In his 1953 Christmas message, Pope Pius XII cited this biblical directive and added a commentary: What a long and hard road from then to the present day when men can at last say that they have in some measure fulfilled the divine command....
Nowadays, however, there is less talk about the achievements of homo faberman the makerthan about the dark side of mechanized industrial technology and particularly about the damage it has done to the natural environment. For several decades, scientists who study the climate have been warning of this danger and thoughtful people, ranging from journalists to religious leaders, have listened. In his message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 1990, for instance, Pope John Paul II began by saying that there is today a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and injustice but also by an ecological crisis, which has been created by a lack of due respect for nature.
The most frightening manifestation of this crisis is the phenomenon called global warming. Earlier this month, the latest news about this peril made the front page of papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post and should have resounded everywhere, like a firebell in the night. In Paris, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a summary of the most recent studies of the effects on the global climate of what are called greenhouse gas emissions. These gases are chiefly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere from the smokestacks of factories, the tailpipes of automobiles and a countless number of smaller machines as well as from burning forests.
Together these gas emissions have raised air and ocean temperatures worldwide and amount to catastrophes in the making. They are already melting the arctic sea ice and adjoining ice sheets, leaving puzzled polar bears stranded on ice floes. Rises in sea levels may sweep away the homes of people living on seacoast plains, scientists warn, and heat waves are expected to disrupt agriculture.
A tiny band of dissenters thinks the specter of global warming is a hoax, and some commentators think its dangers have been exaggerated; but the proponents received strong support from the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change. The panel, founded in 1988 and sponsored by the United Nations, has reviewed the research of hundreds of investigators. Through their representatives, some 113 nations, including the United States, have ratified the panel’s findings.
These conclusions are principally two. First, global warming is not a conjecture but a factunequivocal, the panel says. Panel members are 90 percent certain that human activity embodied in technology has built up the greenhouse gases that are the source of this warming. Second, those looming disastrous consequences can be eliminated or diminished by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions at once.
In his 1990 message, Pope John Paul II called the ecological crisis a common responsibility. But what can individuals do? Two things. First, they can support the far-sighted initiatives of public officials. California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was able to push through the legislature laws capping greenhouse gas emissions, because a sufficient number of voters backed him. Such standards need to be replicated across the states and by the federal government. Second, citizens can act on their own. In the movie and book An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President A1 Gore recommends more than a dozen stepsfrom running the dishwasher only with a full load to using car pools. Shifts in consumer preferences, as we saw in the energy crisis of the 1970’s, can help make a difference.
Here is some good advice with a biblical flavor: God designed the earth, says the prophet, not to be a wasteland but to be lived in (Is 45:18).