Is Sustainable Development Possible in our Contemporary World? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

 The 19th session of the UN Commission on Sustainably Development open on May 2, 2011 and will continue until May 13th 2011.The word “sustainability” became part of the vocabulary of many missionaries and development workers in the wake of the publication of deliberations of the UN Commission on Environment and Development in a book called “Our Common Future.”  The book is often called the Brundtland Report after the name of the Chair of the Committee, Gro Harlem Brundtland who was Prime Minister of 1990 to 1996. In a nutshell, Sustainable Development means meeting the needs of this generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Commission on Sustainable Development emerged from Agenda 21, the programme for action for sustainable development adopted in June 1992 by the United Nations Conference in June 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also known as the “Rio Earth Summit.” Agenda 21 called for the creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) to ensure on the effective follow-up of the UNCED. The CSD has 53 member states.

The CSD held its first substantive session in June 1993 and has convened every year since then at the UN Headquarters in New York.  In the five years after 1993, the CSD systematically reviewed the implementation of all chapters of the Agenda 21.

One of the most significant meetings of the CSD took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2002.

The 19th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-19) was opened by H.E. Mr. Lászlo Borbély, The Minister for Environment and Forests of Romania.

Here in Washington D.C. there is an institution called. WorldWatch  It researches, analyses and publishes environmental and development data from across the globe from an interdisciplinary perspective.  In its State of the World Report 2010, sixty renowned researchers and practitioners describe how we must harness the world’s leading institutions to reorient cultures towards sustainability. This would include education, the media, business, governments, traditions, and social movements to reorient cultures toward sustainability.   In the preface of the report, Christopher Flavin the President of WorldWatch Institute, wrote about “the Great Collision” between a finite planet and the seemingly infinite demands of human society. More than 6.8 billion human beings are now demanding ever greater quantities of material resources, decimating the world’s richest ecosystems, and dumping billion of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere each year.”

The really worrying statistic is that “despite a 30 percent increase in resource efficiency, global resource use has expanded 50 percent over the past three decades.”[1] The growth in consumption is staggering.  It includes a six-fold increase between 1960 and 2008, that is from $4.9 trillion to $30.5 trillion.  Even with the population growth, per capita consumption has tripled, helped by sophisticated advertising by transnational corporations. Increased consumption means consuming more of the earth’s resources. This means using more fossil fuel which involves opening coal mines and prospecting for more oil. Rapid increases in consumer spending involves opening more mines, building more factories roads, railways and shopping outlets. Increased consumption leads to more waste. It also means expanding agriculture often into crucial ecosystems such as the Amazon and the tropical forests South East Asia. The forests are burned to provide land for palm and soya plantations, thereby destroying valuable biodiversity.  Essential habitats are being systematically destroyed which is an immense impoverishment for the biosphere and yet, so few seem to notice because the culture of consumerism has trained them to keep their eyes fixated on growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 130.000 km2     of tropical rainforest are cleared each year and since the 1960s, one third of the world’s farmland has been abandoned because the land has been exhausted as a result of overexploitation and degradation of the soil.[2]

According to Flavin, from a justice perspective the main responsibility for the current ecological devastation must be placed at the foot of rich nations.[3]

Since humankind appeared on the planet 2 million years ago, people have depended on other creatures for their food, clothing and shelter. As civilizations developed two thousand years ago, levels of consumption continued to increase. The exponential rate of consumption which emerged in the 20th century, was driven by advertising, planned obsolescence, the search for economic growth and the enormous  dependence on non-renewable source of energy.


Aggressive advertising is probably the most important factor in spreading the culture of consumerism. In 2008, global advertising reached $643 billion. The media in its various forms promotes consumerism. The author Duane Elgin was correct when he wrote that “to control a society you don’t need to control its  courts, you don’t need to control its armies, all you need to do is control its stories. And it is television and Madison Avenue that is telling us most of the stories most of the time to most of the people.”[4]  The link between Madison Avenue and advertising began in the early 1920s when many advertising companies were situated on that street. In 1957, Vance Packard’s book, Hidden Persuaders explored how advertising agencies use the insights of psychological research and depth psychology to manipulate the expectations of the public in an effort to get them to buy more products [5] He accused the industry of using subliminal messages in order to induce the consumer to buy more goods. Even though the book sold over one million copies, the power of advertising corporations grew and grew in the U.S and later in Europe and right across the world.

