Regarded by many as the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day began exactly 45 years ago today. On 22 April 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets in response to a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Mobilised by Senator Gaylord Nelson and inspired by the student anti-war movement, those early environmental pioneers sought to infuse protest energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution to force environmental protection up the national political agenda.
And it worked! The Earth Day Movement continues.
Around the globe today, thousands of environmental activities are taking place. My own organisation, the London Mining Network is assisting in a lively protest to expose and oppose burning biomass and coal in the UK.
But what, if any, might a specific Catholic contribution be to Earth Day?
Well, first and foremost we can join in the activities with great gusto confident we have Church support.
Pope Francis’s eagerly awaited ecology encyclical will probably stress our Christian duty to be proactive stewards and advocates for the natural world. It will outline how environmental action is to be seen as a virtue, with ecological degradation as its corresponding vice. As with the early days of the Earth Day movement, there will be a call for Catholics to mobilize and take a lead on promoting care for creation. And it’s happening already. In the past few months we’ve seen instances of the Catholic Church heading up various environmental initiatives. Three important examples spring to mind. Firstly, Pope Francis’s personal involvement in the Lima Climate Change talks, which in the face of a distinct absence of political leadership, was welcomed by NGOs and charities. Secondly, there is the concerted action taken by Catholic bishops on the issue of conflict minerals. Third, this year has seen the setting up of The Pan-Amazonian Church Network to tackle specific issues facing planet and people (particularly indigenous communities) in South America.
Perhaps another area Catholics can make a unique contribution to environmental action is on the whole issue of motivation. Why should we value the natural world? It’s fair to say that in the early days of Earth Day’s existence, the Catholic hierarchy was by and large suspicious of environmentalism, viewing it as a form of new age neo-paganism. Of course there are vestiges of such a view among some quarters of the church such as Cardinal Pell or the influential Fr. Robert Sirico of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. But thanks to insights on the environment provided by John Paul II, Green Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and of course Pope Francis, such attitudes now represent a minority view.
A phrase Pope Francis is rather fond of is “Mother Earth”. Speaking to Italy’s National Federation of Farmers in January 2015, the Pope invited farmers, to love the land as Mother earth in the spirit of St Francis, making an alliance with it, so that it can continue to be the source of life for the entire human family. Similarly in a speech to business leaders on 7 February 2015, he reminded his audience that our planet is “a mother for all of us”, which we must “hand it on to our children, cared for and improved, because it’s a loan they make to us”. In another remarkable statement, Francis said, “God sometimes forgives, but when mistreated (mother) nature never forgives.”
These references to “Mother Earth” can be interpreted on a number of levels which have a profound relevance to people of faith and good will, alike. Most immediately, he is making the basic point that we depend on Mother Earth for sustenance. Without a healthy environment, we simply cannot survive. Secondly Francis’s approach constitutes a deathblow to an understanding of our “dominion” over the earth as domination. Language indicating that the environment is on loan to us means that our “dominion” can only ever be construed in terms of stewardship.
Moreover and perhaps most significantly, there’s a deeper theological point at play. In characterising the planet as a “mother”, the Pope is following St Francis in saying that because the one Father creates all things, other elements of creation are “brothers” and “sisters” in a real sense. Thus we arrive at a more “horizontal” rather than hierarchical view of the world. As the Australian theologian Clive Hamilton observes, the Pope’s theology is subtly doing away with the notion that the divine order moves down from God on high to man to ever more lowly creatures. Instead there is complete interconnectedness between ourselves and the non-human natural world.
I believe there’s a real opportunity for enriching environmental thinking here. Secular environmentalism is generally based on a purely physicalist (i.e. materialist) premise, which I think struggles to convey concepts of value, or provide motivation for environmental protection. A Catholic position on the other hand presents the natural world as something we are part of, as something we are called to protect (and even improve), and crucially, as something invested with a teleological purpose, essential for God’s plan for humanity.
Happy Earth Day!