did not have the opportunity to gather together in public worship. Nevertheless, during the most solemn Good Friday Celebration which was broadcast live from the Holy Cross Cathedral, our Chief Shepherd Most Rev. Dr. Alfred Adewale Martins reminded the adherents of the Catholic Faith of the need to repent from their various sins including the sins committed against the environment.
Again on the 24th day of May, 2020, His grace did not fail to proclaim a powerful message advocating for nature and the environment urging all to cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation. He reminded the faithful that we degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, contaminating its waters, its land, its air, and its life. All these which constitute “crime” against the natural world are sins against God. In the year 2015 on the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Father, Pope Francis signed an Encyclical Letter on the care of our “Common Home”.
The 5th anniversary of the encyclical comes in the midst of a global pandemic which itself exemplifies Man’s unjust and inordinate exploitation of nature. The encyclical sure provides the moral and spiritual compass for the journey to create a more caring, fraternal, peaceful and sustainable world. Truly, COVID-19 has made clear how closely we are all interconnected and interdependent. Today, worldwide, there is an apparent increase in many infectious diseases; this reflects the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways-of-living. There is so much to learn from the coronavirus pandemic as to the ties that bind us together on a global scale.
First it was in Wuhan China, and before we knew it, the whole world was threatened. It is said that around 60 percent of all infectious diseases in humans are in one way or another linked to human activity. Some of the diseases that either emerged or reemerged recently are ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), the Nipah virus, rift valley fever, zika virus disease and now, the Corona virus. It is impossible to predict where the next outbreak will come from or when it will be. Growing evidence suggests that outbreaks of epidemic diseases may become more frequent as climate continues to change. Nature is indeed in crises, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution.
Years after the first United Nations– sponsored conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the list of environmental problems requiring attention is longer than ever, topmost on the list being issues of Climate Change and Ozone depletion. Scientific advancements have made man aware of the damage that his activities can do to the planet and in some instances, the evidence has indicated that the damage may be irreversible. Climate Change is a “change in the climate attributable directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and is, in addition to natural climate verification, observed over a comparable time period”.
There are scientific evidence to show that human activity is changing the global climate with unpredictable and potentially profound consequences for global weather patterns, ecosystems, food security and human health. The first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report of 1990 provided the much needed scientific certainty. The globe is indeed getting hotter and the rate of increase is frightening. The second IPCC report was published in 1995, the 3rd in 2001, the fourth in 2007 and the 5th IPCC Assessment Report in 2014. The reports indicate that the last century has been warmer than any other in the last 1,000 years. Of the twelve hottest years since 1850 when we first figured out how to measure temperature, eleven were between 1995 and 2006.
Average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere in the latter half of this 20th century were “very likely higher than during any other 50 year period in the last 500 years. A variety of public health impacts have been linked to current and future climate change, including generally: increased illnesses and deaths from heat waves and air pollution; increased outbreaks of some insect-borne infectious diseases, most notably malaria; increased cases of diarrhea and other water –borne diseases from increased flooding; and increased malnutrition due to reduced agricultural yields in drought-ridden areas.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution and climate change are among the top ten threats to global health in 2019, and between 2030 and 2050, climate change is projected to cause 250,000 additional deaths annually due to malnutrition, heat stress, and other climate-related causes. Although everyone is affected by climate change, most of the impacts fall on the poor and marginalized, which makes climate change an injustice issue. As in other areas of life, religious or ethical beliefs have motivated individuals and governments to press for environmental protection.
The ecological position of the Catholic Church could be seen in the words of the Catholic Pontiff, Pope Francis in his encyclical Letter wherein he recalls the beautiful words of St. Francis of Assisi that “our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs”. This sister he says now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.
According to the Holy Father, human beings have come to see themselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. More than fifty years ago, when the world was teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis, Pope Saint John XXIII wrote an Encyclical; Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (14 May 1971) addressed to the Catholic world and now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, Pope Francis addresses every person living on this planet in his Apostolic Exhortation and especially to all the members of the Church to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.
