Fr Kevin Hegarty
David Attenborough is an environmental prophet. At the age of 94 he has published a new book, ‘A Life on Our Planet’.
In it he issues a blunt warning about the environmental consequences of our exploitation of the earth:
“I fear for those who will bear witness to the next 90 years, if we continue living as we are doing at present ... We humans alone on Earth, are powerful enough to create worlds and then to destroy them.”
In his BBC documentary ‘Extinction’ he buttresses his assertions with stark statistics. Since 1970, birds, mammals and reptiles have declined by 60 percent. Insects, on which we rely for three quarters of our food supplies, have decreased by 10 percent. The situation “threatens our ability to feed ourselves, control our climate, and puts us at great risk of pandemic diseases.” Covid 19 may be the harbinger of a grim future.
A recent UN report support his dire predictions. According to it: “the world has failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wild life and life sustaining eco systems . . . from tackling pollution to protecting coral reefs, the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010 to slow the loss of the natural world. It is the second consecutive decade that governments have failed to meet targets.”
If we follow our current course of exploitative land use and damaging food production methods, one million species are threatened with extinction in the next few decades. An editorial in The Guardian last year argued cogently that the chief driver of this catastrophe is human greed.
It stated: “For all our individual and even collective cleverness, we behave as a species with as little foresight as a colony of nematode worms that will consume everything it can reach until all is gone and it dies off naturally.”
Martin Palmer, adviser on religion to the ‘World Wide Fund for Nature’ claims that Christians have a major role in rescuing the planet, “given that they own or manage 50 percent of the world’s schools, a third of hospitals and 14 percent of the investment market.” These considerable resources should lead to a huge contribution.
Care for the Earth is a strand in cCristian theology and spirituality, though it has often been neglected. Pope Francis’ encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’ is a comprehensive compendium of Catholic thought on the environment. In the ‘Book of Genesis’, human beings are exhorted to be stewards rather than autocrats of creation. The psalmists wrote of a sense of God in the wonders of creation. In his words and actions Jesus Christ displayed an empathy to nature.
Reverence for creation is especially strong in the Celtic Christian tradition. St Columbanus wrote: “If you want to know the creator, first get to know his creation.”
Celtic monasteries were often established in places of austere and awesome beauty like Skellig Micheal, Iona, Inisglora and Inismurray. There the monks discerned whispers of the divinity in the cry of the curlew, the flight of the gannet, the radiance of the wild flowers and the buzz of bees and other insects.
An incident from the life of St Columcille telescopes this care for nature. His biographer, Adomman, tells how the saint asked one of his fellow monks to minister to a weary bird:
“After the ninth hour of the day a guest will arrive from the northern region of Ireland, very tired and weary, a crane that has been tossed by winds through long circuits of the air. And with its strength almost exhausted it will fall near you and lie upon the shore. You will take heed to lift it tenderly, and carry it to the house nearby and having taken it in as a guest there for three days and nights, you will wait upon it, and feed it with anxious care.”
The story may be apocryphal but it is revelatory of reverential attitude to nature that lay at the heart of Celtic Christianity.
Care for the environment is the existential moral challenge of our time, for all of us, Christians and non-Christians. We can no longer plead ignorance about the predicament of our planet. To echo the words of TS Eliot, ‘after such knowledge, what forgiveness?’