Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 6, 2008
Alberta ecology statement was a pioneer in Church
But expert says it needs to be applied to oilsands
Over the years, Albertans have lived as if the abundant forests, minerals, oil, gas and coal deposits, fertile prairie topsoil and clean air and water extended without limit. . . . However, times have changed. . . . Our economic model of maximizing profit in an increasingly global market is unsustainable.
- excerpt from Celebrate Life:
Care for Creation, 1998
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
St. Francis of Assisi - the patron saint of ecology - would be proud of the Alberta bishops' call for a cleaner environment.
A decade ago, on Oct. 4, St. Francis' feast day, the bishops issued Celebrate Life: Care for Creation - a six-page statement calling on Albertans "to celebrate life by caring for God's creation and responding to the ecological crisis that is manifesting itself all around us in so many ways."
In the statement the bishops touched on everything from global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer to the damage caused by years of large-scale logging, industrial expansion and toxic waste disposal.
The statement did not lie dormant.
Bob McKeon, an Edmonton social justice activist and theologian, said the statement has been referred to and quoted extensively by bishops' conferences in Canada and the United States as well as environmental organizations since it was published 10 years ago.
Recent books on Christianity and ecology also contain quotes from the bishops' statement. One book - What Are they Saying about Environmental Theology - dedicates two pages to the document. On the Internet one can find references to the statement on the U.S. bishops' website as well as on websites of various European bishops.
"The statement is being used," noted McKeon. "The direction that the bishops outline (in the statement) has been picked up by others because their concern (for the environment) is shared."
The statement has been successful in creating awareness and concern for the environment in the community at large, McKeon said. "I think there is a wider public awareness among all kinds of people. There is a greater awareness in the Church. There is a greater awareness in the public. The environment is a key issue in the upcoming federal election."
McKeon said the bishops' statement could be republished today without changing a word. Why? "Because the issues it names and the concerns are still very much present."
John Hiemstra, a political science professor at The King's University College in Edmonton, is familiar with the statement. Two years ago he used it in one of his classes as an example of what the Church is doing on the ecological front. Students read it and discussed it.
"This is a very powerful statement, (especially) because it's right in the province where (my students) are studying," he said. "Their reaction (to the statement) was very positive. It's a very strong statement. It talks about the notion of the common good and the extension of the common good to the natural environment."
The principle of sufficiency, which the bishops address in their statement, "is probably the major weakness in our culture," Hiemstra said in an interview. "We have no sense of enough. It's an endless pursuit of more and more goods and services and I think that lies at the root of a lot of our problems."
Not much action
The bishops' statement is correct on every angle but Hiemstra won't speak about its impact "because I haven't seen much action based on it and I am involved in various (circles dealing with) economic justice and environmental justice."
"It's an endless pursuit of more and more goods and services."
A few years ago Hiemstra took a sabbatical to study the Alberta oilsands and their impact on the environment. "I remember at the beginning of my sabbatical reading this document again and thinking why have the churches been so silent on this issue of the oilsands?"
Hiemstra said bishops didn't address the oilsands in their statement because 10 years ago the issue wasn't as high profile as it is today. But he cannot understand why the issue hasn't become part of the debate among Church members.
"Think, for example, of the whole debate over whether we should build the Petro-Canada upgrader on excellent farmland in the Fort Saskatchewan area," he says.
"There are major stewardship questions and common good questions linked to that but you don't hear voices in the public debate coming out of this corner (except for the Social Justice Institute which had a session on the oilsands last year)."
Hiemstra, who spoke at the Social Justice Institute, is working on a number of papers on the oilsands from a Christian perspective. He says when one looks at the oilsands phenomena as it is being packaged, one must ask oneself what is the meaning of this, what does it say about who we are and what we think our role in creation is?
Myth of perpetual progress
"As Christians we need a new framework for approaching and thinking about large, globalized phenomena like the oilsands," he says, noting that the bishops' statement does provide such a framework.
In a 2005 paper on the oilsands Hiemstra wrote that the myth of perpetual progress in Alberta should be exposed for what it is. "The province is growing wealthy, but there are also growing deficits - environmental degradation, poverty, the questionable shifting of fiscal burdens, and even a decline in democratic participation."
Asked how he would deal with these deficits, Hiemstra said Alberta should simply slow down oilsands development until it can address its impact on people and the environment.
(The Alberta bishops' statement on the environment is available on the Internet at www.wcr.ab.ca/bishops/alberta/1998/albertabishops-ecology100598.shtml.)