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Uniting in stewardship – taking care of our common home with the wisdom of religion and tradition

Pollution: A power plant near residential buildings in Beijing. Photo: CNS

IT’S been proposed that turning to religious and traditional wisdom could help protect planet Earth, after environmental scientists delivered a “dire” report card on the health of the environment.

“The science is clear,” UN Environment acting executive director Joyce Msuya said at the fourth United Nations environmental assembly in Nairobi this month.

“The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment.”

An assessment of our ailing planet is contained in the sixth Global Environmental Outlook released at the assembly, attended by 5000 scientists, politicians and for the first time, by environmental activists from each of the world’s faith traditions. 

Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Centre for Sustainable Development in Jerusalem, said religious leaders had a unique role to play in promoting ecological sustainability, especially because 85 per cent of the world’s people were affiliated with religion.

Fr Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam, co-ordinator of the section on Ecology and Creation at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said he took hope from the increasing spiritual response to climate change, including the indigenous communities around the world who view themselves as the protectors of the land or planet.

He said climate change was one reason Pope Francis has called a special synod of Catholic bishops from the Pan-Amazonian region in October this year.

“He (Pope Francis) believes at the period of planetary emergency, the answer can come from these people, who have defended our common home for thousands of years. We can learn from their indigenous wisdom,” Fr Kureethadam said. 

“It is a time when the whole world will sit at the feet of the indigenous people and learn from them to take care of our common home.”

Experts say tropical forests that are home to other indigenous groups in the Congo Basin, Asia and Central America also help regulate regional and international weather patterns.

That’s a crucial consideration, including here in Australia where the severity of record flooding in Townsville and north west Queensland, and bushfires in throughout eastern states have been attributed to climate change.

Above all, the faith activists urged the UN delegations to the assembly to approach climate change as an urgent human problem as much as a scientific one.

Even the assembly itself was beset by another form of human disaster when 22 of the delegates headed for the event died in an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash that killed 157 passengers on board.

Black Weir: Flooding in Black Weir at Ross River. Photo: Neil Helmore

The GEO 2019 – the most rigorous environmental report card by the UN in the last five years – warns that damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.

The report, produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries, says that either we drastically scale up environmental protections, or cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by mid-century. 

It also warns that pollutants in freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment.

“This report is an outlook for humanity,” Ms Msuya said, adding the earth’s ailments were treatable, but we must change as consumers – how we create energy, dispose of waste, and how our human footprint degrades the air, water and land.

“We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway?”  she said.

The GEO report predicts the world’s population to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. 

It says that without “profound and urgent” changes in production and consumption patterns, that population growth will continue and the planet will not be able to support it in a healthy, productive, and fulfilled way by mid-century. 

Ninety per cent of that growth will take place in Africa and Asia. 

Almost all coastal cities of any size are vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding caused by extreme weather events.

At an assembly event called “Faith for Earth Dialogue”, religious activists urged the UN to recognise the growing religious wave of concern and called for dramatic steps to address climate change and related environmental challenges.

For Catholics, The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si (‘Praise be to you’) – On the Care for Our Common Home, is the Church’s most profound and comprehensive statement yet on caring for creation and the poorest. 

Pope Francis was clear that human activity was at the root of climate change and the “ecological crisis” – and that therefore, the solution also lay with us.

It is an inspirational letter that calls for us to examine our hearts, transform our social values and take action for global solidarity.

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