Is it our job to ‘save the planet’?

John D Anderson on the call to save the planet, and what the phrase tells us about ourselves and our place in the world.

The planet is safe. Humankind will not destroy it. What is at risk is biodiversity, human life as we know it, and what the Qur’an enjoins us to remember:  ‘the balance’ which God has established on earth.

The placards beloved of campaigners – ‘Save our planet’ or ‘There is no planet B’ – enshrine the hubris which is driving our rush to disaster. These slogans imply that the planet is our own, not the Creator’s: we are shrilly told to save the planet because we need it to survive.  We humans can do this. No – we think we have an environmental crisis, but we are wrong.  The environment has a human crisis. We are but one thread in the delicate tapestry of created life. The humility to which Pope Francis calls us in our ‘common home’ is essential. Einstein said that human beings see themselves as “separated from the rest… This delusion can be a kind of prison… our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in all its beauty.”

Our God is still too small. Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas saw God as the prime mover. We need to recover this deep concept. God is the pulsating heart of all things. As Hildegarde of Bingen wrote in the 12th century, “All of creation God gives humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.” Lovelock had the vision that “Gaia has rainforest lungs, riverine arteries, soil for skin… a delicate aura of ozone and an unfathomable wisdom”. We mightily diminish God if we reduce our created earth to the plaything of humanity and a mine of resources to make ourselves comfortable. How can we be so myopic when we know of the myriad universes beyond our own, all of which are part of creation? Can we really believe that all this is for the benefit of humanity to explore and exploit, no matter what the cost?

The present rash of space tourism initiatives exemplifies this. We fly in space because we can – if we’re rich enough. We should instead be putting our talents and wealth to work conserving and balancing life as we know it here on earth. We can bring to an end the age of incineration of fossil fuels and usher in the age of a benign revolution – of electricity-generating turbines, whether terrestrial or seaborne. In the balanced earth God made for us, coal or oil and gas were buried beneath the ground so that their carbon dioxide was safely sequestered. In our jocund discovery that we could get rich quick, we have torn these precious resources from the bosom of the planet, transformed them into ‘fuels’ and burnt them. For over two hundred years, coal and oil companies have dominated our over-advanced economies.  They paid the earth nothing for tearing out its bowels, but greatly enriched the putative ‘owners’ of the earth’s surface who were allowed to ‘possess’ what was under the ground as well. The recompense was in fact retribution:  widening inequalities and gratuitous overheating of the atmosphere with disastrous results. Now, as Greta Thunberg has loudly told us, “our house is on fire.”  Benyus wrote, “A species cannot occupy a niche that appropriates all resources. After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils”. Who will be the fossils now?

Wise men and women have for centuries been reminding us of the need to focus on saving ourselves, not the planet; ‘saving ourselves’ essentially means rejoicing in enough, as Jesus taught, not always demanding more.  EF Schumacher wrote, “Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting that if he ever won the battle, he would be on the losing side”.  Henri Matisse told us that “when we speak of nature, we forget that we ourselves are part of nature”. Our basic mistake is to pretend that we can control nature, we are superior to it, and the planet is ours. Confronted with the unbalancing of our delicate earth amidst the miracle of galaxies of planets and stars swinging in space, when will humans understand their true place on earth, not as a swashbuckling dominator, but, as Berry puts it, a part of the ‘communion’ of creation?

“All are but part of one stupendous whole, whose body nature is and God the soul” – Alexander Pope.

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