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Have the courage to help the Earth, speaker challenges

By Henrieta Paukov

Christians must have the courage to challenge the powerful and question the reigning worldview if further devastation of the Earth is to be prevented, said Synod’s keynote speaker to more than 700 clergy and lay members of Synod in his address.

“I think we, as people of faith, are being called to be part of a creation chain of courage,” said Dr. Stephen Scharper, an associate professor with the Centre for the Environment and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. “To speak, when necessary, truth to power. To utter a word of care, concern and caution for creation, which God declared good long before we, unfeathered bipeds, ever made the scene and stood on our hind legs to look up at the stars.”

Mr. Scharper was speaking at the 154th regular session of Synod, which began on Nov. 25 and centred around the theme of Celebrating this Fragile Earth:  Growing Communities of Hope and Compassion. He is the co-editor of The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment, and his teaching and research focus on environmental ethics, environmental world views, religious ethics and ecology.

Conservationist Rachel Carson was an example of the kind of courage that is necessary to stop ecological destruction, said Mr. Scharper. In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, Ms. Carson argued that pesticides such as DDT were causing serious environmental problems, including harm to crops, animals, birds and humans. Ms. Carson’s worldview, which was one of reverence for life and the interdependence of all living things, was opposed to that of her many critics, which saw humans in control of nature.

“Rachel Carson dared to challenge a worldview that was in full-steam after World War II, where the chemical companies had worked closely with governments to promote their products and increase productivity,” said Mr. Scharper. “Here we see a courageous woman who challenged a reigning worldview.” He pointed out that she was “part of a much larger chain of courage,” including her publishers, Houghton Mifflin, and a number of media outlets who publicized her work despite threats of legal action from the chemical industry. Ms. Carson’s work provided the impetus for an eventual nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides in the United States.

In our days, the need to act is urgent, Mr. Scharper showed. “We are forcing into extinction, according to David Orr of Oberlin College, between 40 and 120 species per year, and we are not sure of the exact amount, because some species we destroy live within one square kilometre, and when they are gone, they haven’t even been recorded.” He said he finds it painful to see young, idealistic Canadians at international meetings, such as the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, because they are confronting a government that has become deaf to their voices. “At Copenhagen, every single day, Canada won Fossil of the Day Award,” he said, “At the end of the Copenhagen summit, Canada was awarded Fossil of the Year award, given by 400 non-governmental organizations to the country that is most obstructive in coming to an agreement on climate change initiatives.”

Mr. Scharper showed images of the three most polluted places in the world: Kabwe in Zambia, Haiti, and the Yamuna River in India. “What we are realizing is that the environmental crisis runs along the same fault lines as social, economic, political, racial and gender oppression,” he said. “It cannot be separated and parced out from socio-economic inequalities.”

In this respect, Christian churches have an important contribution to make, he said. “We are gifted because of years of social analysis, of people who have looked at racial injustice, gender inequality, social stratification, and analyzed it through the lens of their faith and courage. And that social analysis is now being brought to bear on our environmental movement, and this is a great, rich contribution that we as people of faith can make at this particular time.”

Mr. Scharper used the words of Catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry to challenge his audience to action: “What is happening in our time is not just another historical transition or simply another cultural change. The devastation of the planet that we are bringing about is negating some hundreds of millions, even billions, of years of past development of life on earth. This is the most momentous period of change, a change unparalleled in the 4.5 billion years of Earth history. All indications suggest that we are in a sense, a chosen group, a chosen generation.

“We did not ask to be here at this time. Some of the prophets, when asked to undertake certain missions, said: ‘Don’t choose me; that’s too much for me.’ God says: ‘You are going anyway.’ We are not asked whether we wish to live at this particular time; we are here, the inescapable is before us.”

For environmental resources, see the Environmental Issues page.