We’re up against it now – the moral quandary

Posted April 30th, 2008 in Blog 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

The current ecological problems are essentially witnesses for the prosecution, testifying that we have violated the laws of life… The verdict is simple: we have mismanaged the ‘domain’ entrusted to us.

Commission for Social Affairs, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Our Relationship with the Environment: the Need for Conversion

As I read these days about the many facets of our ecological crisis coming at us all at once, I am aware of the profundity of the moral weight that lies in the decisions we make to deal with the looming and very real hurt already being felt, about to be felt, across the globe.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

It is a political year and oil prices are soaring into the stratosphere. This means real pain, first of all for those who can least afford it, then middle class types whose lives are hooked to their cars and who have few alternatives for getting to work, the kids to school, etc. Our society refused to prepare for these times 30 years ago when we first knew it was coming. By now, we might have developed sleek, energy efficient mass transit alternatives and personal vehicles not at all dependent on oil. But this type of forward-thinking in regard to energy usage is not one of the gifts of our economic system — not when economic success is measured by quarterly earnings reports to stockholders.

The moral quandary: address the hurt of high oil and gasoline prices by making draconian decisions now to increase oil production at the cost of ecosystems in Alaska, the Arctic Ocean, Wyoming, alberta-tar-sands-open-pit-mining.pngAlberta, and on and on — decisions that will only put off the day of reckoning while continuing the ruination of the planet for the generation right behind us.

Next: as noted on this blog, we face a moral crisis about food. Rising consumption of meat and poultry, growing corn and soybeans for biofuels, and our insatiable appetites for processed foods are all driving up food prices around the world, with an immediate impact on world hunger among billions of us who live on less than $2 per day, and especially in countries that must rely on food imports.

We could stop eating hamburgers right now. We could stop going to assembly-line fast food meat machines. We could fiercely protest the farm bill about to pass Congress that will continue sending our tax dollars to big industrial agriculture making enormous profits off the high food prices and subsidies for biofuels. Or we could find ways to expand the mode of agriculture now dominant that is wrecking the planet faster than almost any other industry.

The moral quandary: how we eat and produce food, combined with our insistence that we find a fuel to put in our vehicles to keep our lifestyles going as they are, is causing ecological devastation. Yet the world is hungry. The NY Times presents the dilemma in an article on this morning’s front page: Shortages threaten farmers’ crucial tool: fertilizer.

Chemical fertilizers made possible the ‘green revolution’ that is responsible for explosive population growth — from 2.9 billion to 6.7 billion in my lifetime. We will add another 2-3 billion to the planet in the next four decades before the growth rate finally begins to level off. Now that population explosion made possible by the exponential growth in agriculture is surpassing the ability of the planet to provide enough food over the long term for even more population. The Earth is being contaminated by the way we do agriculture, still, more people are hungry and population is still growing. What to do?

People are desperate for fertilizers, says the article. But, and it is a big but, sediment-runoff-nasa-photo.pngchemical fertilizer is a major source of pollution, contamination of rivers, lake and oceans, the principal cause of dead zones off our coasts (areas of water in which no life can exist because of excess nitrogen from agricultural runoff — see the NYT article), mississippi-delta-sediment-runoff-nasa-photo.pngand expanding its use will only increase the long term, and perhaps permanent, ecological damage. Which means less capacity for food production, more extreme shortages, in the generations to come after us.

Yes, a quandary — we cannot continue this mode of industrial agriculture for food, and even worse for our personal vehicles, and keep the Earth healthy enough to support future generations. Besides the question of industrial, chemically based agriculture is the push by some corporations for more use of genetically modified seeds. They are using the crisis as an opportunity to spread more of this nature-destroying technology around the world — in the cause of feeding the hungry.

We see hungry people now, and food riots, and it is so tempting, so tempting, to give in to the quick fix that does not alter our lives too much, but will in the future as we continue to alter the planet and its functioning ecosystems.

The moral quandary: downscale human consumption drastically so that all may have what they need (which means I may not get to have all that I want), downscale our Western way of life, right now, as quickly as possible, so that hungry people have enough to eat and, even more, the possibility of dignified life, while we preserve a viable planet for future generations; or, spend it all down now and ensure a future that will make our current problems look like a nostalgic era in human history.

This rupture of harmony with nature brings consequences no less dramatic for those who share our common humanity…

Pope John Paul II has said: “It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence. Today, the massive threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness — both individual and collective — are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence.”

Instead of fostering this interdependence, we have allowed the planet to fragment…”

My lifestyle, my life choices and decisions, have a direct bearing now on the well-being of others, on either fostering the fragmentation or honoring our interdependence with all beings and the ecosystems of the planet in which they, we, live and move and have our being.

But this interdependence is not just lateral or horizontal. It is not just an interdependence of the present. It is an interdependence in time; it is also forward and vertical. It is an interdependence of the present with the future.

The moral quandary: make short-term, quick fix, decisions for relief of the present crises of escalating fuel and food prices at the cost of the planet and the future, or safeguard both by changing our life habits and values right now.

The Canadian Bishops continue:

…scientists tell us we are heading toward a concrete wall, and the steps we are currently taking will only serve to diminish the force of the impact… Pope John Paul II reminded us that the crisis is not only ecological, but moral and spiritual. A moral crisis must be met with conversion, which is a change in perspective, attitudes and behavior. Essentially, this conversion is aimed at ruptures we have created with nature, with our neighbor and with God. It has to focus on re-establishing a relationship, that is, creating a climate of reconciliation.

Which means, of course, reconciliation not only with God and neighbor, but reconciliation with nature.

You cannot reconcile with what you are destroying.

We must re-establish the links with nature that we have damaged. We now know that we are tied much more closely to the environment in which we live than we had imagined. earthrise_from_apollo_8.pngOur planet is a spacecraft on which we navigagte together with the environment, for better and for worse… Is development that is more respectful of nature’s laws and rhythms not a first step toward its freedom?

Oh yes, and yes!

We have come up to the limits of the planet to withstand the assaults of this species and still hold the balance of life that made us possible. That reality will present us with the most profound moral challenges ever faced by this species. We need to get rooted in a deep, profound, all-encompassing Earth spirituality to help us meet those challenges — on the side of rich biodiverse abundant life not just for the present, but for future generations.

[tags] food crisis, high oil prices, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, CCCB, Our Relationship with the Environment: The Need for Conversion, fertilizer shortages, industrial agriculture, green revolution and population growth, nitrogen pollution, dead zones[/tags]

Photo credits:

Alberta tar sands, Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS Information Center
Two photos of sediment runoff, NASA Goddard Earth Science, Creeping Dead Zones
Earthrise from Apollo 8, NASA

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One Response

  1. Sr. Fe, rndm-Philippines

    Dear Friends in Christ,

    I am both inspired and challenged after reading the above articles.

    I myself, am doing my research along this line, contextualize in the Philippines. It is not an easy task! It takes courage to live a life of contradiction offered by our present world- the world of instant.

    May we continue to rock the boat of challenge and let ourselves be challenged by the Biblical values.

    In Solidarity,
    Sr. Ferndm