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Come 5 June, the world will once again be ‘celebrating’ ‘World Environment Day’! There will be the usual plethora of events, plenty of fanfare and with many competing for ‘photo-ops’ to show how much they are doing for the environment! There will be the ‘mad rush’ to plant saplings, for politicians to take to the broom, on streets which have already been sanitized and cleaned earlier and above all, a slew of speeches on the environment! Plenty of cosmetic activity and tokenism! This is in no way to denigrate the significance of the day. If there is one clear message of this annual observance, it is the powerful reminder that unless we show unflinching courage to address endemic issues and take on the powerful vested interests who are destroying the environment- we will not be doing enough to save our common home!

World Environment Day is the biggest international day for the environment. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and held annually since 1974, it has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach. It is ‘celebrated’ by millions of people across the world. The theme for World Environment Day 2022 is ‘Only One Earth’, and focuses on living sustainably in harmony with nature. This theme actually was the slogan for the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Fifty years down the road, this truth still holds – this planet is our only home.

With nature in an emergency mode, the #OnlyOneEarth campaign advocates for transformative environmental change on a global scale. The campaign shines a spotlight on climate actionnature action and pollution action while encouraging everyone, everywhere to live sustainably. While our individual consumption choices do make a difference, it is collective action that will create the transformative environmental change we need, to advance to a more sustainable and just Earth, where everyone can flourish. Thirty years ago in 1992, the Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development) in Rio de Janeiro sounded the alarm bells! But is anyone listening?

On May 24, 2015, Pope Francis gave to the world his path-breaking and incisive Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si ‘-On Care for Our Common Home.  It was the first major Papal teaching on a subject of critical importance namely ‘the environment’.  ‘Laudato Si ‘ meaning “Praise be to you” are the first words of the celebrated ‘ Canticle of the Creatures’ of St Francis of Assisi. The Encyclical which came months before the landmark 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, (COP 21) which was held in Paris, in fact set the tone for world leaders, to come to grips with real causes which were responsible for environmental degradation and which ultimately caused climatic changes with disastrous results everywhere. Those who take the encyclical seriously are aware of its significance in addressing key issues which destroy the environment today.

Pope Francis sets the tone of the Encyclical in his opening statement, which is “to address every person living on this planet”. He says “this sister (mother earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.  We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life

He states, in the first Chapter  that “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” ; he deals here with several ‘aspects of the present ecological crisis’:  pollution, waste and the throw-away culture; climate as a common good; displacement and migration caused by environmental degradation; access to safe drinking water as a basic and universal human right; loss of bio-diversity; decline in the quality of human life and break down of society; global inequality. He also denounces unequivocally the use of pesticides and the production of genetically engineered (GE) crops.

Pope Francis strongly notes that “the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production”.  In making such statements, in taking a stand for the ‘care of our common home’, Pope Francis has indeed created several enemies among the rich and powerful-who are bent on profiteering; those engaged in the extractive industry by plundering very precious and scarce natural resources. Pope Francis has been in consistent in his love for the poor and his commitment to the protection of the environment. Throughout the Encyclical, insists that we have been called to be stewards of the creation which God has entrusted to us.  He ensures that ‘Laudato Si’ focuses on human rights violations and injustices. He does not mince words when he says “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, committing oneself to the common good means to make choices in solidarity based on a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters”

What is paramount in the final analysis, says Pope Francis, is a radical commitment to ensure positive change, which is the need of the hour. For this he says, every section of society must play a definite role in a collaborative and concerted manner. The Pope does not spare the priests of the Catholic Church and he calls upon them to engage with the faithful on environmental issues. Further, he challenges international and national Governments and mechanisms saying, “the same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.  A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions

‘Laudato Si’ does make one uncomfortable! Therefore, there is always the danger that many would like to cosmeticize this powerful document: to tinker with bits and parts, to be selective and comfortable in its reading; to do non-threatening acts like growing trees, propagating alternative technologies, not using plastics, to indulge in acts of tokenism like environmental ‘education’, or project work. Whilst all these acts are surely good and could lead to something more sustainable, ‘Laudato Si’ is path-breaking, radical in nature, it shakes one out of one’s complacency by touching every single dimension of our human existence.  The Pope invites all to an ecological conversion, to change directions so that we can truly care for our common home; not to pay heed to Pope Francis’ prophetic words; to rubbish this timely and important message or to relegate it to mere tree-planting and other ‘feel-good’ acts would certainly be a great disservice not to the Pope, but to Planet Earth!