In the U.S., Flavin claims that an individual hears hundreds of advertisements every day and of course, they have been hearing these since the day they were born.  Consumerism and consequent unsustainable lifestyles were confined to Europe, the US and Australia until a few decades ago. Today, consumerism has taken a hold right around the world, and is practiced by millions of people in Brazil, India, China and other emerging industrial economies. In the past decade  advertising has grown by 20% per annum in emerging economies such as China and India.[6] Many see consumerism like a tsunami which has engulfed human cultures and is degrading the Earth’s ecosystems. Left unaddressed, we risk global disaster.

Planned obsolescence

Another factor which drives consumerism is known as planned obsolescence or built in obsolescence. It means manufacturing things that will be functional only for a limited period of time. In a presentation to an advertising conference in 1954  Brooks Stevens, a designer of appliances, automobiles, motorcycles and furnished used the phrase as a title for a talk.[7]  He suggested that new and improved products are in constant demand by consumers and that corporations can best respond to this demand by manufacturing items that do not last very long.  Many people even here in the United States may not have heard of Brooks Stevens, but in 1991 on the occasions of his 80th birthday the Chicago Tribune newspaper wrote that while many of its current readers would not have heard of Stevens in the 1950s he was a household name in the U.S.[8]On the occasion of his eightieth birthday in 1991, a Chicago Tribune retrospective began with the words “Brooks Stevens is hardly a household name.”4 But that was not the case in the 1950s, when he was recognized as America’s controversial “crown prince of obsolescence.”5 Stevens claimed—publicly and often—that it was he who actually invented the phrase “planned obsolescence,” and he was certainly the term’s most vocal champion. Due to his efforts at self- promotion, many …  A few examples of planned obsolescence will suffice. In 1921, General Motors’ executive committee began to articulate a principle which would be known as Sloanism after the longtime president of GM, Alfred P Sloan. This meant that planned obsolescence and product differentiation, highlighting different aspects of motoring such as speed, power, style and elegance became central to GM’s way of building cars.[9]  A favourite slogan was “a car for every purse and purpose.” A recent example of planned obsolescence is Apple’s launch of iPad 2 in March 2011. This device is 33 per cent thinner and up to 15 percent lighter than the original iPad. It has other features such as cameras etc. The underlying message is that one needs to get rid of the iPad which was bought less than 12 months ago and buy this new device.  We expect that another similar device will appear in 2012 making iPad2 redundant.

While there were critics of planned obsolescence such as Vance Packard who claimed that because it was producing mountains of waste, planned obsolescence was unethical.[10] Unfortunately, however, planned obsolescence has made its way into almost every product today.

Writing in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki refers to Amar Bhidé claim the U.S., is a “Venturesome Economy.”

By this he means that the American consumer, businesses, and individual alike, are inordinately willing to take a gamble on new products. American farmers, for good or ill, have been the world’s most ardent adopters of genetically modified crops, and American businesses have consistently been avid adopters of technologies.”[11]

Economic  Growth

The final element in the trinity promoting consumerism is the constant striving for economic growth. The question as to whether there are upper limits to the Earth’s capacity to cope with human activity was first raised in the book Limits to Growth which was published in 1972.[12]  The book various chapters addressed a number of issues from the sustainability debate, beginning with the notion of ‘overshoot.’ This term refers to whether human activity at this moment in time has overshot the capacity of the Earth and some vital ecosystems to renew themselves.  A further recognises what are the main forces driving the dynamics of growth in a finite world. Other chapters look at the impact of technology on sustainable development and consider how to move from the current unsustainable framework of development to a sustainable way of living on the planet.  While some commentators challenged the methodology used and some of the predictions, the main significance of the book is that it that it focused people’s attention on the fact that the earth is finite, and cannot sustain continuous depletion of resources and the irreversible destruction of ecosystems. The ‘Limits to Growth’ perspective challenged one of the main assumptions of the current economic-development model. This was that the 5.6 billion people living on the planet in 1970 and the 9 billion who will be living on the planet in 2050, will be able to aspire to the present standards of affluence enjoyed by the majority of people living in the Minority world and by the elite and middle class in the Majority world. In reality some of the demands which humans are currently making on the planet have already breached important limits in the biosphere. Continuous spiraling demands are not possible in a finite world.

