Sacred Gifts to a Living Planet
November 15, 2000
The purely religious and non-administrative character of the ministry that we exercise also determines the framework of our potential intervention and contribution for the protection of the natural environment. We are unable to assume necessary measures. Nor can we instigate forceful reactions against those who negatively influence the environment. We are simply in a position to address free and conscientious people in order to suggest to them what is correct according to our faith, so that they may be persuaded to conform freely and willingly, as their obligation and responsibility dictate in regard to this matter.
Therefore, what we shall say here follows first from our human perspective and consequently from our co-responsibility for the future of our planet and for human life on this planet. So our words should be acceptable to all people of good will, irrespective of their religious conviction, since they are surely, in our opinion the proper conclusions of rational thought. Furthermore, what we shall say also flows from the tenets of our Christian faith and from our world-view according to the perspective of this faith, that is to say according to the way in which we regard the world, humanity, creation, and history. We recognize that there exist numerous and diverse theoretical beliefs and philosophical opinions concerning this worldview. However, we believe that the foundation of our practical conclusions, reflected in our personal and collective behavior, is able to assist all people of good will to conform their behavior to the suggested ethical model. This should be the case even if the religious origin of the suggested ethic does not coincide with certain people’s opinions about particular details.
We are obliged to clarify the fact that, for us the demands of our faith are of primary value. Yet, we begin with the more general human demands, because we are also addressing distinguished delegates who do not share our religious conviction, and for whom the weight of any argument does not lie in its religious connection but in its rational cohesion.
Before exposing our arguments on this matter, we consider it necessary to focus your attention on certain data, well known of course to everyone but nevertheless still worthy of particular emphasis.
(i) The planet earth, on which all of us necessarily live, constitutes a minute part of the universe. No matter how great its dimensions appear to us by comparison with human dimensions, it is truly very small when compared to the rest of the universe.
(ii) This planet is not separated by natural boundaries into close-knit compartments. The legal borders of nations are unknown to nature. The winds that blow and transfer particles and gases from place to place do not seek anyone’s commission in order to follow the direction of the natural laws. The same also applies to the waters, to temperatures, and to every form of radiation.
(iii) The range of every occurrence is very wide, namely worldwide, and in a sense universal. This means that if one spot of pollution is emitted in one point of the earth, its effect is felt throughout the world. Of course, the effect is not immediately perceived in the case of a small trace of pollution. It becomes more apparent in the case of extended pollution. Yet the effect is the same. For example, scientists expect that in the coming decades the average temperature on the surface of the earth will increase by several degrees. This fact will also result in the melting of ice, the raising of the sea level, greater rainfall and floods in colder regions, and more dryness and desert in warmer regions. Such effects are not the result of actions occurring in the affected areas alone, but in any and every part of the world. For, as a result of the natural law of Aristotelian entelechy and entropy, of the equation of differences, warm temperatures in any part of the world, and derived from any source at all, are added to temperatures resulting from other sources. Accordingly, these temperatures are conveyed throughout the surface of the earth. What is of importance is not so much that, according to specialists, it takes up to two years for air pollution in a particular place to spread throughout the atmosphere of the globe. What is of importance rather is that the laws of chaos imply that any unhealthy intervention in one region of the atmosphere is similarly shared throughout the world.
(iv) The consequences of a polluting action, after a necessary period, equally affect every person throughout the world, including the responsible perpetrator, as well as a boundless number of innocent victims. So it is inconceivable for the perpetrator to protect himself from the consequences of his action, and it is impossible to know who will ultimately be the victims of such action. However it is fact that humanity is collectively and in its entirety damaged. Certainly, the density of pollution, and therefore the risk of damage is greater in the region and at the time closer to the emission. Yet, whatever remains after the natural function of self-purging, which occurs through various means and natural functions, is defused and divided into the entire planet.
(v) Already from the period of the first appearance of the individualistic Roman Law, the owner of any property possessed the right to enact whatever he so wished on this property irrespective of whether this disturbed or damaged his neighbor. Yet, early on, certain cracks began to appear in this absolutely individualistic principle. One example of this may be found in the foresight to forbid certain dangerous immissiones. Inasmuch as certain social obligations and connections were also gradually related to the ownership of property, the disturbing use of land increased, and, as a result, many places have already established regulations of good neighborhood which are socially acceptable and desirable. This means that societies recognize that the individualistic principles formerly pervading civil law are today becoming more social. Therefore, the individualistic principles that in many ways govern international law are also able to become more social through our influence as members of societies.
