July 17, 2005
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 466-487


Hunting and gathering societies were likely the societies that walked most lightly upon the earth. People got their food by gathering the produce of the trees and fields and flowers and by killing animals as they needed them to eat.

It would not have been an easy life, especially during winters when "nature" was under a metre of snow and animals were down in numbers. Still, there would have been a harmony between humanity and nature that could not exist once the till broke the soil.

The Bible seems to suggest that the root of the first murder was that Cain tilled the soil while Abel was a keeper of sheep. Cain had already violated the natural harmony before he slew Abel.

MORAL INTERVENTION

But we should not idealize the hunting and gathering society too much. It is certainly not a viable option for the world today. More importantly, our faith sees it as morally acceptable for humanity to intervene in nature.

"Nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone," says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. "Rather, it is a gift offered by the Creator to the human community, entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women" (n. 473).

– Design Pics photo

In the previous article in this series, I wrote about how people's attitudes and expectations will have to change before we can overcome the environmental crisis that faces the world today. The article ended by saying that attitude and lifestyle changes alone will not be enough to save the planet. Societal changes are needed as well.

The Compendium implies that we need a new approach to the economy. "An economy respectful of the environment will not have the maximization of profits as its only objective. . . . The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces" (n. 470).

While changes in laws and treaties are not enough to bring a new relationship with the environment - lifestyle changes are needed too – "juridical" changes must be made in order to bring about environmental progress.

People have a "right to a safe and healthy natural environment" (n. 468). That right can only be exercised if governments enact and enforce laws that will protect the environment. This is true not only on local, provincial and national levels, but also on the international level.

Climate change, in particular, is one threat that can only be confronted through international cooperation.

The Kyoto Accord is the best the world has been able to do so far to get nations to pledge to reduce their creation of greenhouse gases.

The Kyoto Accord is far from a perfect document. But because of that accord, nations have made commitments and set targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Doing so has threatened vested interests, even while some petroleum companies are making serious efforts to reduce their carbon emissions.

The Canadian government is considering pulling out of Kyoto and joining a grouping that includes China, India, South Korea, Australia and the U.S. This group rejects all mandatory targets or commitments. Its members will rely on voluntary efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.

These nations are committed to an old-style growth-at-all-costs approach to developing their economies. In their view, protecting the environment is nice, but not a priority that should hamstring the maximization of profits.

THE BIG SMOKE

Between 1990 and 2004, India increased its carbon emissions by 88 per cent and China by 67 per cent. China is now the world's second largest emitter of carbon (behind the United States) and it is still ramping up its economy.

Even the U.S. – which is supposedly de-industrializing - increased its carbon emissions by 19 per cent during this period.

Changing individual lifestyles and attitudes is a morally worthy exercise but it has virtually no effect on total carbon emissions when the world's largest carbon-producing nations do not intend to impose restrictions that would cut those emissions.

Environmental protection, says the Compendium, "is a responsibility present generations have towards those of the future, a responsibility that also concerns individual states and the international community" (n. 467). The Canadian and other governments that should be most involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions are opting out of this responsibility.

The world does not need to become a global hunting and gathering society to be environmentally responsible. But it does need to set and enforce targets for reducing greenhouse gases in order to leave a habitable planet for future generations. The reluctance of Canada and other major carbon-producing nations to do that is one of the great scandals of our time.