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Orthodox Social Teaching

The Church and Ecological Problems

XIII. 1. The Orthodox Church, aware of her responsibility for the fate of the world, is deeply concerned for the problems generated by the contemporary civilisation. Ecological problems occupy a considerable place among them. Today the face of the Earth has been distorted on a global scale. Damaged are its bowels, soil, water, air and fauna and flora. Nature around us has been almost fully involved in the life support of man who is no longer satisfied with its diverse gifts, but exploits without restrain whole ecosystems. Human activity, which has reached the level of biospheric processes, constantly grows due to the accelerated development of science and technology. The pollution of the environment by industrial wastes everywhere, bad agricultural technology, the destruction of forests and top-soil all result in the suppressed biological activity and the steady shrinking of the genetic diversity of life. The irreplenishable mineral resources are being exhausted; the drinking water reserves are being reduced. Great many harmful substances have appeared, not included in the circulation and accumulated in biosphere. The ecological balance has been violated; man has to face the emergence of pernicious processes in nature, including the failure of its natural reproductive power.

All this happens against the background of an unprecedented and unjustified growth of public consumption in highly developed countries, where the search for wealth and luxury has become a norm of life. This situation has obstructed the fair distribution of natural resources, which are common human property. The consequences of the ecological crisis have proved painful not only for nature, but also for man as organically integral to it. As a result, the Earth has found itself on the verge of a global ecological disaster.

XIII. 2. Relations between man and nature were broken in pre-historic times because of the fall of man and his alienation from God. Sin that was born in the soul of man damaged not only him himself, but also the entire world around him. “For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason, of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and traveileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:0-22). The first human crime was reflected in nature like in a mirror. The seed of sin, having produced an effect in the human heart, gave rise to “thorns and thistles”, as Holy Scripture testifies (Gen. 3:18). The full organic unity that existed between man and the world around him before the fall (Gen. 2: 19-20) was made impossible. In their now consumer relations with nature, human beings began to be more often guided by egoistic motives. They began to forget that the only Lord of the Universe is God (Ps. 23:1), to Whom belong “the heaven and the earth also, with all that therein is” (Deut. 10:14), while man, as St. John Chrysostom put it, is only a “housekeeper” entrusted with the riches of the earth. These riches, namely, “the air, sun, water, land, heaven, sea, light, stars”, as the same saint remarks, God “divided among all in equal measure as if among brothers”. “Dominion” over nature and “subjection” of the earth (Gen. 1:28), to which man is called, do not mean all-permissiveness in God’s design. It only means that man is the bearer of the image of the heavenly Housekeeper and as such should express, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, his royal dignity not in dominion over the world around him or violence towards it, but in “dressing” and “keeping” the magnificent kingdom of nature for which he is responsible before God.

XIII. 3. The ecological crisis compels us to review our relations with the environment. Today the conception of man’s dominion over nature and the consumer attitude to it has been increasingly criticised. The awareness that contemporary society pays too high a price for the blessings of the civilisation has provoked opposition to economic egoism. Thus, attempts are made to identify the activities that damage the natural environment. At the same time, a system of its protection is being developed; the present economic methods are being reviewed; efforts are made to create power-saving technologies and wasteless plants which can be fit at the same time into the natural circulation. The ecological ethics is being developed. The public consciousness guided by it speaks against the consumer way of life, demanding that the moral and legal responsibility for the damage inflicted on nature be enhanced. It also proposes to introduce ecological education and training and calls for joined efforts in protecting the environment on the basis of broad international co-operation.

XIII. 4. The Orthodox Church appreciates the efforts for overcoming the ecological crisis and calls people to intensive co-operation in actions aimed to protect God’s creation. At the same time, she notes that these efforts will be more fruitful if the basis on which man’s relations with nature are built will be not purely humanistic but also Christian. One of the main principles of the Church’s stand on ecological issues is the unity and integrity of the world created by God. Orthodoxy does not view nature around us as an isolated and self-closed structure. The plant, animal and human worlds are interconnected. From the Christian point of view, nature is not a repository of resources intended for egoistic and irresponsible consumption, but a house in which man is not the master, but the housekeeper, and a temple in which he is the priest serving not nature, but the one Creator. The conception of nature as temple is based on the idea of theocentrism: God Who gives to all “life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25) is the Source of being. Therefore, life itself in its various manifestations is sacred, being a gift of God. Any encroachment on it is a challenge not only to God’s creation, but also to the Lord Himself.

XIII. 5. The ecological problems are essentially anthropological as they are generated by man, not nature. Therefore, answers to many questions raised by the environmental crisis are to be found in the human heart, not in the spheres of economy, biology, technology or politics. Nature is transformed or dies not by itself, but under the impact of man. His spiritual condition plays the decisive role here, for it affects the environment both with and without such an impact. The church history knows of many examples when the love of Christian ascetics for nature, their prayer for the world around them, their compassion for all creatures made a beneficial impact on living things.

Relationships between anthropology and ecology are revealed with utter clarity in our days when the world is experiencing two concurrent crises: spiritual and ecological. In contemporary society, man often loses the awareness of life as a gift of God and sometimes the very meaning of life, reducing it sometimes to the physical being alone. With this attitude to life, nature around him is no longer perceived as home and all the more so as temple, becoming only a “habitat”. The spiritually degrading personality leads nature to degradation as well, for it is unable to make a transforming impact on the world. The colossal technological resources cannot help humanity blinded by sin, for, being indifferent to the meaning, mystery and wonder of life, they cannot be really beneficial and sometimes become even detrimental. In a spiritually disorientated man, the technological power would beget utopic reliance on the boundless resources of the human mind and the power of progress.

It is impossible to overcome the ecological crisis in the situation of a spiritual crisis. This does not at all mean that the Church calls to curtail the preservation activity, but in her hope for a positive change in the man-nature relationships, she relies rather on society’s aspiration for spiritual revival. The anthropogenic background of ecological problems shows that we tend to change the world around us in accordance with our own inner world; therefore, the transformation of nature should begin with the transformation of the soul. According to St. Maxim the Confessor, man can turn the earth into paradise only if he carried paradise in himself.

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