“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct because of human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
When a species becomes extinct, a point of no return is crossed for our world. At such times, no amount of goodwill and no amount of scientific creativity can bring a species back to its original place in Creation. It is gone forever, part of the web of life that has irreversibly unravelled.
The ongoing loss of Earth’s biodiversity is a tragedy. Increasingly, the world will be coping with a self-imposed and permanent poverty that will be experienced by all future generations.
The rescheduled United Nations-sponsored Convention on Biodiversity will be held in Kunming, China, on 11-24 October this year. International delegates will shape policy that invites governments to protect the essential balances of the natural world, even when we still do not fully understand the real consequences of the losses that have already taken place.
The choice of Kunming in China’s southwestern region as a location for the convention is interesting. The city is located almost 2,000 metres above sea level, where it feels like spring all year round. It is the capital city of the mountainous Yunnan province, home to many of China’s ethnic groups, some of these extending across to neighbouring Myanmar.
While the Church in China is gradually becoming aware of the importance of ecological issues, the publication of Laudato Si’ in 2015 provided a unique opportunity to encourage a deeper engagement with these issues. A number of recent ecological workshops held for Chinese sisters and others without formal connections with the Church have encouraged me to believe that much more can be done to encourage people to deepen their appreciation of the natural world and to pose questions that lead to knowing the Creator in a new way. Combining the reading of Laudato Si’, scientific input, participants’ artistic expression, and the use of hand lenses and microscopes to see the deeper beauty of flowers and insects, hearts and minds were opened to an experience of awe at the creativity that God has blessed us with in the natural world.
Linking an appreciation of nature with a deeper understanding of the mysterious ways of the Creator is well supported by traditional Chinese art. It often represents the huge scale of the natural world with just two colours. People are a small part of artistic scenes, carrying a message of wisdom in the reminder that we should approach the natural world with humility rather than seeking to impose ourselves on it with domineering intentions.
A further encouragement to the Church in China to engage with issues of ecological concern is found in the missionary contribution of two people in this vast country over the past 100 years, namely Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. In 1923 Teilhard de Chardin S.J. arrived in China just a few years after the harrowing experience of being a stretcher bearer at the frontlines of World War I. He lived in China for 23 years and was an early promoter of palaeontology, using his experience to encourage those who are now seen as the pioneers of the discipline in China. Photographs of him on the walls of a museum in Shanxi province and a museum in Beijing as well as the display of many of his fossils at the natural history museum in Tianjin are testament to how the Church can contribute to a deeper understanding of the natural world in China. Interestingly, Teilhard is the only modern theologian mentioned in Laudato Si’. Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest and theologian whose abundant writings raised an urgent plea for humanity to reconsider its relationship with the natural world, arrived in China in 1948. Although he lived here for less than one year, China remained important to him throughout his long life. He appreciated its ancient culture and religious traditions, highlighting for him the importance of how cultural and religious authenticity can guide the shaping of a people’s relationship with their surroundings.
The upcoming Convention on Biodiversity in Kunming is an opportunity for international governments to make commitments on biodiversity conservation. It is a necessary step in the efforts to halt species loss. If progress is made at this convention, it needs to be accompanied by commitments that are put into practice at local level throughout the world.
Each area of our planet has ecological uniqueness. Pope Francis says, “the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning” (LS 84). Local ecological features and the stories that have shaped the hearts and minds of people can become the wellsprings needed to ensure that a viable future emerges for our planet. An appropriate long-term response is likely to be one that affirms the creativity of people in each local area throughout the world. An affirmation that encourages respect for the natural world in each community’s area is surely the best way forward in a new way of life that sees the local and the global depending upon each other. If this were to happen it would reflect in some way the concerns of the Creator whose hopes are surely inclusive of the health of this fragile planet both now and scores of generations into the future.
The European Christian Environmental Network is holding an Assembly between 31st May-1st June 2021 under the theme: ‘Reconciled with creation: a call for urgent action on climate and biodiversity.’ The programme includes will focus churches’ action in promoting a more sustainable future. The Assembly will offer an opportunity to highlight important aspects of ecological crises and climate challenge from a Christian perspective. It will also underline that care for creation is an intrinsic part of Christian faith and, as such, offers an opportunity for a broad ecumenical cooperation. Find out more here.