By Patxi Álvarez SJ
There is an increasing ecological awareness in human communities throughout the world as we see mounting evidence of environmental devastation. We realize now more than ever that our destiny is united to the life of the planet but that Earth itself is in danger of being destroyed by human actions. The next few decades will be decisive in determining the kind of future coming generations will have to face. The environment will be a constant preoccupation and will require hard decisions. We thus find ourselves at a crossroads, and we face challenges in many areas. Those who are most harmed by the present situation are the poor, especially those most exposed to environmental deterioration and natural disasters.
When we speak in the Church of being concerned about ecology, there are three different but inseparable aspects that need to be taken into consideration. The first aspect is care of nature, which means knowing it, loving it, and protecting it. In our Christian tradition all created realities refer us back to the Creator. Created things have a value in themselves; they are not simply there to be abused, degraded or destroyed. Their intrinsic value should inspire in us an attitude of praise and gratitude. In recent decades Christian theology has been developing the idea that human beings are called to be “caretakers” of creation.
The second aspect involved in our commitment to ecology has to do with developing a new lifestyle. The high-consumption lifestyle of the developed countries and of the wealthier sectors of the poorer countries is beyond the reach of the majority in rest of the world because the planet simply does not have the resources needed. Such consumerism is unsustainable and unjust. We need a new type of culture. Fr. Ellacuria, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989, used to speak of the need for a “culture of poverty” as opposed to the “culture of wealth” that is ravaging nature and exploiting human beings.
The third aspect is defense of the most vulnerable persons, the poorest communities, and the future generations. In the terrain we call ecological the question of justice plays a major role. The populations which are most innocent of destroying the environment are the ones most exposed to the consequences, the ones who will pay the highest price. This is the great paradox.
What we are talking about, therefore, is taking care of creation, discovering a new way to be human, and defending the most vulnerable people. Clearly, the simple word “ecology” can hardly capture the richness of all these elements. At the last General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, “reconciliation with creation” was found to be a more adequate expression of the task before us. We need to continue to use the word “ecology,” however, since it establishes a bridge for dialogue with all those persons from diverse religious and humanistic traditions that join with us in defending creation.
Above all, we must strongly reaffirm that there is hope. There are huge numbers of persons committed to protecting the environment: they are farmers, consumers, scientists, economists, business people, politicians, and many others. There is a growing consciousness arising in every corner of the planet. Religions also have a crucial role to play in protecting the environment because they can provide the spiritual motivation that is needed in this area and because they offer compelling ideas about what the good life really is. As we said, a major part of preserving the environment has to do with adopting a new lifestyle, and that is what the religions are ideally suited to promote.
But we still have a long way to go. The challenge before us involves our whole civilization. We need to bring about a whole new way of being human, as individuals and as societies. And given our present understanding of what is truly the good life, that means we are face to face with a revolutionary challenge. The Earth finds itself at a historic impasse that is threatening the very life that inhabits it. As persons called to be the image and likeness of God, the Friend of life, we cannot fail.
This article is a modified version of an article by Patxi Álvarez SJ, translated by Joseph Owens SJ, that appeared in the 2015 Yearbook of the Society of Jesus. The modified version originally appeared in the Spring & Summer 2015 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Reconciling with creation: Ecology and a ‘culture of poverty.'” Fr Patxi Álvarez SJ is secretary of the Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat.