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Rational climate change response requires moral focus


Ice planetDo we treat the environment as a public good in which we all share? Does our pattern of resource use allow others to achieve adequate health and wellbeing? Does it pressure others, particularly the poor, to adopt environmentally damaging economic practices?

These questions are derived from the work of US Jesuit Fr John Coleman, who has proposed ten commandments for environmentally responsible living.

We inhabit a culture where scientists propose previously unthinkable outcomes that can now be achieved. These include modifying food, changing the direction of river flows, and adjusting the genetic makeup of human beings. The assumption is that if it can be done, it should be done.

In our world, such rationality has achieved a great deal. Energy resources have been harnessed, and labour saving devices have been developed. We have vaccines, which enable us to use nature against itself to preserve life. The list is indefinite, but frightening.

I'm not proposing the abandonment of reason. I’m simply suggesting that its use should be clearly focused, in a way in which the hippocratic oath, for example, might challenge doctors in ambiguous circumstances.

The exercise of rationality occurs in a universe where human relationships, and values, provide the context of its application. Disastrous, albeit unintended, consequences are a distinct possibility.

The only sustainable way forward is to put rational activity firmly in the context of moral values.

Ethical reflection in general, and Catholic social teaching in particular, is moving rapidly to find ways of harnessing ethical reflection to aid human flourishing and the enhancement of our environment. This is our hope for the survival of ecological entities such as the Murray-Darling River system.

Many are well aware of the Catholic Church’s advocacy of the Common Good as the object and desired outcome of social economic and political life. This was reinforced during the Pontificate of John Paul II with an emphasis on human solidarity as a way of proceeding in attempts to take care of the planet.

Christian believers are asked to foster the balanced preservation of the world as a healthy growing organism. The proper response of grateful receivers of God’s gifts is to care for the gifts. This is called stewardship, and it recognises that we are not passive subjects of the devastation being wrought by climate change. We have the capacity to make a difference.

Jesuit Lenten Seminars Climate Change MP3 downloads

Michael KellyMichael Kelly SJ oversees Eureka Street and other communications works on behalf of the Australian Jesuit Provincial. As Executive Director of Church Resources, he has just launched a program to assist church and non-profit organisations to respond to the challenge of living and working in an environmentally responsible manner. This guest editorial is extracted from his address at last week's Jesuit Lenten Seminars.
Flickr image by Le Kizz.



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Existing comments

Thanks for a good essay. It seems to me that the people we (i.e. those many who think like Fr Kelly - myself, for one) have to convince are Australia's professional economists- people like Ken Henry, Ross Garnaut, Senator Wong .... there must be some Christian economists? somehow the tyranny of the market forces way of thinking about human society paralyses thought about social morality and the common good, e.g. the importance of maintaining healthy, even viable, human communities along the murray-darling system? how can ecological moralists and market economists find a common lmnguage to discuss these things? there used to be a thing called welfare economics, people used to talk about externalities and society compensating for market imperfections, but one does not hear that sort of language much anymore. maybe we need a conference of experts on both sides on this issue to talk it through together ? at the moment there seem to me to be two separate public conversations that do not meet.

tonykevin | 10 March 2008  

The churches in general have very little to say about ethical issues related to the environment. Mostly they believe that the Earth belongs to them as a dispensible resource and ignore that it is God's handiwork and it is one of His most wonderful expressions. We should be stewards of the planet, not just consumers! No wonder the environmental movement is almost "spiritual" in nature - the established churches fail to acknowledge the greatness of God's Creation, and focus on Heaven!

concerned | 10 March 2008  

Well spoken! I even wonder if this is what is referred to in the Bible as, the next time the world is destroyed, it'll be through fire!

Nicole Pryor | 14 March 2008  

The reality of the situation is that, despite the attractive arguments Fr Kelly gives, nothing will be done unless it is actively sponsored by Government.

Our current means of electing governments is, in effect, via media influence. Whilst our media is concerned with selling to the mass market using sensation and distortion to provide more sensation, we can expect little more than we now have.

To be effective, our system of government requires a forward thinking Government, an active opposition and an investigative media. We are a little short in all three.

Father Kelly has a positive and undeniably correct view but he requires “a few good men” to act in the way he proposes. At the moment there seems little likelihood that these will come forward and I wonder if the Church might see an opportunity to take a more active role in the political debate for the reasons Fr Kelly gives.

Are there those present among the organisations affiliated with the Church who have provided leadership in the past - and who can do it again?

Noel Herbst | 14 March 2008  

Great article.

maureen percy, | 11 August 2008