Our Burning Planet

Op-Ed

Our faiths call on us to care, protect and love this incredible planet of abundant life

Our challenge is to go forward with courage on this new path of justice, equity, love and compassion for our planet, and all the life it supports, says Bishop Geoff Davies. (Photo: Unsplash/Noah Buscher)

For many years, faith communities, scientists and environmentalists have been warning political, and business leaders about the dangers of climate change and environmental destruction. Covid-19 is pointing to the reality that climate change and biodiversity loss will increase the crises we face, of poverty, starvation, migration, violence and conflict.

During this Covid-19 lockdown, South Africa has celebrated 26 years of democracy and marked 50 years since the launch of Earth Day. As countries around the world begin to open up we, members of faith communities, call on business and political leaders in Africa – and globally – to turn this pandemic into a Kairos moment, a God-given opportunity to correct the gross inequalities and injustice being inflicted on our social and environmental wellbeing, and to follow a new path of justice, equity, love and compassion for the human and Earth community.

We write from a Biblical perspective, but these principles and values are upheld by all major faiths.

“Democratic South Africa is not the fair and just country that it should be – that many in 1994 dreamed it would be,” the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation stated. “Celebrating the spirit of Freedom Day means powerfully accelerating the need for food, security, human rights and dignity for all our vulnerable sisters and brothers.”

We now call on the international community to apply the Biblical principle of Jubilee, a Sabbath rest, to restore the Earth and establish social and economic justice and equity.

“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.” (Leviticus 25:10a).

The principle of Jubilee is part of Old Testament law, and foundational to Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:19). The Jubilee law is based on the concept that “The Earth is the Lords” (Psalm 24:1).

It encompasses two key principles – redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, and a time of rest for the Earth.

The Jubilee year means cancelling unjust debts. Communities and countries, who have been exploited and impoverished by former colonial powers and current foreign investors, deserve grants, not loans in order to establish greater global justice and equity.

This follows the Biblical principles that call for justice, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24) and equity, “Gather as much of the bread that the Lord has given…. as each of you needs” (Exodus 16:16-18).

These principles, alongside values of mercy, “Blessed are the merciful.” (Matthew 5:7) and compassion, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” (Matt. 9:36), lead to wellbeing and peace, and must include all of life, not just human life. Covid-19 has taught us that we have crossed the boundaries with the trade, slaughter and consumption of wildlife. It highlights the global crisis which has come about because we have failed to care for the planet and the community of life.

In a message for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, urged governments to use their economic responses to the coronavirus pandemic to tackle the “even deeper emergency”, of climate change.

We cannot go back to business as usual once Covid-19 is under control. We have a new vision. Our call is for a more just and fair world, for humans and nature.

We need a new economic model that ensures greater sustainability for all life. First, we need to judge all our activities in terms of the wellbeing of people and planet. We must ask ourselves: “Is this good for us and our planet?” Currently, we make our decisions on the profitability of our economic systems and efficiency of our activities. Our goal should be the wellbeing of the planet and the happiness of people. Money is only a means of exchange and the resource to be used to improve our wellbeing.

This was the call when Earth Day was launched in 1970, but environmentalists’ concerns continue to be disregarded because they hinder economic growth. Now, we members of faith communities are standing up to say “Enough!”  Our faiths call on us to care, protect and love this incredible planet of abundant life. After all, it is our only home.

In his Earth Day Covid-19 Wake-up Call, Guterres stated that: “Public funds should be used to invest in the future, not the past, and flow to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate.”

What does this mean in terms of business investments and activities?

  • Investments must be made for the health and wellbeing of people and planet. We support the call for a Green New Deal (GND).
  • Fossil fuel subsidies and investments must end immediately. We must implement and roll out renewable energy. We have talked about it for so long. It is healthier, cleaner, less costly and will provide massive employment opportunities.
  • Roll out small scale, decentralised renewable energy and other technologies like biogas, to end dependence on charcoal for cooking. There is a desperate and urgent need to stop all deforestation of primary indigenous forests, not only to fight against climate change, but to stem the alarming level of extinction. The abundant biodiversity of primary forests can never be restored once destroyed.
  • End our reliance on plastic packaging. We survived for centuries without it and there are sustainable alternatives. Move to a circular economy where all waste is reused.
  • Support resilient agro-ecological food systems that offer just and regenerative alternatives to fossil fuel-based industrial food and farming. End the destructive use of toxic chemicals in food production and genetic manipulation and patenting of genetic resources. Stop subsidising multinational food corporations. Protect traditional farmlands and farmers, and stop land-grabbing from indigenous communities.
  • End the unethical and dangerous factory farming of animals.
  • Invest in safe and affordable public transport, which will dramatically reduce air pollution and congestion. The car industry has been a key driver of economic growth, but also of the fossil fuel industry. This must change. Envisage uncongested streets for pedestrians and bicycles and an end to the cost of new multi-lane highways.
  • Implement the Basic Income Grant (BIG) or Universal Social Dividend. This should be globally applied and is quite realistic when placing the wellbeing of people, and planet over and above profit.
  • The BIG is essential if we are to overcome global poverty. Along with universal education and empowerment of women, it could help bring about better family planning. BIG could also undermine the desperate need of impoverished rural people to resort to wildlife trade and illicit poaching.
  • Empower the UN to enforce global regulations to bring an end to corrupt and secretive tax havens that deprive governments of much-needed funds for social and environmental justice. Such funds could be freed up to support the BIG.
  • “Beat swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) and redirect annual defence expenditure of $2-trillion to “real security, supporting BIG, education, housing and food”.
  • Support the call for 30% of land and coastal waters be set aside as sanctuaries to save critically threatened terrestrial and marine life.
  • The UNFCCC must ensure a meaningful reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Political leaders who deliberately destroy forests, and increase the extraction and use of fossil fuels should be held criminally accountable to the international community.
  • Ecocide is the destruction of ecosystems by humans. We urge that ecocide be part of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Covid-19 is a harsh and costly wake-up call to humanity reminding us that we are part of the web of life. As we damage and destroy this web, we threaten our own wellbeing and survival.

On this planet of over eight billion people, we need to get businesses going again. But it cannot and must not be business as usual.

We must ensure that our activities work in harmony with the rest of life. No longer can we disregard the impact we have on the natural environment or on the health of people.

For many years, faith communities, scientists and environmentalists have been warning political, and business leaders about the dangers of climate change and environmental destruction. Covid-19 is pointing to the reality that climate change and biodiversity loss will increase the crises we face, of poverty, starvation, migration, violence and conflict.

Our challenge is to go forward with courage on this new path of justice, equity, love and compassion for our planet, and all the life it supports.   This is our prayer. We call on you all to take up this prayer and travel this new path together.

Peace be with you. DM

Bishop Geoff Davies, Southern African Faith communities’ Environment Institutes.

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