In the opinion of many we stand at a critical moment of Earth’s history. Social, economic and environmental crises call for an assessment of the current situation, and for discovery of effective ways to promote responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, to future generations and to our planet. We must remember that the human economy needs to live within and respect nature’s economy. Humanity is totally dependent on nature’s ecosystems to survive and that includes our predominant global economic model, which currently is unsustainable because it does not respect the limits of nature, nor is it concerned with ecological cost to the poor, the marginalized and future generations. Saint Francis of Assisi was deeply concerned with the society in which he lived. As his followers we too are called to understand deeply the world in which we live and to nurture life in fullness for all of God’s creation. Pope John Paul II, responding to the current challenges, called for “ecological conversion.” How might we go about this task?
In June 2012 Rio de Janeiro will host “Rio + 20.” The event, also called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is expected to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the United Nations conferences held in the 1990s. It proposes to discuss three issues: assessment of compliance with the commitments agreed to in Rio 92, the green economy and the institutional architecture for sustainable development. These issues, though not part of our everyday vocabulary, are important concepts that we need to understand in order to make better choices for the future.
Parallel to the official UN conference, civil society (social movements, NGOs, networks, religious organizations, etc.) is planning the People’s Summit Rio +20. Its motivation stems from an assessment of the state of our planet. Poverty, misery and structural inequality persist, and they are reflected in and exacerbated by the environmental and climate crises. Our planet is being pillaged and many peoples and social groups are being marginalized. In face of these problems, governments and many sectors of national societies, concerned with immediate benefit and blind to the future, cling to a model of economy and governance based on profit maximization and economic growth measured only in monetary terms. Continuous growth and maximization of wealth are the only values that are accepted. Other values like solidarity, living in community, respect for all living beings and promoting the common good are excluded.
In response to this serious situation, people of faith have looked to their own religious traditions to identify insights and wisdom to help create practical, concrete steps that will make a difference. Scientists have begun to turn to faith leaders to ask for cooperation in elaborating a values-based approach that will help raise awareness of the environmental problems we face, and promote a more authentic lifestyle that will confront the contradictions in our world. Our own Franciscan heritage provides ample resources to assist in this project, and we are challenged, like Francis and Clare in their own day, to offer our services to help read the signs of the times in ways that will promote life in abundance for everyone and every living thing.
Many people today picture Francis as a quaint, harmless fellow who loved animals and had a special concern for nature. The number of statues of the saint found in gardens and bird baths give ample testimony to this common image! However, we contemporary Franciscans must help people get beyond the bird bath and a romantic view of Francis. While we proclaim the intrinsic goodness of the created world and delight in its beauty, we must also show how the created world is intimately interconnected with the social world of people, and look for ways to be part of the joys and the sorrows of that world. Franciscans offer a vision that is deeply grounded in hope and joy, because Creation and the unfolding of events are deeply permeated by the presence of the Living God. We offer not only an intellectual, theological and philosophical reflection on the crises that we are living, but propose practical insights, implications and action steps for prayer, lifestyle, community life, ministries and society. Our tradition, inherited from Francis and Clare, invites us to treat Creation as brother and sister and mother, as members of our family. We do not seek a position of power and control, but rather a loving relationship of mutual concern and care for our family. Any crisis that threatens our family is a matter of concern for us.
Recently a small group of Franciscans who work in the ministry of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) met to discuss how to increase awareness of ecological issues within the Franciscan family. Conversation began with consideration of environmental justice, which links the concepts of ecology and social justice. Environmental justice recognizes the inseparable relationship that exists between ecological degradation and issues of justice, peace and the defense of the rights of individuals and peoples; the forces and structures that harm the environment are the same forces and structures that harm poor and marginalized people. Environmental justice calls for the fair treatment of all races, cultures, income classes and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. Environmental justice is a term that sums up many of our concerns regarding people and the environment.
The group agreed to promote a strong participation by Franciscans at the People’s Summit (June 12-26) and at the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference (June 20-23, 2012). Plans for engaging the Franciscan family are underway. They include Franciscans International, the worldwide Franciscan family, and Franciscans in Brazil who will serve as hosts.
The group also agreed to develop a number of short educational pieces that will give an overview of the most important ideas involved. The first piece, this present reflection, outlines the Franciscan vision of Creation, the current ecological situation and a possible response. The eight short pieces which follow will acquaint readers with the principal ideas to be debated at Rio, issues that are already being debated amply in preparation for the conferences. The first five pieces deal with global problems we are facing: desertification; loss of biodiversity; hunger; climate change; and lack of fresh water and sanitation. The final three deal with proposed solutions: green economy; sustainable development; and food sovereignty.
The group spent much time discussing the political implications of “green economy” and “sustainable development.” It is absolutely necessary that we take note of the powerful actors involved in these issues. The powerful do not need our support; they can look out for themselves. Rather the poor and the oppressed need our help, those who already suffer the negative effects of environmental degradation. An important contribution we can make to the ecological debate will be to raise the question: “What does this mean for the poor?”
This series of papers is an invitation for Franciscans everywhere to become more aware of environmental questions and to become more engaged in promoting environmental justice. We need to ask ourselves where we stand on the issue of the accelerating degradation of our planet, and the plight of so many of our brothers and sisters who suffer deprivation and injustice. Has contemporary society removed us from vital contact with the living world and with our fellow human beings? How often do we thank God for all the gifts we have received? Let us take up the challenge to work together with people of good will to safeguard all of our sisters and brothers, and all of God’s creation.
Written by Br. Joe Rozansky ofm