China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Apr

China and Earth Day

On 11 April 1970, Apollo 13 left the United States of America (US) bound for the moon. In mid-journey, a fuel cell exploded. The dry and airless moon was no place of refuge. Mission Control immediately forgot the moon and concentrated on bringing the astronauts back to Earth. The three men returned safely.

On 24 April 1970, China successfully launched a satellite into orbit. China 1 was better known as Red East 1 (東方紅一號), since its radio played a tape recording of the most popular song in China, The East Is Red, in honour of Chairman Mao.

Between those two ventures into outer space, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in the US, observed the first Earth Day on April 22. They represented the minority of the population who were worried back then about the life support systems of Spaceship Earth.

Saving our Earth is now a global concern

Today, 39 years later, several nations are taking steps to plant a flag on the moon. A moon race takes roughly 10 years from start to finish. If money is not a problem, there might even be boot prints on the red deserts of Mars 20 years from now. However, the vast majority of the human race is focussed on a place much closer to home. Planet Earth is our only home and it is no longer in the best condition. Healing a planet is not the work of a decade but of a century.

Someone proposed a First Law of Ecology: “You can never throw anything away. It always goes somewhere.” Solid waste mixes with rainwater or underground water; polluted water flows a long way and winds blow around the globe, ignoring national borders. National borders are visible from outer space only if they are marked by a river or a mountain range.

A judge in the US once said, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” No one can argue for a right to pollute anymore. Pollution is a global problem, and China is one of many nations seriously struggling first to contain and later to reverse the damage.

A long march to healthier surroundings

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Brazil in June 1992. Surveying world poverty and poor health care, the Rio Declaration noted that “rapid economic development is regarded as essential.” People will not passively accept poverty for another century. The declaration urged sustainable social development.

Principle 1 said, “Human beings are at the centre of concern for sustainable development.” Principle 3 said that exploitation with no concern for tomorrow is not an option, “the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

These principles influenced China’s National Development Research Program, formulated in 1995. It called for a strategy to “promote the development of the country with science and education,” while reducing water and air pollution, encouraging recycling, and protecting fragile areas such as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (青臧高原). In October 2005, the Sixteenth Central Committee rephrased this as “developing the nation’s economy based on the scientific conception of development.”

But in 2009, a spending stimulus is needed to counter the economic slump. Many observers are concerned that protecting the environment will yield second place to creating millions of jobs. Everywhere in the world, people are tempted to solve a pressing issue now and worry about the long-term consequences later. Yet those negative side effects can hurt today’s children.

Quiet, balance and contemplation in Old China

Most people were poor in the old days. It does no good to glorify life without electricity, good roads or sanitary plumbing. However, when humans were closer to nature, they had less stress. Daoism especially preached living in harmony with the natural world, and living at a moderate pace.

Traditional Chinese paintings show a vast landscape with mountains and water, plus a small house or a few tiny farmers in their field, or a poet watching in silence. Maybe the chimney of one hut puts a little smoke into the air, but industry and commerce never dominates the scene.

Was the purpose of life to make money and spend it? Not at all! Merchants (商) ranked last in the Confucian social hierarchy (四民), below gentry scholars (士), farmers (農) and artisans (工).

Young Chinese scholars wanted to use their education, pass a civil service exam, and become officials. In practice, this often led to substantial wealth, as noted in the saying, “When a man becomes an official, even the dogs and chickens in his house go to heaven.”

But even so, the furniture and artwork in rich houses should be elegant (雅), not  vulgar (俗). Flashy displays of wealth are crass; simpler and more subdued decor is closer to nature, and signifies inner peace. “Crass” comes from Marcus Crassus, (115-53 BC), a moneylender turned politician who became the richest man in Rome. He wanted everyone to notice how he spent his money. They did.

At the peak of his career, a Ming or Qing official predictably extolled Confucianism and belittled other schools of thought, but after retirement, he started to read Buddhist and Daoist scriptures, and to find quiet time every day for prayer beads. In Old China, people found profound insights about life in the beauty of the natural world, not just in books.

Noise, litter and spiritual emptiness

Today, China’s scenic spots and sacred mountains are big tourist attractions. Tour buses and cars honk in search of a parking space, cable cars and power lines climb the mountain, while shops at the entrance to a temple or museum loudly advertise souvenirs.

At night, only a few stars can be seen above an overabundance of electric lights. Just as at World Heritage Sites elsewhere in the world, tourists toss candy wrappers, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and aluminum cans on the ground. Junk food and loud talking cannot peacefully coexist with meditation in any of the world’s religions.

When St. Augustine (354-430) recalled the sins of his youth, littering was not first on his list. However, he remembered the day when he and his teenage friends stripped a neighbor’s pear tree, not to eat the pears but to smash them. Years later he analyzed the problem, and wrote in his Confessions, “In my unloveliness, I plunged into the lovely things that you had made.”

A degraded natural environment is as much the result of spiritual emptiness and inward turmoil as it is of economic stupidity and outward aggression.

Catholic insights on loving nature

Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), a Dominican priest and mystic said, “Every creature is full of God and is a book about God.”

On 1 January 1990, Pope John Paul II chose for the topic of his World Day of Peace message, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation. The arms race, military conflicts and continued injustices all threaten world peace, but so does “a lack of due respect for nature.” A peaceful society needs to be based on a morally coherent worldview.

God gave people dominion over this earth. (Genesis 1:29) Sad to say, some people have taken that verse out of context as a blank cheque for exploitation, cruelty and waste, but a balanced view of scripture tells us to treat the world and its creatures with respect and care.

The bible begins with creation, and “God saw that it was all very good.” (Genesis 1:31) By choosing to sin, Adam and Eve “destroyed the existing harmony by deliberately going against the creator’s plan.”

Human disorder has a negative impact on the created order around us. If people are not at peace with God, “then earth itself cannot be at peace” (cf. Hosea 4:3).

The ecology crisis has a moral character. Part of our human vocation is “to participate responsibly in God’s creative action in the world,” rather than to apply science and technology indiscriminately. While ecology is a complex issue, “respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.”

Pope Benedict XVI has also called for a conversion in the way people respect nature, most noticeably during his visit to Sydney, Australia, on 15 to 20 July 2008, for World Youth Day.

Issues of life and death cannot be divorced from religion; faith must connect with life. The Vatican has spoken about Integral Evangelization. A balanced presentation of the Good News includes working together for the common good. People of any religion or no religion can and must cooperate to preserve the environment for the next generation.

Looking ahead with courage

Faced by ecological problems, people tend to swing from denial to despair, from saying, “No, it’s not a problem, certainly not a big problem,” to moaning, “We’re doomed!” Just as panic can turn an economic recession into a depression, so can hopelessness undermine the struggle for a greener environment.

“The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm. 19:2). No one can predict how far astronauts or robots will venture in the 21st century, or if they will meet intelligent life in outer space. Even though biblical fundamentalists dismiss the idea as unscriptural, the Church has taken no official position on the existence of extraterrestrials (ET). If ETs exist, then they are fellow creatures of God and part of the divine plan. “God does great things beyond finding out, marvellous things beyond reckoning” (Job. 9:10).

No one can deny that Earth is the only habitable planet for light years around. If we destroy our home, then we cannot move someplace else. Whatever our religion or nationality, we need to redouble our efforts to protect our beautiful planet, or else we will all pay a heavy price. The choice is ours.