Sunday, September 13, 2015

Laudato Si: Sunday Reflection #8... Biodiversity? What's it worth?

I've always been something of a worry wart, so the issues that Pope Francis and friends are covering in the latest encyclical are nothing new to me. I've been fretting about them and feeling guilty about my participation in them for ages already. But as a friend of mine likes to say, guilt is only good for about ten seconds. Then what matters is what you do with it. What I'm doing with my guilt is allowing it to propel me into a simpler, non-consumeristic way of life, and sharing that life through these moodlings.

Moodling about Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home is definitely a challenge (especially when I have a whole tree full of ripe pears that need attention this week!), but I'm enjoying it because the Pope and his team of writers have covered the bases of our present environmental crisis really well for the most part. All the things I've been worrying about are in this "letter to the world," along with corresponding challenges to change our ways.

If you haven't given much thought to the importance and value of our planet's biodiversity, and even if you have, I'd suggest a quick read-through of paragraphs 32-42 of the document, which can be accessed by clicking here. I'm covering all ten paragraphs on biodiversity at once -- otherwise we hear all the problems and nothing of a solution.

Paragraph 32 begins by pointing out that the plundering of the earth's resources for the sake of the economy, commerce, and production means that we are losing species that could be important for our future on this earth. At this point in my July reading of Laudato Si, I wanted to scream, because it looked as though the Pope and his writer friends were adopting an anthropocentric (human-centred) way of looking at creation -- the "what's in it for me" way of thinking that assumes human beings are the pinnacle of creation and everything is ours to use, as it says in the lyrics of a few old church hymns.

But, whew! The first line of paragraph 33 says, "It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential "resources" to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves." Every little bit of creation reveals to us an "other" aspect of God, and in our lack of care for all creatures, we are losing what we can learn from them not only about God, but about our world and ourselves. And of course, our lives are not just about us. We often talk about human rights, but not enough of us focus on the fact that all creatures have a right to exist, even if they're living in a mosquito-infested swampy area that we'd like to drain and turn into a suburb. I often wonder if, in God's eyes, our human projects are as important as the creatures we displace...

Let's face it, we humans have been making a lot of adjustments and interventions when it comes to planetary ecosystems -- everything from creating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (those agrotoxins mentioned in paragraph 34) to building highways, subdivisions and hydroelectric dams (paragraph 35) to cutting down the great rainforests (paragraph 38) to replacing highly biodiverse virgin land with monocultures (paragraph 39) to overfishing our oceans (paragraph 40) to creating the fossil fuel emissions that are raising the temperatures all over the globe and damaging our coral reefs (paragraph 41).

But I have to back up and quote the entirety of paragraph 36 just because it's so well put:
Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental degradation.
In other words, there's just no way to place value on life in all its forms. Turning trees into commodities helps us to put a value on tree products, but do we ever think about the way trees add value to our lives? To the lives of other creatures? To entire ecosystems? Here's a completely anthropocentric look at the value of a tree:

The graphic doesn't take into account the ecosystems and creatures that are completely dependent on trees for food and shelter, or trees' beauty, or the micro climates they create and protect. Just as there's no calculating the worth of a human being, there's no real way of determining the monetary value of our forests, our oceans and all of creation, or the value of our projects vs. the value of nature. And we all know that the value of money is arbitrary at best, especially the way the global economy has been riding the roller coaster of late. The things our human projects create are of value to us now, but what are we losing for the future when we clear cut old-growth forests or pave over arable land or warm the planet with fossil fuel emissions to the point that our forests burn, our glaciers melt away and our rivers dry up?

I'm bouncing around, I know, but the end of paragraph 34 sums up these ten paragraphs about biodiversity pretty clearly:
"... a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves."
That summarizes the problem. The solution is found in the last paragraph of this section, and if Laudato Si was a song, paragraph 42 is the first time we hear its chorus. As I read through the entire document in July, it came through to me loud and clear, eight or nine times, the same idea with slightly different lyrics, and I'll number the instances of this chorus as we progress through the document. It goes something like this:
"Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another (paragraph 42)."
That's it in a nutshell, folks. We are all connected. The web of life excludes no creature, and what happens to the planet's honeybee populations, for example, impacts every other living being on earth somewhere down the line even though we might not notice for a while...

But it's one thing to read about cherishing all creatures with love and respect, and another thing entirely to do it... how do we go about cherishing all creatures?

This week, I offer you a challenge, a start toward a practical and mystical appreciation of creation: go outside and find a quiet place where nature can be observed, and spend a half hour there looking for signs of life. Take a blanket to sit on and make yourself comfortable. Sit very still and watch for birds, insects and other creatures. Notice the plants, trees, weeds -- everything around you -- and then let your mind become aware that, as you were created in the secret darkness of your mother, so all the living things around you had their own secret beginnings because God willed you all into existence at this same time, for a sacred reason unknown to you. Rest in that awareness for a while, and then say a few gentle words to the life around you about how you want it to flourish. Return to that experience throughout the week, and don't forget to thank God for the creation in which we are all immersed.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


(A prayer for our earth and all quotations from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home © Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Up next: #9... How do we really want to live?

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