3.2.7 Ecological destruction and human poverty

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Unit 3 Contents



Of the areas of concern about ecological crisis we have touched on, it is climate change which is potentially the most serious in its long-term impact on the whole planet.  It presents in a very sharp way the question I have raised in relation to some of the other environmental problems. Can it be addressed adequately by means of legal agreement and technological changes?  Some people hold that it can be, but many more think that what it means for us in practice goes way beyond that.  Many believe that it requires people across the world, and especially in the economically more developed Western countries, to alter their lifestyles in some really big ways, e.g. by reducing energy levels and consumption of meat and dairy products.  We return to this later in the unit.

The discussion in this section has been selective.  There are other serious ecological issues we haven’t looked at.  These include:

*  rapid species loss 

*  unsustainable extraction of water from aquifers

*  waste disposal

*  nuclear power generation.

I include the last item in this list as, even though nuclear energy generation has a relatively small ‘carbon footprint’, it produces waste products that remain highly dangerous for tens of thousands of years – much longer than the whole of recorded human history.

Yet even if climate change presents the biggest challenge in relation to the planet as a whole and certain other issues are extremely serious for the long term, it is immensely important to be aware that some ecological problems have much worse immediate effects for human beings.  For example, desertification usually affects poor communities, making them poorer.  Desertification in Africa is a major reason for migration away from affected areas, including to other continents such as Europe.  Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to the plight of environmental refugees in his 2010 World Peace Day Message, which will be set as reading later in this unit.

Similarly, the massive waste which consumer societies generate, which is sometimes shipped to poorer countries, impacts disproportionately on very poor people who find themselves living next to huge dumps and who scrape a living from the waste.  Globally many tens of thousands of people live in this way, for example in Brazil, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Cambodia.

The connections between the impact of ecological degradation and human poverty are often close and serious.  This is recognized clearly in the Compendium, as the following short reading shows vividly.


Reading (2pp)

Compendium, ##481-485 (Chapter Ten, Part IV.c, headed ‘The Environment and the Sharing of Goods’)


You will read more on this issue of ecological degradation and poverty later in the unit (in particular in a chapter in McCarthy, ed., The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching).  What #483 in the Compendium describes as the “close link… between the development of the poorest countries… and a sustainable use of the environment”, can also be studied further in Module B (in Unit 6 on international development).

We are now at the end of this review of some of the landmarks in the story of growing awareness of ecological crisis.  Landmarks we have noted are:

  • 1952: Great London Smog
  • 1962: Publication of Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
  • 1970s: UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, 1972, and growth in awareness of deforestation and desertification
  • 1980s: explosion in concern about global ecological problems, especially the hole in the ozone layer and global warming
  • 1990 to the present: a growing international consensus about climate change
  • throughout: impacts of environmental degradation on poor people.



In the story of growing awareness of ecological crisis (as just summarized), where do you fit in?  Do you have direct experience of the impact of any of the ecological problems mentioned?  What about other people you know, especially those who can remember a time before there was much concern about this area?

Where does God fit in?  Should Christians trust God not to let humans cause major irreparable damage to the planet?  How should Christians pray about this?



End of 3.2.7


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