We have already noted that our planet is so small and so bereft of close-knit compartments that every material and human act that is damaging for the environment bears consequences of worldwide extent. And from our observations about the development of law and legal institutions, our desire is to emphasize accordingly the worldwide effect of every change in the spiritual attitude and conduct of any one citizen in regard to the environment.
The necessary conclusion is that any non-governmental effort to change the attitude of citizens, even if it appears to have only limited efficacy, has profound significance for the environment and its improvement.
Mutual Relationship with Nature
Let us now turn to the environmental imperatives that derive from our human nature. Herodotus mentions that in some region of the classical world, the people regarded it as blasphemy, as contradicting the very will of the gods, to pollute the rivers. These people, according to some modern thinkers, might be considered culturally under-developed in as much as they did not experience the development of our technical civilization. Yet their spiritual sensitivity and refinement, when compared with the corresponding sensitivity of contemporary and civilized human beings that pollute the rivers with tons of poisonous substances as they sail through them, must be considered exceptional and excellent, whereas we would surely fail by their standards. The possibility that the religious basis of their behavior may today not be accepted as it was then described or even believed, does not undermine the character of their behavior that was socially perfect and especially commendable in this regard.
It has also been observed with great conviction that the majority of deserts, and especially those in Mesopotamia and other formerly inhabited regions, are the result of human actions, such as deforestation for the sake of cultivation, fires caused by arson, the desalination of the earth and the abuse of nature. It is well known that acid rain, which comes from sulfur dioxide produced in the mining station of Sudbury in Ontario, Canada, has from 1888 to this day destroyed two million acres of surrounding coniferous forests. The nearby region does not have even a trace of vegetation.
Nevertheless, it is not only the nearby regions that are affected by any source of pollution. We know that air pollution produced in England affects the biotic communities of Sweden; pollution in the Great Lakes affects the residents of Canada and the United States; and the radioactive Strodium 90 has been traced in bodies of the distant Eskimo people to a far greater extent than in populations living much closer to the points of emission. This is due to the fact that the radioactive element was absorbed into the lichens consumed by the caribou that constitute the primary source of food for the Eskimos. Furthermore we are all aware of the transportation of radio energy from the accident of the nuclear power station in Chernobyl and of the statistical predictions by scientists about the increase of cancer even in populations of countries at a significant distance from this source.
These are but few of the many possible indications that any change in the environment is a matter concerning all people and all regions in the world. And so all of us ought to become conscious of our collective obligation to conform to everything demanded for the sake of the protection of the environment. This obligation is fundamentally twofold. First, we ought actively to avoid destroying or polluting the environment, and actively endeavor to restore it and improve it. And second, we ought passively to reject the use of products whose production burdens our environment, or at least to use these products rationally, if this is absolutely necessary. We could add a third obligation, namely the effort to render all people aware of these responsibilities. For, although the potential influence of each individual may appear to be limited, the collective influence of all people together is limitless. This environmental ethic is imperative of rational thinking and must be understood as equivalent to the obligation of self-preservation.
Model of Behavior
Now we come to what the Orthodox Christian Church believes and teaches. Let us begin by mentioning a characteristic commandment of the founder of the Christian Church, of our Lord Jesus Christ. Multitudes followed the Lord into the desert in order to hear His teaching and receive healing for their illnesses. Christ blessed five loaves of bread and two fish, instructing His disciples to share these among the five thousand men, gathered with their wives and children. All of them ate, as we are told, and were filled. Up to this point, the narrative describes a miracle. Yet in continuation, the miracle-worker said to His disciples: “gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost” (Jn 6.12). The commandment to gather up the remainders “so that nothing is lost,” especially as it comes from the mouth of their Creator, constitutes a model of behavior which is most useful for our time when the refuse of certain large cities, rejected as trash, could suffice to nourish entire populations.
You are undoubtedly familiar with the charitable commandment of love and mercy, which is taught by the Orthodox Church. You are perhaps even aware that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as the first throne among the worldwide Orthodox Churches, has, at the dawn of the third millennium from the Birth of Christ, placed at the center of its attention the urgent problem of our times, namely the preservation of balance in the natural environment of our planet. We are absolutely convinced that an effective approach to this problem requires not only the intervention of governments, but also the cultivation of an ethic based on an understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature, which, beyond this ethic, derives from the coexistence of all human beings.
For us, this ethic stems from our faith in God and, as we believe, from the event of creation. We accept that God created the universe out of nothing and out of love. As the crown of this creation, God formed Adam, whom He established in the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise. The delight in the goods of Paradise was not an end to itself. Adam’s pleasure in paradise was not due to the enjoyment of the material goods therein; it was not an animal satisfaction of instincts. God fashioned Adam into a personal and spiritual being, created out of two elements. One element was drawn from the material creation made by Him, “dust from the dust” of the earth, and therefore constituted the human body. The other element was a created spirit, similar to the uncreated spiritual essence of God, and so Adam was created “in the image and likeness” of God, namely endowed with all the good attributes of the persons of the Triune God. These attributes include personal being, mind, freedom, love, judgment, will, and so forth. And the delight of humanity in Paradise was founded on a personal relationship with the Creator, a relationship characterized as love and incorporating full trust in God.
Commandment to Care, not to Consume
While being a spirit in image of the Spirit of God, the human person was not created perfectly divine. Rather, the human person was created with the possibility of becoming like God through gradual progress derived from personal and voluntary asceticism, as well as through the intervention of divine grace, namely the uncreated energy of God. This ascetic discipline embraced three things: first, work in Paradise; second, the keeping of Paradise; and, third, the fulfillment of a commandment to avoid consuming one fruit. In reference to these three points, the basis of the desired behavior was love, and the desired goal from God was the preservation and increase of humanity in personal love. This communion of humanity with God would render us partakers of divine nature and blessedness, namely divine by grace although not in essence.
Insofar as the human person also participates in the created, material nature by means of the body, it would be called to assume the material creation within which it has been established as crown. And so, by assuming material creation as nurture and harmony, it would raise it up in thanksgiving to God, from whom everything was received. Nature was planned by God to offer of its own, and especially through its cultivation and protection by humanity, everything that is necessary for the preservation and pleasure of humanity. However, the relationship of humanity toward nature was not one of possession. Rather, it was a relationship of a person toward a gift, and especially toward God, the giver of all good. Therefore, humanity must remember at all times that it holds this gift only within certain boundaries established by the giver, and that within these boundaries there are two conditions.
The first condition is the requirement to protect the gift, namely to preserve nature harmless, and to consume only its fruit. The second condition is the requirement not willfully to consume every fruit, but to be self-restrained and to abstain from certain fruits. Both the protection and the self-restraint, which in ecclesiastical terminology is called ascesis, were not imposed as authoritative commandments with appropriate consequence in the case of their transgression. Instead, they were offered as suggestions of love that ought to be preserved out of love. In this way, love is preserved alive, as a personal relationship and mutual communion between God and humanity. For the true nature of God is love; and the original nature of the human person was also endowed with love, seeking to be established in love so as to become divine by grace. Therefore, that which would most liken humanity to God was precisely the establishment of humanity in love in the same way as God Himself is stable and unchanging in this love.
The first-created human being, however, misused the God-given freedom, preferring alienation from God and attachment to God’s gift. Consequently, the double relationship of humanity to God and creation was canceled in regard to its direction toward God, leaving humanity preoccupied with creation alone. In this way, the human blessedness derived from the love between God and humanity ceased, and humanity sought to fill this void by drawing from creation the blessedness that was lacking. From thankful user, the human person became greedy abuser. Humanity sought from creation to offer that which it could not, namely the blessedness that was missing. The more that humanity feels dissatisfied, the more it also demands from nature. Yet the more it demands of nature to offer, the more humanity recognizes that the goal has escaped its grasp. The soul’s emptiness cannot be filled with the world’s possessiveness. Nor again can it be achieved by the acquisition of material goods, for it does not result from lacking these goods. The soul’s emptiness results from a lack of love and familiarity with God. The lost paradise is not a matter of lack in created goods, but of deprivation of love toward the Creator.
Christ came into the world in order to restore, and He did restore the possibility of our love toward God. For, as fully human (and divine), He fully loved God (the Father), becoming an example of the loving relationship between humanity and divinity. Those who sincerely and correctly believe in Him and love God practice keeping the original commandments of God. They practice the commandments to work, to keep the natural creation from any harm, and to use only its fruits, indeed those fruits that are absolutely necessary to use, taking proper care “ that nothing is lost,” and becoming conscientious models of environmental care.
An Orthodox Christian ethic therefore emanates from the world-view of humanity, creation, and God that we have very briefly presented. All the other Christian exhortations about the proper way of life stem from the conscious effort of human beings to cease hoping in creation and to turn their hope to the Creator of all. When this attitude is adopted, humanity will be satisfied with much fewer material goods and will respond with greater sensitivity to the nature that nurtures us. Humanity will then be concerned about loving all people, and will not seek to satisfy individualistic and egotistic ambitions.
