This stunning image was sent to me by Kate (my guest blogger) in the week Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment was attracting a great deal of media coverage and comment.
The children in the photo are on a family visit to the magnificent Kimberley region of north-western Australia. They are at a spot on the coast of that region watching the sun set on the Indian Ocean.
The photo stirred me deeply, not only because of its literal content but also because of the symbolic meaning I saw in it. For me, a sunset represents the end of one day and the promise of a new one. It points to the future as much as to the past.
As I looked at the photo I took the glow of the sunset to represent the future of the four youngsters. This triggered in me (again) some uneasy speculation about the children’s future and the future of humanity and planet Earth more generally. I know that I am far from alone in my deep concern. Among the articles written about the Pope’s urging to heal the environment and combat climate change was one by Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt. The title of the article says it all really: I fear for my grandkids and humanity if we don’t tackle this (SMH, June 22, 2015).
Not surprisingly (and quite reasonably in my view), the encyclical identifies the roots of the problem as the rampant consumerism and quest for material growth in the rich nations, and the associated social and economic injustices that are depriving people in poorer nations of the basics of existence – food, water and a secure place to live.
But the encyclical takes the analysis of the problem a significant step further – into our mental emotional and moral relationship with the natural world. First, it puts paid to the ancient Biblical notion of human dominion over other creatures. Second it points to the increasing disconnect with nature in modern life arising from increased urbanisation.
I believe that this second point is the sleeper in the whole conversation about combatting climate change and restoring planetary health. It may even be the elephant in the room. We are hearing more and more about “decarbonising” the atmosphere – largely by transitioning from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewable alternatives. That is great and not to be contested, as decarbonising addresses a major source of accelerating global warming and climate change. But it only partially addresses a wider problem – that of the massive ecological damage being wrought by a host of other human activities. At the core of ecological health and productivity is biodiversity – the number of animals, plants and microorganisms on the planet. The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to the challenge of climate change. At least 40 per cent of the world’s economy and 80 per cent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources.
That is why declining biodiversity has to be a major concern, and correcting it, equally with arresting climate change, has to be a foremost goal of the 21st century. As we are all part of the problem, we all have to part of the solution.
We will do this best if we have our mental house in order as far as nature is concerned. There is overwhelming evidence that a love of nature is a powerful driver of action to save the planet. For that reason, the encyclical has to be commended for placing the growing disconnect between nature and ourselves squarely on the environmental and climate change agenda. Reversing that disconnect is a vital step in building an enduring, practical and vigorous commitment to planetary well-being.
I now see that “claiming our wildness” (restoring our kinship with nature) is much more than embracing nature in order to be happy, healthy and fulfilled at the personal level. It is also an investment in a sustainable future – not only for ourselves but also for our children and all the generations to follow.