World Environment Day is celebrated on 5 June every year, and is the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of our environment. This year the theme of World Environment Day 2020 is “Celebrate Biodiversity“. “With 1 million species facing extinction, there has never been a more important time to focus on biodiversity.”
Time for nature
The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature. For instance, each year, marine plants produce more than a half of our atmosphere’s oxygen, and a mature tree cleans our air, absorbing 22 kilos of carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen in exchange. Despite all the benefits that our nature give us, we still mistreat it.That is why we need to work on that. That is why we need this Observance.
World Environment Day is the most renowned day for environmental action. Since 1974, it has been celebrated every year on 5 June: engaging governments, businesses, celebrities and citizens to focus their efforts on a pressing environmental issue.
In 2020, the theme is biodiversity – a concern that is both urgent and existential. Recent events, from bushfires in Brazil, the United States, and Australia to locust infestations across East Africa – and now, a global disease pandemic – demonstrate the interdependence of humans and the webs of life, in which they exist.
Biodiversity and its connection to humans
Biodiversity is the foundation that supports all life on land and below water. It affects every aspect of human health, providing clean air and water, nutritious foods, scientific understanding and medicine sources, natural disease resistance, and climate change mitigation. Changing, or removing one element of this web affects the entire life system and can produce negative consequences.
Human actions, including deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, intensified agriculture, and acceleration of climate change, have pushed nature beyond its limit. It would take 1.6 Earths to meet the demands that humans make of nature each year. If we continue on this path, biodiversity loss will have severe implications for humanity, including the collapse of food and health systems.
The emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the fact that, when we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life. Today, it is estimated that, globally, about one billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from diseases caused by coronaviruses; and about 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmitted to people by animals.
Nature is sending us a message.
Religion and Time for Nature
In Asian cultures with their rich pools of wisdom, love of and harmony with nature is central. The major Asian traditions insist that the increasing threat of natural hazards shows that nature is not in harmony. We see this in Taoism, for ‘humanity follows the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows the Tao and the Tao follows what is natural’. In working to achieve this harmony, human beings should cultivate the way of no-action and let nature be itself. If the pursuit of development and profit runs counter to the harmony and balance of nature, people should restrain and curb themselves. Insatiable human desire will lead to the over-exploitation of natural resources. To be too successful is to be on the road to defeat.
The rich 2,500 year-old Confucian tradition which is re-emerging in new ways in contemporary Chinese thinking sees the solution to the world’s environmental problems in terms of uniting the trinity of heaven, earth and humanity in an alternative worldview. For example, China through its five-year plans is moving away from its huge dependence on coal which has fuelled 70 per cent of its past energy needs to a growing commitment to renewable resources. Modern Confucians have in 2013 produced a Confucian Statement on the Environment. It proposes the self-cultivation of virtue, responsibility and a caring attitude in every person. “Nature is an unending process of transformation rather than a static presence, and as such is a source of inspiration by which we understand the dynamism of Heaven. As the first hexagram in the Book of Change symbolizes, Heaven’s vitality and creativity are without ends and we humans must emulate its ceaseless vitality and creativity”.
According to Buddhism, changeability and impermanence are central features of nature and of living – nothing is static. According to the Agganna Sutta which contains the Buddha’s discourses to two Brahmin monks, the world passes through alternating cycles of evolution and dissolution, each of which lasts for a long period of time. Hence, suffering is at the very centre of Buddhist thinking with its Four Truths about Suffering, but Buddhism believes that, while change is inherent in nature, humanity’s moral decline accelerates the change process and results in changes that are adverse to human well-being and happiness according to the five sets of precepts: physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws, moral laws and causal laws. The One Earth Sangha led the effort in the lead-up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference to issue The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.
The Buddhist leaders declared the climate change crisis to be ‘the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced’, adding that ‘human activity (is) triggering environmental breakdown on a planetary scale’. As the root problem, ‘the compulsion to consume is an expression of craving, the very thing the Buddha pinpointed as the root cause of suffering. They thus emphasized the moral dimensions to reversing climate change.