Thirty years later, the author produced a book called Beyond the Limits which confirmed most of the predictions of the earlier book.[13]  It went on to warm that humanity had already overshot the limits of the Earth’s support capacity.  Other researchers such as Mathis Wackernagel have developed new measures which calculate the impact humans have on the planet. He called it the ‘human ecological foot print’ (FP) This they define as the land area which would be required to produce the resources (grain, food, wood, fish and urban land) and absorb the emissions from industry globally. There are on-going attempts to refine some of the methodological weaknesses of this measure.[14] Nevertheless it is very useful and according to FP global society had overshot our ecological foot print by 20 per cent by 1990 and humans have continued this upward curve ever since.

Unfortunately, few people in government or in the economic disciplines have understood the importance of these findings. In fact, governments have played their part in developing a consumerist culture by promoting economic growth. After the terrorist attacks on New York in September 2001, President George W Bush exhorted the American people to go out and shop after the attacks in September 2001.  In 2009, after the near collapse of the global financial system, governments around the world poured $2.8 trillion in stimulus packages to stimulate consumption.[15]  In fact, since the financial crisis of 2008, many commentators are hoping the world economy will move quickly out of recession into a prolonged period of economic growth through increased levels of production and consumption. Recently I was listening to an economic commentator talking on radio about the global economy and the possibilities for recovery. According to him, even though there were some signs of recovery, the global economy was still rather unhealthy. It would need sustained growth in 2010 and 2011, to return to full health. The economist had no understanding of the fact that this growth-oriented economy is plundering the natural world in an extensive and, now often irreversible way. He wasn’t aware of the irony of using a health metaphor about an economic system which is destroying the planet.  He also seems to be unaware of the fact that although the government can bail out commercial banks which made extraordinarily irresponsible lending decisions, no one can bail out ecosystems which are irreversibly damaged.  For example, if commercial pressure and lack of regulation facilitates the overfishing of blue-fin tuna in the North Atlantic to the point of their extinction, no amount of money can resurrect this fish. Furthermore, those of us who have worked in economically poor countries, know that economic growth is often at the expense of the poor, in countries such as China where people are paid a pittance for manufacturing the wide array of goods that we now use. It is also at the expense of the fruitfulness of the Earth.


Few economists or politicians are willing to look at the long-term effects of economic growth on the well-being of the earth and its people. In June 1993, I attended a week long symposium on Sustainable Growth- A Contradiction in Terms? It challenged economists to “find theoretical and practical criteria to help make decisions about efficient allocation, just distribution on what may best be termed a sustainable scale. The choice of appropriate scale to ensure sustainability does not imply that the market-economy must be traded for one or another kind of centrally planned state. What is needed rather, is to create conditions, particularly with regard to the maximum use of resources and the maximum allowable emission of such pollutants as carbon dioxide.”[16]

From a faith perspective, it is ironic that, the good life or development, as it is defined by Western culture, cannot be sustained by our Earth and could never be extended to the 7 billion people who inhabit the planet in 2011. The film, “The economics of Happiness” provides an excellent critique of the arguments in favour of economic growth.[17] It also shows how local economic initiatives can improve the quality of  life for people and the planet.


One other reason why sustainable development is not achievable at present is that the affluence of the North and more recently the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and South Africa, is based on a non-renewable source of energy, mainly crude oil. In 2008, it was estimated that 78% of global energy came from fossil fuels, 19% from renewable energy sources and 2.8% from nuclear.  Almost 40 years after the oil shock of 1973, the world is still overwhelmingly dependant on fossil fuel.

