Most people love to celebrate special days. We celebrate the gift of human life and friendship on birthdays; on St Patrick's Day we affirm our Irishness with parades, concerts and sporting events. The celebration of Earth Day this Thursday moves beyond concern for our own family, class, religion or nation and encompasses the planet.
The practice of celebrating Earth Day began in the United States in 1970. It coincides with the arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere, when we are reminded of the fruitfulness and beauty of our world after the darkness and seeming lifelessness of winter. The days begin to get longer and brighter; new life appears with snowdrops, daffodils, buds on the trees, birds building their nests and new-born lambs playing in the fields. With this surge of life, we are grateful for the gift of creation.
Unfortunately, there is another aspect in our contemporary world. Earth Day reminds us that we can no longer take the beauty and fruitfulness of the planet for granted. In fact, our planet is in crisis.
The Living Planet Report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature in October 1998 highlights a number of serious environmental problems and makes very sobering reading. The report indicts humans for destroying more than 30 per cent of the natural world since 1970. We have seriously depleted forests and freshwater and marine ecosystems, on which all life depends.
Humanly-induced atmospheric change is also causing concern. Scientists involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believe that global warming will cause sea levels to rise and may lead to more ferocious and frequent tropical storms , such as Hurricane Mitch which pounded Central America in October 1998, causing horrific suffering.
These scientists have called for 60 per cent cuts in greenhouse gases to stabilise the climate. The main victims of climate change will be the poor who live in low-lying areas such as Bangladesh or the Nile delta. Our misuse of such chemicals as CFC has led to the thinning of the ozone layer that screens out the ultra-violet rays of the sun. As a result, we are already experiencing a significant rise in skin cancers.
As a Columban missionary on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, I witnessed the destruction of the tropical forests. The felling of the tropical forests globally has triggered one of the greatest spasms of extinction of species.
Writing in the early 1990s, Prof Edward Wilson of Harvard University estimated that 27,000 species are being forced across the precipice of extinction each year. That is three every hour. Linked to the disappearance of forests and inappropriate agricultural methods is the widespread erosion of topsoil.
Prof Pimentel of Cornell University estimates that annually we lose 75 billion tons of topsoil. The erosion of topsoil is a recipe for hunger, starvation and famine.
Environmental problems are not just confined to the Third World or the highly industrialised countries. We like to think that Ireland has a relatively unspoiled environment. Unfortunately, the increase in industrialisation and intensive agriculture have taken their toll on the Irish environment during the past 25 years.
Water quality has deteriorated dramatically. Each summer now brings algal bloom and fish kills in our rivers and lakes. Agricultural practices and thoughtless building programmes have silenced birds that brought joy to the hearts of previous generations of Irish people. We are creating mountains of waste, yet no community wants a dump in its locality.
Earth Day also has a religious significance. We are thanking God for the gift of his creation. Given the plunder of creation that has taken place in recent years, each religion must begin to put the task of caring for the wounded earth at the centre of its teachings, celebrations and pastoral initiatives.
Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that the churches have been slow to recognise the gravity of the ecological problems facing the earth. The first major Papal document devoted exclusively to the environmental crisis saw the light of day only in 1990, almost 30 years after the publication of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring.
In Peace With God The Creator: Peace With All Creation, Pope John Paul II states that "Christians in particular realise that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith." I would argue that this teaching is the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church. Very few people have ever heard a sermon on the environment.
It is also important to acknowledge that the document is very dependent on the work of the World Council of Churches, which has given a lead in this area through its Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation programme.
IN Ireland the call by Bishop Bill Murphy of Kerry in his Jubilee Pastoral Letter (1999) to develop a "right relationship with the earth" should be emulated in every diocese. It would be better still if such initiatives were pursued ecumenically at parish, diocesan and national level.
After all, there are no Presbyterian lakes, Church of Ireland rivers or Catholic forests. The planned national day of reconciliation envisaged in the Hillsborough Declaration ought to include reconciliation with creation.
To mark Earth Day the environmental organisation VOICE will host an inter-religious ritual of respect for "Ourselves, Others and the Earth" at Iveagh Gardens (at the back of the National Concert Hall) at 12.30 p.m. on Thursday. Members of various religions in Ireland will talk of how their faith motivates them to care for the earth. All are invited to participate and commit themselves to respecting and protecting creation.
Father Sean McDonagh is a Columban Missionary and chair of VOICE.