Hinduism is a religion which is very near to nature, asking its followers to see the divine in every object in the universe. The Mahabharata (109, 10) says, “Dharma exists for the welfare of all beings. Hence, that by which the welfare of all living beings is sustained, that for sure is dharma”. At the 2009 Melbourne Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was the occasion for a special gathering of global Hindu leaders, the Hindu Melbourne Declaration proclaimed, “The Earth is my mother, and I am her child”, adding that “a radical change in our relationship with nature is no longer an option … We cannot destroy nature without destroying ourselves”. In 2015 in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Conference, the second Global Hindu Declaration on Climate Change was issued. It called for meaningful action to slow and prevent climate change that is scientifically credible and historically fair in the transition to 100 per cent clean energy.
The Qu’ran states that “Mischief (fassad) has appeared in land and sea because of the deeds that the hands of men have earned, that God may give them a taste of some of their deeds in order that they may turn back (from evil)” (Qu’ran 30, 41). Whilst the World Muslim Congress has not made any formal statement, in 2015 a conference in Turkey led to the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change which led to the formation of the Global Muslim Climate Network.
The declaration crafted by five leading Islamic scholars called on the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to play an active role in combatting climate change pointing to the example of the Prophet (pbuh) who banned the felling of trees in the desert and established protected areas for the conservation of plants and wildlife. The Islamic leaders pointed to the scientific consensus to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and the need to set clear targets and monitoring systems. They called upon well-off nations and oil-producing states to phase out their emissions by 2050 and to have a zero emissions strategy. It also called on the business sectors to reduce their carbon footprints by committing to 100 per cent renewable energy sources. As well, there have emerged calls for a ‘green jihad’, and the concept of zohd or degrowth, that is, living lightly on earth in a green lifestyle.
Within Judaism and Christianity, there has always been a reverence for creation beginning with the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, the first Book of the Hebrew Bible. Christian Orthodoxy began its initiatives that date back to the 1970s and the 1980s, and September 1st was designated as a pan-Orthodox day to offer prayers for the preservation of the natural creation. Since his election in 1991, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has become known as the Green Patriarch, defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility. In 1997, a symposium on the Black Sea was held and subsequent symposia have focussed on the Danube, the Adriatic Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Amazon Basin, the Arctic Circle and the Mississippi River. The Patriarch has drawn attention to the word ‘ecology’ which is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘home’ or ‘dwelling’. “The world is indeed our home. Yet it is also the home of everybody, just as it is the home of every animal creature and of every form of life created by God. It is a sign of arrogance to presume that we human beings alone inhabit this world. Moreover, it is a sign of arrogance to imagine that only the present generation enjoy its resources”.
In his 2015 Papal Letter or Encyclical, Laudato Si: Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis insists the world must ‘hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’. He severely criticizes both consumerism with its throw-away culture and irresponsible development because he believes humans no longer see God as the creator of time and space and the universe. The Pope laments environmental degradation and global warming, calling for ‘swift and unified global action’. But he admitted that it would not be easy to achieve consensus. He condemned the use of highly polluting fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. He blames apathy, the reckless pursuit of profit, excessive faith in technology and political short-sightedness. In combatting the climate crisis, the developed nations are morally obligated to assist the developing nations. The recent Amazonian Synod in October 2019 in Rome condemned the destruction of the Amazon’s rain forests.
In 2015, 425 US rabbis signed a Rabbinic Letter in the Climate Crisis. They called for a new sense of eco-social justice that includes the healing of our planet. “For about 200 years, the most powerful institutions and culture of the human species have refused to let the Earth or human earthlings have time of space for rest”. In their view, the Earth is overworked, “precisely what our Torah teaches we must not do”. They concluded that “our ancient earthy wisdom taught that social justice, sustainable abundance, a healthy Earth and spiritual fulfilment are inseparable.
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