In March 2011, the price of oil broke through the $100 a barrel ceiling because of fears that political instability in North Africa and the Middle East would disrupt supplies. It breached the $100 mark in October 2007 marks but fell back because of the global recession between 2008 and 2010.  Will it drop back again if stability is restored in the Middle East? In 2007, a German-based group called Energy-Watch released a report claiming this week that global oil production peaked in 2006 and that we can expect at least a 7% drop in oil production each year from now on. One of the authors of the report, Mr. Schindler states that, “the world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system. This change will be triggered by declining fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of our daily lives.” [18]

‘Peak-Oil’ does not mean that oil will run out tomorrow. What it does mean is that 60% of the oil which was in the ground has already been used.  Oil extraction follows a bell-curve pattern.  Initially extraction costs are very low, but then, as oil becomes more difficult to access, the costs rise dramatically.  For example in the 1940s, it took the energy value of one barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels of oil.  By 2004, a barrel of oil used to extract oil, produced only 10 barrels of oil, and the number is falling as the amount of available oil decreases and it becomes more difficult to access.  In 1999, when the UK’s oil fields in the North Sea reached the peak oil mark, they were producing 3 million barrels of oil each day. In 2007, the figure stands at 1.6 million barrels of oil a day.  This dramatic drop in just 8 years gives an idea of how quickly the effects of ‘peak-oil’ will be felt now that it is a global, and not just a UK, phenomenon. Oil production was down in 32 countries in 2006. These included Norway, Indonesia and Venezuela.

Even some oil companies admit that the era of cheap and readily available oil is over. In 2006 Chevron, the second largest oil company in the U.S, took out a double page advertisement in some of the world’s leading business newspapers, such as The Financial Times, and The Economist. The advertisement stated that, “energy will be one of the defining issues of this century. One thing is clear, the era of easy oil is over”…It was signed by David O’Reilly, chairman of the corporation.

But, has not the International Energy Agency (IEA) been telling us that there is no need to worry? They estimate that there are 1,255 gigabarrels of oil still available. In terms of the current rate of consumption this should last for over 40 years.  There are problems with these estimates. Matthew Simmons, chairman of the Wall Street energy investment company Simmons, told a conference in Edinburgh in April 2005 that, there is a big chance that Saudi Arabia actually peaked production in 1981. We have no reliable data. Our data collection for oil is rubbish. I suspect that if we had we would find that we are over-producing, in most of our major fields and we should be throttling back.  We may have passed the point.  He went on to say that demand was pulling away from supply and that it could be catastrophic if we do not anticipate the arrival of “peak oil”.

With ‘peak-oil’ the supply becomes limited. Unfortunately, the demand is increasing as growing economies like China, India, Brazil and South Africa need more energy. The demand for oil in China doubled in the past ten years, which is why Chinese economic and diplomatic activity in Africa has increased accordingly during the past decade.  The Chinese want to secure as much oil as possible from diverse sources around the world. The country’s largest company, PetroChina, expects that approximately half of its overall production will come from overseas production within the next five years. And in order to achieve that goal, PetroChina expects to spend at least $60 billion on takeovers. So, with ‘peak oil’ a reality and no cheap source of energy to replace it, the global economy will begin to shrink and slow down.

Growth in Human Population

In the debate about sustainability, Catholics in general, shy away from one important area, namely the question of human population levels. There are now over 6.8 billion people on the planet. This is expected to grow to around 9 billion by the year 2050. Most of the additional 2.8 billion will be living in the Majority world. The Republic of the Congo at present has a population of 70 million. This is expected to double by 2050.  Demand for food and other resources will double putting extra pressure on already stressed and fragile ecosystems.

I explored the population issue in some detail in my book, The Greening of the Church. In that book, I pointed out that the earth’s carrying capacity of different levels of population was not addressed in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  Today, when measuring tools like the human ecological footprint are available both in bioregions and globally, there is an urgent need to revisit the debate on human populations levels. [19]

It is important to state that a fall in population levels will not, in itself, reduce the stress on the planet unless it is accompanied by a drop in our consumption patterns, particularly in the Minority world. The fact is that the opposite is happening. About 3 billion people in the newly emerging economies such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil are moving up the food chain and consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. Furthermore, in the U.S. in 2010, 119, out of 4000 million tonnes of wheat was used to produce ethanol for transport. [20]