On 22 April 2020, Earth Day   Pope Francis praised the environmental movement, saying it was necessary for young people to “take to the streets to teach us what is obvious, that is, that there will be no future for us if we destroy the environment that sustains us. Recounting a Spanish proverb that God always forgives, man sometimes forgives but nature never forgives, Francis said, “If we have deteriorated the Earth, the response will be very ugly. We see these natural tragedies, which are the Earth’s response to our maltreatment. I think that if I ask the Lord now what he thinks about this, I don’t think he would say it is a very good thing. It is we who have ruined the work of God.” Saying the Earth was not an endless deposit of resources to exploit, he said, “We have sinned against the Earth, against our neighbour and, in the end, against the Creator.”

Even a cursory survey of the State of India’s environment will make one realise how serious the situation is. Climatic changes have played havoc on the lives and livelihood of millions of people – particularly the poor and the marginalised. Heat waves have scorched parts of North India and unseasonal rains and floods have destroyed other parts. Destruction has been wanton. Then there is nexus among vested interests: the builders lobby, the mining barons, the timber merchants, corrupt politicians, sections of the corporate sector who have no qualms of conscience. They are only interested in their profits, plundering natural resources at will, as we witness in Jharkhand, Orissa and elsewhere; destroying virgin lands rich in biodiversity as we witness in the Talegaon and Panaji areas of Goa (not to forget the Mollem episode). NOIDA has lost almost all its water bodies including its 200-odd ponds. In Bangalore, there were once 412 waterbodies; today the number has been reduced to a scandalous 12!  The Aravalli Mountain range in Gurugram harbours a rich variety of biodiversity which is being systematically being destroyed. The Niti Aayog’s 2018 report says that Indians might not have access to drinking water by 2030. The Coal sector is making a windfall of profits in India (Modi’s crony Adani is reaping mind boggling amounts) – so naturally, the Government of India has no intention of reducing the use of fossil fuels till 2070!

In the context and mandate of ‘Laudato Si’ and as Church in India, it is important to reflect and do some serious soul-searching and to respond urgently to some key questions, which include:

  • have we internalised the document, individually and collectively: made it our own?
  • are we proactive in communicating to others the radical content of this document?
  • do we take a stand on human rights violations and injustices (#158)?
  • are we truly concerned about the ‘jal, jungle aur jameen’ of the adivasis? do we take a stand on the way the Government and the powerful are trying to deprive them of the forest lands? do we truly identify them, accompany them in their struggles?
  • do we identify/collaborate with important movements like the National Alliance of Peoples Movement (NAPM) and/or with other environmental groups in the country?
  • do we have the courage to be visible and vocal in taking on the powerful vested interests: be it the Government or even some of our ‘benefactors’ who have no qualms of destroying the environment?

Not being able to say an unequivocal ‘yes’ to any of the above is a clear indicator that we have not (individually and collectively) mainstreamed the spirit, the mandate and the directives of ‘Laudato Si’; in short, we are betraying it! (Pope Francis talks about ‘ecological sins!)

On 10 January 2022, in an address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis said, “in this regard, in recent years we have seen a growing collective awareness of the urgent need to care for our common home, which is suffering from the constant and indiscriminate exploitation of its resources. Here I think especially of the Philippines, struck in these last weeks by a devastating typhoon, and of other nations in the Pacific, made vulnerable by the negative effects of climate change, which endanger the lives of their inhabitants, most of whom are dependent on agriculture, fishing and natural resources. Precisely this realization should impel the international community as a whole to discover and implement common solutions. None may consider themselves exempt from this effort, since all of us are involved and affected in equal measure. At the recent COP26 in Glasgow, several steps were made in the right direction, even though they were rather weak in light of the gravity of the problem to be faced. The road to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement is complex and appears to be long, while the time at our disposal is shorter and shorter. Much still remains to be done, and so 2022 will be another fundamental year for verifying to what extent and in what ways the decisions taken in Glasgow can and should be further consolidated in view of COP27, planned for Egypt next November”.

In ‘Laudato Si’, Pope Francis asks an uncomfortable question “what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” If we are serious about ensuring ‘Only One Earth’ then we need to muster the courage to answer this question and act responsibly now! Our future, the future of the earth: our common home: is in our hands!

*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)


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