The Orthodox Church penetrates the reason of every being, namely the origin and purpose of every created thing, discerning the complete plan of God from the first moment of creation to the end of the world, considering this as an expression of absolute love and offering. The world was created “very good” in order to serve the mind of God and the life of humanity. However, it does not replace God; it cannot be worshipped in the place of God; it cannot offer more than God appointed it to offer. The Orthodox Church prays that God may bless this creation in order to offer seasonable weather and an abundance of fruits from the earth. It prays that God may free the earth from earthquakes, floods, fires, and every other harm. In recent times, it has also offered supplications to God for the protection of the world from destruction caused by humanity itself, such as pollution, war, over-exploitation, exhaustion of waters, changes in environmental conditions, devastation, and stagnation.
More than Mere Prayer
The Ecumenical Patriarchate does not however rely only on supplication to God to improve the situation. Starting from God, as it is always proper to seek His blessing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate works intensely in every possible way to alert everyone to the fact that the greed of our generation constitutes a sin. This greed leads to the deprivation of our children’s generation, in spite of our desire to bequeath to them a better future.
The relative environmental activity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been revealed, among other ways, in the convocation also of international ecological Seminars in the historical Holy Monastery on the island of Halki, which began a systematic theological study of the ecological crisis. There has also been participation on our part in numerous conferences convened to discuss these matters. Our environmental initiative is further reflected in the organization of three floating Symposia attended by scientists from all over the world. In admirable harmony of spirit, we advanced from the study of general themes to the examination of particular problems.
In September of 1995, together with His Royal Highness Prince Philip of Edinburgh, we organized a floating Symposium in the Aegean, starting from the island of Patmos, in order to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Book of St. John’s Revelation. In this symposium, faith and understanding, religion and science, spirit and word approached, from different perspectives, one and the same purpose, namely the protection of the environment. The success of this Symposium inspired and encouraged us to organize a second international floating Symposium in the area of the Black Sea, in light of the ecological destruction of that region.
The deliberations of the Black Sea Symposium made it abundantly clear that the pollution of this sea largely depends on the pollutants washed up by the rivers. The warm hospitality and fervent reception expressed by the inhabitants of this region toward the delegates of our Symposium was deeply moving. Having studied the existing problems, we decided to continue our research by organizing yet another Symposium, in the context of which we traveled by ship along the Danubian countries.
Beyond the study of pollution and the search for a solution to the dangerous conditions and constructions, the pain and the poverty all along this great river, a further purpose of this Symposium was the healing of this region of Europe that has been plagued with terrible ordeals. In the context of our limited capacity, we proposed to define the principals of free communication, of mutual respect, and of peaceful coexistence among the people of this region.
In the aftermath of the Symposium, it is important for us to search for its practical results. These results give rise to hope for an activation of interest in the environment. At the conclusion of the Black Sea Symposium a systematic environmental education created a network of concerned clergy, journalists, and teachers from the Black Sea region. Today, an initiative to create a similar environmental network is gaining ground in the Danubian countries, with the participation of various Churches, in conjunction with the Danube Carpathian Program of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF). This network will preserve alive the ecological initiative and strengthen the cooperation among the peoples of the region.
A further Symposium is scheduled for the Baltic Sea. This Symposium will direct its attention to one of the more burdened coastal environments of our planet. The Baltic Sea has suffered both from the development and wealth of some countries in the region, as well as from the poverty of certain others. This Symposium will endeavor to underline the significance of a common effort and formation of a common ethic. It will remind the world that the sacred creation is not our property, and so we do not have the right to use it according to our desires. It is the gift of God’s love to us, and we are obliged to return his love by protecting everything embraced by this gift.
We would like to conclude by expressing our prayer and hope for the future of humanity. We fervently pray that peace and harmony will prevail, not simply as an absence of conflicts or as a temporary truce in confrontations, but as a stable condition for the future of our planet. To this purpose, however, all of us are required to work, and to work together, irrespective of religious convictions. Therefore, we fraternally call upon all religious leaders to adopt the effort for the protection of the natural environment and to inspire their faithful in the religious and humanitarian obligation to participate in this endeavor, both actively and passively.
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At the invitation of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the First-Hierarchs of all the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches will gather from March 6-9, 2014, for a Sacred Synaxis at the Phanar in order to deliberate on matters pertaining to the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world and procedural issues for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council, whose preparation is coming to an end. Read more...
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