Nevertheless, I believe that the time is ripe for the Catholic Church to revisit its teaching on birth control. The basis of that teaching is that each act of sexual intercourse must be open to life. But if this leads, as it inevitably must, to larger families, then there will be an increased stress on global ecosystems. This could trigger a major collapse of these systems within twenty or thirty years.  As a result the dramatic fall in human population levels, through hunger and famine, may well be permanent because the damage done to the earth’s fertility could be irreversible. The irony then would be that a strict adherence to Humanae Vitae, which set out to promote respect for human life, could in the longer term undermine the conditions which are necessary for human life in the future. I believe that an ecological ethic must focus on reality in a holistic way rather than on the interaction of individual entities or actors. We know from the extinction spasm which is at present crippling the biosphere, that if we are to protect other species from extinction, humans must show much greater generosity in sharing the global commons with them. At this moment in time most of our economic, political, religious and cultural systems believe that all the global space – on land, in the sea and the air – primarily belongs to humans.  Unless we abandon this hubris, sustainable development will be a pipe-dream. The dramatic increase in human population from one billion in 1870 to almost 7 billion in 2011 was facilitated by the easy availability of fossil fuels. We know that fossil fuel is finite and that we may have in fact achieved ‘peak oil.’  In this context, the sustainability question is, how are we going to maintain population levels in a post-carbon world? Christian de Duve Professor Emeritus at Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium and Rockefeller University, New York believes that we must limit population levels if we are to survive as a species.[21] The tropical ecologist Joseph Wright has demonstrated a strong inverse relationship between human population density and forest cover.  In support of his thesis he mentions the Philippines, Honduras and Madagascar.[22]  The most effective way of reducing population levels is to educate women.

However, I do not in any way condone the brutal way the one-child policy has been enforced in China for the past 30 years. The method often used is forced abortion of full-term babies. Women are also forced to accept sterilisation after the birth of their first child. One of the social consequences of the one-child policy is  that in 2011 there are more men than women.[23] Amartya Sen, the Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1999, wrote an article in The New York Review of Books entitled, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing.” In the article he analyzed the impact of unequal rights for men and women on mortality rates.[24] He argues that global food supply has kept ahead of population growth which leads him to claim that population increase alone is not a significant factor in why some countries fail to develop. In other words, I am arguing that the population debate in the Catholic Church should include many different voices.

Role of technology

New technologies can sometimes help reduce the resources used in manufacturing goods and provide renewable energy sources. All one needs to do is to compare the large cumbersome computers which were used in the 1960s or the early cell phones, to modern computers or cell phones. One of the difficulties which offsets the gains in reducing the material used in manufacturing, is the volume of computer or cell phones which are currently being produced today. This is why I am always sceptical when people suggest that new technologies, rather than any cultural change will solve many of the environmental issues facing humanity and the rest of the planet today. I would also be quite concerned about the inadequate oversight at national and international level of new genetic and nano technologies which often promise a utopian world, but have enormous downside potential if they are used in appropriately. We should be very scared of any attempt to geoengineer the planet. What if the experiment failed and a global disaster was triggered? Take the case of climate change and a possible technology that might cool the planet? Who would decide what the proper temperature might be? Whose hand would be on the control stick?

Recently, The Economist gave prominence to a new manufacturing technology which involves three-dimensional printing.[25] Proponents of this technology claim that it will make it possible to create to single items quite cheaply, without the energy and resource losses normally associated with mass production.  According to the editorial the process begins with a blueprint on the computer screen. Once one is satisfied with the blueprint the print button is pressed to begin the printing or building up process. This could come either by depositing material from a nozzle or laying down multiple layers of plastic or metal dust and binding the material with glue or some other process. Because it involves laying down layer after layer it is also called additive manufacturing. The editorial claims that “small items can be made by a machine like a desktop computer; big items – bicycle frames, panels for cards, aircraft parts – need a larger machine and more space.”[26]  It also alleges that this new manufacturing process could reduce waste enormously. Some items may only need one-tenth of the material now used to make a similar item.[27] It is not surprising that The Economist is claiming that additive manufacturing could signal the beginning of another industrial revolution.

