BLESSED John Paul II is deeply revered in the Philippines.
Unknown to many Filipinos, some of the things he taught urgently apply to us today as we witness the tragedy of frighteningly more severe typhoons, as PAG-ASA warns us, floods that refuse to abate or the imminent specter of harsher and longer droughts ultimately related to climate change which is itself traceable to environmental degradation. The abnormal will be the norm, as a local government official sadly remarked in an interview. All because we disobey the most basic one.
In his January 1, 1990 message for the World Day of Peace entitled Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation Pope John Paul II once described a situation that rings familiar: “In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty [italics in the text]” (PWGCPWAC, no. 1).
I can’t agree more. Peace is certainly compromised and even diminished, if not entirely lost among victims of calamities traceable to the abuse of the environment. It strikes me, however, that Blessed John Paul II was not content in simply citing a destructive fact. He also pointed to human factors that are at play in such a situation, realities that are also at the root of the problem: “collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”. I find this striking because such a focus is what we often miss as we grapple with the ecological crisis in our midst. After a tragedy we usually start playing the blame game. We ask: Who are responsible for the evil we suffer? We do everything we can to identify its human causes.
Naturally the exercise is helpful and even necessary to a degree. But the late pope even now is reminding us that there are deeper causes, still human, but more sinister because they lie inside humans. They influence human thinking, decisions, behavior and lifestyle. Whether we like it or not, they are as real as the names of criminal individuals or groups we wish uncovered.
“Collective selfishness” truly explains our behavior when we choose money or profit in exchange for our mountains, lands or bodies of water being ravaged by deforestation, irresponsible mining (we need to ask when has mining been responsible in our country), tons of garbage or runaway pollution.
When we mind only our convenience and throw our waste anywhere, when we see only revenue coming in from the mining or logging industries and turn a blind eye on the devastation they generate on the patrimony of the future generations, do we hear the Holy Father’s warning of our wanton “disregard for others”?
When we try to justify the abusive exploitation of our natural resources by the jobs it generates or the economic development it intends to achieve, don’t we close our ears to the Holy Father’s exhortation that we avoid “dishonesty”?
At the bottom of the ecological crisis are not simply the names of failed officials or government agencies. More fundamentally we face its moral roots.
Earlier, the Philippine Bishops in their January 29, 1988 Pastoral Letter entitled What Is Happening To Our Beautiful Land assessed our situation then with brutal honesty: “To put it simply, our country is in peril. All the living systems on land and in the seas around us are being ruthlessly exploited. The damage to date is extensive and, sad to say, it is often irreversible. One does not need to be an expert to see what is happening and to be profoundly troubled by it.”
Then the document brings out in greater detail indicators of the catastrophe: “Within a few short years brown, eroded hills have replaced luxuriant forests in many parts of the country (a situation already becoming critical in a number of our towns and barangays in Eastern Samar). We see dried up river beds where, not so long ago, streams flowed throughout the year (ours are river beds becoming polluted by toxic waste from unregulated mining ventures or becoming depleted by excessive quarrying and improper disposal of human-generated waste). Farmers tell us that, because of erosion and chemical poisoning, the yield from the croplands has fallen substantially. Fishermen and experts on marine life have a similar message. Their fish catches are shrinking in the wake of the extensive destruction of coral reefs and mangrove forests. The picture which is emerging in every province of the country is clear and bleak.”
One wonders if there had been any progress at all since this 1988 statement. Even then the Bishops already warned us of the injustice waiting to happen even on a people yet unborn: “The attack on the natural world which benefits very few Filipinos is rapidly whittling away at the very base of our living world and endangering its fruitfulness for future generations.”
It is clear that the alarming abuse of our environment reveals its moral roots. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines morality as the state or condition of our human acts being ‘good’, that is when they lead us to our “last end”, namely God himself, or ‘bad’ when they lead us away from him (CCC 1749-1761). If I give you food out of compassion when you are hungry and unable to provide food for yourself, I do a very moral act. It is precisely moral because it brings me to God or closer to him. On the other hand, if I curse or stab you out of hatred for you or the beliefs you espouse, I do an immoral act and it is precisely immoral because it leads me away from God who is my ultimate end and whose nature is Love, the opposite of hatred or selfishness. Now let’s turn to the issue on hand. Human attitudes, decisions and acts leading to environmental abuse are outlined by Pope John Paul II as: “collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”. Of course there are other names and more specific roots behind environmental abuse, such as “greed” or the “insatiable desire for profit” and the inordinate drive for “power”.
Karl Marx once uttered an observation Marxists consider a maxim: “The material base determines the lifestyle”. In other words, the extent of my wealth (material base) could measure the kind of behavior I may exhibit (lifestyle). If I were wealthy, that would place within my reach the best clothes or food denied to others but, with it, also a capacity to an exploitative lifestyle. Wealth, moreover, will give me power that I could use to abuse people and even the earthly goods at my disposal. When I mindlessly exploit the environment, for example, I might say I am doing it to feed my family or the families of people I employ (deception and dishonesty) when I actually do so for the considerable profit I stand to gain (insatiable drive for wealth), I doubtless do a grossly immoral act. The reason is simple. My actions do not bring me any closer to God but to things that I could use as substitutes for God. Moreover, my action of environmental abuse cannot be moral because I do it in total disregard of the welfare of others, including that of the future generations. God is love and when my behavior is not motivated by love, it cannot lead me to him. As John the evangelist reminds us, “He who does not love does not know God for God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).
What should be happening to our beautiful land?
Our own CONVERSION as individuals and as a nation.