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From Paradise lost to Paradise regained


In Churches September is dedicated to reflection and action to do with the environment. It is called the season of creation. This September, however, may evoke less the technicolour vision of Creation and the making of Paradise than the black and white world of Paradise Lost. The Invasion of Ukraine and the rending of international relationships subsequent to it have cut many people’s access to food and to energy for heating, cooling, manufacturing and travel. As a result the demand and price kind of fuel have risen, plans for decarbonising have weakened to aspirations, and the grip of large corporations on a polluting future has tightened.

Surveying this scene we can recognise two levels of complexity that are in tension with one another. The first level lies in the myriad relationships that constitute the universe in which the health and the future of the whole depend on the harmony of those relationships. If the capacity of the earth to sustain and nourish life is spoiled, the task of halting the process of degradation, and still more of restoring the world to a better harmony, will also be complex. Our ignorance can mean that what we do to heal one wounded part can easily damage other sets of relationships. 

The human response to climate change reveals another level of complexity. It lies in the different conditions of people throughout the world, ranging from the massively wealthy to people starving and relying on charity or on the fortunes of climate to survive. These differences are perpetuated and heightened by the relationships built into legislation, administration and governance, and so into legal, educational, economic and policing institutions on an international and local level.

They are also maintained by the isolation of people who are poor from those who are wealthy. The human relationships that shape behaviour are grounded in the senses of sight, and hearing, touch and smell. When relationships are conducted at a sanitised distance the urgency of addressing imbalance is not recognised. This is not a matter of bad faith but of failure to see what is salient. Where a partial and blind view of the world reigns, those with power and wealth will not feel the urgency of healing relationships, nor of working in a coordinated way to address climate change. Sectional self-interest will ensure inertia.


'As we pay attention to small things, we can recognise more clearly the character of our culture with its generous and reckless elements, its extravagance and its modesty, its destructive and its healing elements.'


In responding to climate change we need to recognise both these kinds of complexity. The levels of interdependence in the relationships that constitute the universe will surprise us. The complexity in personal and institutional relationships in the human world, however, pose a greater challenge. To address climate change demands concerned action that is built on people working together for the good of all. This in turn demands the recognition that the environment is not something different from us but part of us. Our personal good depends on the common good of our world.

What that vision entails is expressed in the metaphor of listening to the cry of creation. This is not like shutting out all other sounds in order to hear a single bird’s cry in a forest. The environment is around us, within us, above us, beneath us and beyond us. Its voice is the voice of the universe. When we listen to the cry of any part of the environment for which we have responsibility we are led also to attend to all the relationships that compose our environment and to their interaction with one another. Care for the environment will embrace all our relationships, ranging from those with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the things we buy, the way we travel, dress, speak, listen and work, to our relationships with ourselves, with family, friends, hospitals, people who are homeless and excluded, schools, workplaces, banks, politics and with our world. Care for the environment is not one single aspect of our lives. It embraces all aspects of our lives.

This vision of a world is which all is connected has been the distinctive gift of Pope Francis. In his Encyclical Laudato Si’ he insisted that action to protect the environment and to address climate change is as much an issue of justice as are actions to provide shelter and food for the poor.  The effects of neglecting and exploiting the environment fall most heavily on the poor. They also threaten the future of the planet and betray the trust by which we hold our world for our children and grandchildren.   

This vision of a universe in which all is interdependent is challenging but also reassuring. Many of us find it difficult to make care for the environment a personal priority because there seems to be such a large gap between anything we can do and the large demands on our world posed by global warming, desertification, rising sea levels, the tension between the need for power and the need to replace fossil fuels, and so on. But when we see the world as a network of relationships in which all, including our own lives, are interconnected, we can see how important and necessary it is to seek harmony between all the relationships that shape our own lives.

Our commitment to listen to creation begins with the small details of our daily life. We attend to the power we use, the ways we pray and to the packaging we accept. We also consider composting our food scraps for the growing of vegetables, and reflect on the ways we travel. This attention to small details is not an attempt to look good but an expression of respect. Like the disciplines of fasting and of prayer that have traditionally undergirded a life lived to God, they form the matrix of a life that takes the environment seriously. As we pay attention to small things, we can recognise more clearly the character of our culture with its generous and reckless elements, its extravagance and its modesty, its destructive and its healing elements.

Personal attention to our domestic life opens out into the larger relationships to people and to groups that are part of our lives. We begin to see the links between the neglect of the environment and the neglect of Indigenous Australians, people who seek protection and people who  are disadvantaged. We begin to long for integral justice.

In this integrated view of the world listening to the voice of creation in the world of nature is the starting point. We see there the preciousness and glory of tiny things like autumn leaves, sunsets, ants at work and the cool breeze at the end of a hot day. Such attention keeps before our eyes the threats to our environment and fuels our advocacy to preserve it. It is the first step to Paradise Regained.  





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Recycling bins. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Environment, Climate Change, Creation, Justice



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Existing comments

Rediscovering and prioritising our love for something as wondrous and awe-inspiring as the natural environment should not be difficult. Contending with competing interests though can make us lose our way. The determination of voters in the recent federal election to enable candidates with a greater focus on environmental issues to serve in parliament was heartening. The natural world is too important to us - we should not be tentative and, even with the difficulties involved, embrace our chance to regain our paradise.

Pam | 01 September 2022  

One might even argue, Pam, that the natural world is even more important than us.

Ginger Meggs | 04 September 2022