Another exciting possibility for the future is outlined by  Michael Braugart and William McDonough in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things.[28] They argue that human technologies  must imitate the cyclical patterns of nature in order that we reuse resources and avoid creating waste.

Moving from a culture of consumerism to a culture of sustainability

The project director  of the State of the World 2010, Erik Assadourian is convinced that “preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a whole-scale transformation of dominant cultural patterns” away from consumerism to finding meaning, identity and well-being in a new cultural framework centered on sustainability.[29]  This must mean challenging the omnipresence of advertising, the culture of planned obsolescence and the economics of growth.

As an anthropologist, I am delighted to read the work of ecologists such as Erik Assadourian who understand both what culture is and how the culture of consumerism has to be transformed because it is unsustainable and does not promote human well-being.

Religion and Sustainability

In a chapter in 2010 State of the World, on “Engaging Religions to Shape Worldviews,” Gary Gardner believes that even though, at present, there is only a small minority of environmental activists in most religions, religion “could become a major factor in forging new cultures of sustainability.”[30] In the Christian tradition, he points to the work of Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople who set up the organization, Religion, Science and Environment (RSE) in 1996 to promote dialogue between science and religion around environmental problems associated with oceans, seas and rivers. Despite my criticisms of recent statements from the Holy See, at least the Vatican is now engaging more seriously with the ecological crisis.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) symposium outlined four ways in which the Churches or Religions could help make a global transition from a consumerist to a sustainable society.  The first role is prophetic as it sets out to challenge the   current status quo. Examples of this can be found in recent papal teaching. In, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, (January 1st 1990) the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause.  … Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.”  Pope Benedict in If you want peace, protect creation,( World Day of Peace, January 1st 2010) repeats the same message. In No 13 Pope Benedict XVI writes that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles.” Further on, in No. 11 he writes, “it is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. As Pope John Paul II wrote, we can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investment.”  (Centesimus Annus  No 36). All religions should challenge the greatest modern heresy which is that more and more consumption is the pathway to happiness.

The second thing Churches could do is to accompany people both at the local, national and international levels in the painful process of change from a non-sustainable to a sustainable way of life. Churches are well positioned to do this since they are present at the local, national and the international level. To achieve this they must educate their followers about the environment. Each religious tradition has its own stories about the origins of the universe, the earth and humankind. There is normally a wealth of wisdom in these traditions on how to live in a sustainable way. However, in this generation we are privileged to have available to us, from scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and genetics, an understanding about the emergence of the universe, our solar system, the formation of planet earth, the emergence and proliferation of life, culminating with the evolution of humankind in the past few million years. This story give us a new understanding of what it means to be human and intimately connected with the 13.7 billion years which went into shaping the universe in such a way that it could support conscious life.

It is now abundantly clear that humans are part of the biosphere and that we are challenged to live in a way that does not undermine the well-being of the planet. Particular religious traditions can enhance this understanding of our connectedness with all creation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we believe that the creative principle behind the emergence of the universe and humankind is best addressed in personal terms as a caring, loving father. Religions ought also to highlight and emphasise those segments of their scriptures or holy books that enhance our appreciation of nature. In the same way they should challenge those elements of their traditions that appears not to respect nature or is overly homocentric.  This education should also focus on the impact of current consumerism on the poor and on the planet.

In the past the ascetic tradition of various religions sometimes seemed to be motivated by a denial of the value of the world.  Today’s ascetical challenge from the various religions must be based on our understanding of the finite nature of the earth and a clarity that the present consumerist way of living cannot be sustained and is only made possible by massive injustice towards the poor of the world and by robbing future generations of their fair share of the resources of the planet. This is an area where religions must begin to highlight the moral dimension of how we relate to and treat the natural world.  Very often in the past religions, particularly Christianity, were seen as indifferent to the deteriorating plight of local ecosystems or the biosphere as a whole.  Religions and Churches often upheld human rights and promoted social justice, often at great cost to individuals and  Churches, but their voice was seldom heard when it came to the plundering of the planet. Anthropocentric ethics promotes consumerism because it sees the rest of creation, not as closely linked to humanity, but as a resource which can be exploited for the benefit of humans. The Churches have much to learn from traditional cultures. Even forms of Christianity such as Celtic Christianity have much to teach us about the intrinsic value of all creation.

