The poor bear brunt of ecosystem depletion

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By Fr Oskar Wermter SJ

HUMANITY still has the ability to work together in building our common home. There is an intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected. . . The throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.

Humanity is called to recognise the need for change of lifestyle, production and consumption. Fossil fuels are at the heart of the worldwide energy system, another determining factor has seen an increase in the changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources  like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer  regions. These are activities that can lead to the rise in the sea level.

Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow  men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance since it is indispensable for human life, and for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term.

One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Everyday, unsafe water results in many deaths by micro-organism and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and infant mortality.

Underground  water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced by mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products commonly used in many places of the world continue to flow into rivers, lakes and seas.

Water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world, but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behaviour within the context of great inequality.

Marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the population is affected by uncontrolled forms of fishing, which discards much of what they collect which we tend to overlook, like some forms of plankton; they represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them.

Because all creatures are connected to one another. Each area is responsible  for the care of this family.

When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning, how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously.

In fact, the deterioration of the environment and society affects the most vulnerable people.

Instead of resolving the problem of the poor and thinking about how the world can be different, some of us only think of a reduction in the birth rate.

Developing countries faced with international pressure make economic assistance contingent on implementation certain policies of “reproductive health”.

Creation and property rights

For a long time, it was taken for granted that the world and everything in it was at the disposal of everybody and anyone could take and use it at his/her pleasure.

There was no limit and no ban or restriction; people could take what they saw and liked.

The world and all that people saw in it was at disposable and available to anyone. People could just pick anything up and take it anywhere for any purpose. People felt they were owners of the whole of creation. They were in charge and in command of everything. No one could forbid anyone to give an account of how they used the created things. There was no major owner or proprietor. People took the things they liked and use them in whatever way they liked (minerals, plants, trees, wood, animals, the atmosphere, air, space, day and night: everything was at anyone’s disposal, no one asked for permission, everything was freely available, the stars, sun and moon and all stellar phenomena).

People were the owners. Nobody asked them, where they found what they used and considered their own.

People were nobody’s servants or slaves or at anyone’s service. They shared the goods of the earth as their own, they valued what they liked and kept as precious.

Trees were the property of the people who lived under them and cut them down as they liked or planted them anew.

Fish belonged to fishermen, who could say who the fish belonged to. The air again belonged to everyone. The water was at the disposal of all of us. There was an infinite amount of the treasure. Owners used water (river, lakes, sea) as their private property.

No one had a special right to water, there was no obligation to use the water with circumspection, caution, respect. No one used water as a treasure to be kept for future generations, all used water as a common property to be kept for use by this and subsequent generations.

Water was a treasure to be kept as something precious, everybody was to treat water as a treasure to be used only by people with expertise, understanding and wisdom.

This is no longer like that. Water is now for everyone. Water may be polluted, misused and its use enjoyed by anyone with or without responsibility for it.

Water is no longer for experts and people who have great respect for it, use it sparingly and pay attention to its great value at all times. Water is no longer regarded as something of great beauty and attraction.

It is regarded as something precious and costly, admirable in its transparency and its absolute necessity for the upkeep of life.

The seas and the oceans are without limits and traffic by ship or other vessels needs to be controlled and regulated so that there is no misuse or mixing of precious substances.

Industry needs water and uses water as a means of transport. But the State has also a right to legislate for the proper use of this universal good without which there is no life and growth.

The gospel of creation

The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’ image and likeness.

The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jer 1:5). Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.

Human life is grounded on three closely intertwined relationships with God, our neighbour and the earth.

God is sovereign. He cannot be dominated. He is greater than any created being.

We humans must take the earth seriously, we cannot misuse it. So there is a hierarchy which we must respect.

God is greater than humanity, humanity is greater than earth, greater than plant life and animals. But the hierarchy is not to be altered either.

Francis of Assisi, the medieval mystic and poet and writer who sang about the beauty of all creation called water “Sister Water” and wanted her treated with the respect one would accord a beloved sister.

Water was created by the creator of all natural beauty, and we cannot do any better.

Water is the source of all life. Without it there is no plant life, no animal life and finally no human beings, whose life power rests on “Sister Water” and without which we can do nothing. Water is at  the centre of our life, of any growth.

Water has a beauty which nothing can replace.

By being astounded by flowing water, we really sing the praises of the creator, as Francis did, the poet and admirer of all that comes from the hands of the one “who holds the whole world in his hands”.

This is not just a warning against pollution and making water something ugly and repulsive by turning it into a receptacle of dirt and filth. Here we enter paradise, making it our own and singing about its never seen beauty. This is no longer our own, but belongs to all of us, because Francis has given it to us as his Lord’s reward and gift and prize.

  • Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator. He writes here in his personal capacity.