The Fellowship of Life
Our wounded planet
by Sean McDonagh
From The Tablet dated 8 November 1986:
All life on earth could be threatened if the poisoning and destruction of the environment continues. In sounding the alarm, this article draws on 15 years' experience in the Philippines. The author is an Irish Columban missionary whose recent book To Care for the Earth is published by Geoffrey Chapman.
Missionaries are more and more agents of dialogue between the Churches. Having worked myself for 17 years as a missionary on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, I am convinced that today the dialogue needs to move on to embrace one of the most important challenges of our times - the risk of the destruction of the natural world. Governments, the major institutions of society and individuals must stem the tide before it is too late. Otherwise a large segment of the human community and many of the creatures who share this earth with us are doomed to extinction.
The authors of The Global 2000 Report to the President, which is one of the most authoritative studies on the life-systems and resources of the earth, put it bluntly in their letter of transmittal to President Carter. They stated that there was "a potential for global problems of alarming proportions by the year 2000". Unless strong conservation measures were taken, the next 20 years would see a "progressive degradation and impoverishment of the earth's natural resources".
That gives the human community 14 years in which to halt our present course and to devote our energies to protecting the dynamic stability and regenerative powers of the natural systems of the globe. Warning signals are flashing all around us. Almost every night we see on our television screens images of starving people, clutching food bowls in their spindly hands, begging for food. They are the human victims of the creeping deserts and soil erosion in Africa. Hardly a month passed by without an account of toxic waste or nuclear effluent being leaked into the rivers or flushed out to sea to poison the marine environment. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl on 26 April spewed a cloud of radioactive dust across northern Europe. This became a symbol of silent death and sickness for many Europeans. Some of the most remote communities like the Welsh-speaking sheep farmers of north Wales and the Sami people of Scandinavia are among the worst affected by the disaster.
And yet, despite all the mounting evidence around us, the human community still does not seem able to put all the pieces of the jigsaw together so as to produce a coherent picture which will motivate remedial action. Despite prodding from organisations like the United Nations, there is, as yet, no collective will to mount a massive "strategic defence initiative" on behalf of our planet and all the community of the living which it nurtures. Even our awareness of the overall impact of what is happening before our eyes is minimal. We fail to appreciate that many of the technological processes of our modern consumer society are progressively changing the quality of the air, poisoning our water, causing massive soil erosion and killing off innumerable species.
Chain of death
Neither our politicians nor our economists, communicators, educators or religious leaders have systematically set about developing this consciousness. Hence most people have failed to understand the magnitude of what is happening and what the repercussions will be for all life forms for all future generations. Action is called for. Further damage must be avoided and wherever possible, what has already been done must be repaired. That will happen only if this generation of human beings immediately assumes its human and religious responsibility to care for the earth.
One of the more positive signs is the growing interest in ecology among ordinary people in almost every country. Ecology attempts to study the web of interactions between living beings in a particular area and their relationships with the non-living components of the place being studied. This inter-relatedness is, according to Barry Commoner in The Closing Circle, the first law of ecology - everything is connected to everything else. This dynamic inter-relatedness accounts for the diversity and fruitfulness which characterise living systems like rain forests and coral reefs. But, the same interconnectedness can be seen in the chain of death now encircling some of the earth's most fruitful eco-systems.
This has come home to me forcibly during the past five years, when I have been living and working among the T'boli people of south Cotabato in the Philippines. Until relatively recently, the Philippines was almost wholly covered by dense, tropical rain forest. But over the past 40 years the forest has nearly disappeared. Lumber companies have attacked them in order to supply an insatiable appetite for tropical hardwoods in Japan, Europe, Australia and the United States. Landless peasants, often evicted to make way for capital-intensive large-scale plantations, have followed the loggers into the hills and taken their own toll of the forest. The scale of destruction is horrendous.
Its scope reaches far beyond the forest itself. The first to suffer are tribal peoples like the T'boli. The forest is their garden. Not too long ago it provided them with an amazing variety of edible plants, nuts, berries, fruits, animals, reptiles and birds. The wood for their homes and fires comes from the forest. Their medical lore and practices depend on plants and herbs from the forest. Nor does this intimate relationship with the forest end with satisfying their bodily needs. T'boli music, poetry, dancing, art and ritual are also rooted in the forest. The death of the forest means the death of T'boli culture. It may also involve their extinction as a people.
The bad news does not stop there. With the felling of the trees and the burning of the vegetation, the fragile topsoil is exposed to wind and rain. With no trees or vegetation to soak up the monsoon downpour, flood waters laden with rich topsoil descend the mountain slopes, bringing serious flooding and loss of life to coastal towns and cities. The flood waters also cause river beds and estuaries to silt up, rendering useless many expensive irrigation projects which depend for their effectiveness on an extensive forest cover to filter a constant supply of water gently down to the rich alluvial planes. The cycle of destruction does not end with this blow to food production. The murky waters in estuaries and lagoons choke delicate coral polyps, thus destroying the breeding ground for fish and crustaceans.
More ominous still, because it is irreversible, is the degradation of the environment for hundreds of thousands of species of plants, insects, animals and birds. When their habitat is destroyed, they face extinction. Some biologists reckon that human activity during the next 20 or 30 years will eradicate a quarter of all life forms on earth. The cost to the human and earth community of losing such genetic diversity is incalculable; many plants and animals are essential for our food and medical needs.
The threat to man
But the impact on the biosphere - the delicate web of life on earth - is even more incalculable and frightening. Some biologists use the analogy of rivets on a plane. A passenger may not be unduly perturbed if he or she sees one rivet flying off while the plane is in flight. If, however, a third of the rivets begin to fly off, every passenger knows that disaster is imminent. One way of comprehending the speed and scale of what is happening is to remember that we are witnessing the most dramatic change in the biosphere since the dinosaurs became extinct over 60 million years ago.
What I see taking place before my eyes almost every day is not confined to Mindanao. Rain forests are being ravaged in Latin America, West Africa and South-East Asia to provide wood and cheap beef for the first world countries. Each year an area as large as England is despoiled. Since the rain forests are not inexhaustible, many experts predict that by the year 2020 they will all have been felled except for a small strip in the West Amazon and West Africa. If this happens, the areas which they once covered will become as desolate as a lunar landscape.
The human pain of such despoliation will be seen in the faces of many more emaciated children staring blankly from the television screen. It is generally agreed that the continuing famine in Africa today is the direct result of deforestation, over-grazing of pasture land and inappropriate agricultural methods. So the destruction of the rain forests will bring a trail of death right around the world. The poor are indeed the victims of our throw-away economies. As the Latin American bishops put it at Puebla, they call every person and every institution to a profound conversion. Unless we heed their cry and adopt new lifestyles and ways of relating to the earth, we will destroy our planet.
Christian leaders have thus far been rather slow to respond to this problem which is eating away at the fabric of all life on earth. One can sympathise with their dilemma. Their concern seems to focus so exclusively on the plight of human beings that wider ecological issues are ignored or forgotten. But this is to overlook the first law of ecology. If life becomes impossible for other creatures, then the human family itself is doomed.
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