Religions could use their financial investment to promote sustainability. This is already happening to a certain extent with the International Interfaith Investment Group. Many religions and religious groups own land and farm animals. They ought to make sure that they are using sustainable methods to produce food and to care for animals.

In a world where, for a variety of reasons, hope is in short supply, religions must provide a space for discerning and celebrating hope. The new ecological cosmological awareness must be brought into our liturgies and worship in order to integrate our work for justice and sustainability with our Christian faith. The sacraments offer an extraordinary opportunity to link respect for water, food, light and healing with the depths of the Christian tradition. Many religious prayer traditions have  an ecological and cosmic dimension which can help the individual and community, move away from an almost narcissistic obsession with the human to become more aware of the deep bonding which is at the heart of all creation. In this way spirituality, rather than creating and confirming dualisms, can be an integrating force bringing together all aspects of our existence.

One of the most effective ways for the Catholic Church to give leadership in the area of protecting the planet would be for Pope Benedict XVI to call a Synod for Creation.  Each local Church could begin to reflect on creation in its own area and see how Christians could give leadership in moving towards a more sane and sustainable world.  In preparing for such a Synod, everyone in the Church, young, old, farmers, industrial workers, bankers, scientists, fishermen, theologians, contemplatives, religious, teachers, doctors, liturgists, artists, poets and writers would be able to share their insights and wisdom.  This would give a great impetus to the tasks of caring for the earth that cares for every creature. I believe it would also give new life and focus to the Catholic faith in our contemporary society.

[1]  Christopher Flavin,  2010,  “Preface”, “2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability,  page xv

[2]  The European Environment: State and Outlook 2010, European Environment Agency, page 6.

[3] Ibid page 5.

[4]  Ibid page 13.

[5]  Vance Packard, 1957, The Hidden Persuaders, Longmans.

[6]  Ibid page 11.

[8]  from made to break and related webpages.



[9] From the Secret History of Lead, The Nation and related webpages. …

[10] Vance Packard, 1969, The Waste Makers, 1960,Simon & Schuster

[11]  James Surowiecki, “The Final Page, Innovation Consumption,” The New Yorker, May 16th 2011, page 42.

[12] The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind by D.H. Meadows, Donella H. Meadows and et al (Paperback – Jun 1979)


[13] Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows 2004, Limits to Growth The 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont.

[14]  Kitzes J. “A research agenda for improving national Ecological Footprint accounts,” Ecological Economics 68, pages 991-2007.

[15]   Ibid page 18.

[16] Sustainable Growth – A Contradiction in Terms? Economy, Ecology and Ethics After the Earth Summit,

The Visser’ t Hooft Endowment Fund For leadership Development,  5, route des Mirillions, 1218 Grand-Saconnex, Geneva, Switzerland, page22.

[18] Ashley, Seager, “Steep decline in oil production brings risk of war and unrest, says new study”, The Guardian, October 22, 2007,  page 3.


[19] Seán McDonagh, The Greening of the Church, chapter 2, Chapman, London, 1990.

[20]  Lester Brown, “One minute with … NewScientist, 5 February, 2011, page 27.

[21]  On minute with Christian de Duve, “We have evolved traits that will lead to hunanity’s extinction –so we must learn to overcome them,” NewScientist, 26 February 2011, page 27”.

[22] William Laurance, “Cursing condoms.” NewScientist, September 1st 2007, page 23.

[23] Nula O’Loan, “No right to life in China,” The Irish Catholic, March 31,  2011, page 7.

[24] Emily Oster, Gang Chen, May 2008, “Hepatitis B Does Not Explain Male-Biased Sex Ratios in China,”  National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper No. 13971.




[25] “Print me a Stradivarius: The manufacturing technology that will change the world,”The Economist,  February 12th to 18th 2011, page 11 and  68 -69.

[26] Ibid.

[27] ibid

[28] Michael Braugart and William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle : Remaking The Way We Make Things, Vintage Books, London, 2009.

[29]  Ibid page 3.

[30]  Gary Gardner, “Engaging Religions to Shape WorldViews” 2010 State of the World, page 23.

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