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When things fall apart


Guest Column: Fr Oskar Wermter sj

OUR planet earth comes from the infinitely skilful hands of our Maker. When he had launched the whole of creation, “he found it very good” (Gen 1: 31).
Creation is ongoing and is still “very good”. And he instructed us, the human race together with the animals and plants filling this earth, that we should “cultivate it and care for it” (Genesis 2: 15). This was said to the first generation of human beings (the Bible calls them ‘Adam and Eve’ and their offspring), and to all humans, ourselves at present being alive included , and all still to be born until the end of time.

We may be very busy with it, but we do not “care for it”. Instead, we mess it up, we spoil and destroy it.

A particular creature we must “care for” responsibly is “ Sister Water, who is very useful, and humble and precious and chaste,” as St Francis sings in a poem:

“Water, poverty, especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water….unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases …Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies , are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality….The control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.

“The Amazon and the Congo basins are the richly biodiverse lungs of our planet…….When these forests are burnt down or levelled for purposes of cultivation…the areas frequently become arid wastelands. Consumerism leads to imbalances that cause the “premature deaths of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources “. Hunger and poverty are scandalous if we remember “that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out, it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor” . Warming, caused by burning, leads to drought, which is devastating for farming, especially in Africa.

“Sister Mother Earth” is abused, we may even say raped, by such brutal cutting down and burning of forest trees (From: Francis, Laudato Si).

We flourish and grow, not because of personal ambition, competition and rivalry, but because we unite in one common endeavour of striving for the common good.
This is not the sum total of all our personal achievements, but is the result of a vision which leaves no one out. If we build a dam as a water reservoir, we provide water for everybody in the country, not only for those who can pay. It has been built for the common good, to preserve the life of all within the reach of this reservoir.

Initiatives by individual entrepeneurs are good, but the mere seeking of profit by individuals does not save the life of the community. It leaves out many whose special needs we do not know.

We achieve the common good if we pay attention to the common goods and use them as a response to a human right and entitlement. My life, and the survival of my family, should not depend on our being able to pay a water company for delivering water in a tanker.

Do I have to buy oxygen in a steel container to enable me to breathe fresh and healthy air? Air is one of the “common goods” our planet earth, like a caring mother, provides for all of us, whether we live in a forest or in an urban settlement. Green plants and trees are lungs for all of us to breathe with.

If industrial companies put up stacks to blow huge clouds of chemical refuse into the air and spoil the atmosphere, are they not asphyxiating the population? Who owns the atmosphere?

Is there a multinational corporation that owns the Atlantic Ocean? Or the Indian Ocean and the Pacific? Who owns the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas or Mount Kilimanjaro? The respective governments? Does the right to private property extend that far?

Without sunlight, plants cannot grow. The moon allows us to find our way, even at night. Is there a ‘Sun Private Limited’ or a privately-owned company to keep the moon on her celestial course? Are we going to commercialise, and thereby privatise, the moon and the planets of the solar system once we can sell tickets for space travel?

Who owns the fish in the ocean, whales, dolphins, sharks , seals, penguins, as well as lions, elephants and antelopes and all wild animals? All these are part of nature, which is given. They are not our property, but we admire their beauty, and they delight us when they play in the oceans and rivers, in savannahs and on mountains.

We may “cultivate and care for them”, but we must not manipulate and disfigure them beyond recognition. Nature, which is given and culture, which is the human imprint we put on all these gifts of creation, especially through science and technology, must retain a delicate balance between them.

“The depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities (if we are) without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go” (Francis, On Care for our Common Home).

“Citizens must control political power so as to modify consumption, develop an economy of waste disposal and recycling …..and rotation of crops. ….The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces” (Francis 179/80/90). The profit motive alone does not change erroneous politics and false economies.

Ecology is an ethical issue, and saving the “earth, our common home” is a matter of moral and spiritual values. Only the love of creation and reverence for its beauty will question excessive consumption and teach us a more respectful attitude towards our fellow creatures, even wind and weather.

 Fr Oskar Wermter sj is a social commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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