Climate Change typifies history of largely unpredicted decline in environmental quality and again confirms the position that past intergovernmental controls have been ineffective. Environmental Groups have warned of such consequences since the early 1970s. At that time, a philosophy of ‘dilute and disperse’ was being pursued within a scientific paradigm of predictive modeling and an economic ethic of “acceptable” damage or trade-off in relation to largely material benefits. It was always assumed that any “mistakes” would be remedied. Then, concerns voiced by environmental groups were regarded as ‘fringe’ and their representations as “doomsters.” In 1970, Blessed Pope Paul VI referred to the ecological concern as “a tragic consequence” of unchecked human activity:
“Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation”. Saint John Paul II became increasingly concerned about this issue. In his first Encyclical, he warned that human beings frequently seem “to see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption”. Subsequently, he called for a global ecological conversion in his Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo ReiSocialis (30 December 1987). Catholic doctrine holds that the destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.
Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies. The Church maintains that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible”, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations and so forth. It follows that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence” The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves”.
As Catholics we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation. With the release of the Laudato Si, the Holy Father like his predecessors has once again affirmed the church’s ecological teachings affirming her position as a powerful force against global poverty, social injustice and climate change. The Church acknowledges that the earth was here before man and it has been given to man (cf. Gen 1:28), not for unbridled exploitation of nature, thus rejecting the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.
The biblical texts “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15) must be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world. “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. The beauty of science and technology has made us beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aero planes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies.
While it is right to rejoice in these advances and be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity”, we must not afford to succumb to modern anthropocentrism which prizes technical thought over reality leading to a misguided lifestyle. Climate change in the coming years will increasingly affect our world even though the effect may be slow. This is unlike the corona virus-induced pandemic which today is progressing much faster and the negative effects are more noticeable to people. The effects of the development of the corona virus pandemic are already visible in a significant part of the world where the number of human infections is growing rapidly every day with many mortalities already recorded.
While the effect of global warming could be as or even more devastating if not checked; its process is so slow that no commensurate attention is given to it. It is however possible that in the not too distant future, various crises may occasionally be caused by climate changes. It is therefore necessary for humanity to undertake the necessary ecological reforms today to reduce the global scale of the negative effects of an impending crisis. We must pursue a common good which extends to future generations who come after us knowing that sustainable development makes sense only in the light of intergenerational solidarity. It presupposes our visualization of the world as a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.
As the Holy Father has declared this year an anniversary of the Laudato Si albeit amidst a global pandemic, there is no doubt that humanity needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, develop energy based on renewable energy sources, electro mobility, organic farming, sorting garbage, recycling, etc. It is necessary to implement the principles of sustainable ecological development as soon as possible in accordance with the green economy philosophy and ecological financing reforms from green finance sources. Time is short. We must take genuine steps towards sustainable use of biodiversity by respecting, accommodating and protecting nature for a shared future for all life on earth. We must reduce environmental crimes that affect biodiversity at the national and international levels.
We must all become interested in conserving and enhancing the sustainable use of biodiversity in all aspects of our managed ecosystems, as a means to increase their sustainability, productivity and resilience. We must integrate biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and outcomes, education, health and accounts, across all sectors. The church should play an active role in drafting plans for sustainable living going forward in local parishes, schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and other healthcare centers, businesses, farms, and religious orders. As we begin to envision a post-COVID world, we need above all an integral approach to solving the world’s environmental problems.
As Catholics, this year, the 5th anniversary of Lauato Si ought to propel in us the need to care for our common home and create and strengthen constructive attitudes for the care of creation. It is a time to ponder on the kind of world we want to leave to those who will come after us, to the children who are growing up. In our Parishes, we should begin to reflect on topics such as “sustainability” and how to live an eco-spirituality in caring for creation, and social action in promoting an integral ecology and building community during the pandemic. We need to engage in activities that can help the faithful appreciate the beauty of creation and need not to destroy it.
We must adopt simpler lifestyles and develop sustainable practices such as less plastic usage, adopting a more plant-based diet to reduce meat consumption, broader use of public transport in order to reduce emissions . We must pray that GOD will open our minds and touch our hearts, so that we will begin to care for the needs of creation and make us to be conscious that our common home belongs not only to us, but to all of creatures and to all future generations, and that it is our responsibility to preserve it. It is hoped that all Catholic faithful joined together in this cause, if viewed in terms of sheer numbers, could become the planet’s largest Climate Change Civil Society Movement, present throughout the world; thus becoming the decisive force that helps top the scales in favour of a world of climate safety and justice for future generations.