THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
A COMMON RESPONSIBILITY
Message of His Holiness
POPE JOHN PAUL II
for the celebration of the
WORLD DAY OF PEACE
January 1, 1990
PEACE WITH GOD THE CREATOR,
PEACE WITH ALL OF CREATION.
1. IN OUR DAY, there is a growing awareness that world peace is
threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and
continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack
of DUE RESPECT FOR NATURE, by the plundering of natural resources
and by an progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of
precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a
seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and
Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people
everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use
the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in
general as well as political leaders are concerned abut this
problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying
its causes. Moreover, a new ECOLOGICAL AWARENESS is beginning to
emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged
to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.
2. Many ethical values, fundamental to the development of a
PEACEFUL SOCIETY, are particularly relevant to the ecological
question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are
interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated
solutions based on a morally coherent world view.
For Christians, such a world view is grounded in religious
convictions drawn from Revelation. That is why I should like to
begin this Message with a reflection on the biblical account of
creation. I would hope that even those who do not share these same
beliefs will find in these pages a common ground for reflection and
I. "AND GOD SAW THAT IT WAS GOOD"
3. In the Book of Genesis, where we find God's first self-
revelation to humanity (Gen 1-3), there is a recurring refrain:
"AND GOD SAW IT WAS GOOD". After creating the heavens, the sea,
the earth and all it contains, God created man and woman. At this
point the refrain changes markedly: "And God saw everything he had
made, and behold, IT WAS VERY GOOD" (Gen 1:31). God entrusted the
whole of creation to the man and woman, and only then -- as we
read -- could he rest "from all his work" (Gen 2:3).
Adam and Eve's call to share in the unfolding of God's plan of
creation brought into play those abilities and gifts which
distinguish the human being from all other creatures. At the same
time, their call established a fixed relationship between mankind
and the rest of creation. Made in the image and likeness of God,
Adam and Eve were to have exercised their dominion over the earth
(Gen 1:28) with wisdom and love. Instead, they destroyed the
existing harmony BY DELIBERATELY GOING AGAINST THE CREATOR'S PLAN,
that is, by choosing to sin. This resulted not only in man's
alienation from himself, in death and fratricide, but also in the
earth's "rebellion" against him (cf. Gen 3:17-19; 4:12). All of
creation became subject to futility, waiting in a mysterious way to
be set free and to obtain a glorious liberty together with all the
children of God (cf. Rom 8:20-21).
4. Christians believe that the Death and Resurrection of Christ
accomplished the work of reconciling humanity to the Father, who
"was pleased ... through (Christ) to reconcile to himself ALL
THINGS, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of
his cross" (Col. 1:19-20). Creation was thus made new (cf. Rev.
21:5). Once subjected to the bondage of sin and decay (cf. Rom.
8:21), it has now received new life while "we wait for new heavens
and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pt 3:13). Thus,
the Father "has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the
mystery ... which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness
of time, to unite ALL THINGS in him, all things in heaven and
things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10).
5. These biblical considerations help us to understand better THE
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMAN ACTIVITY AND THE WHOLE OF CREATION.
When man turns his back on the Creator's plan, he provokes a
disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the
created order. If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself
cannot be at peace: "Therefore the land mourns and all who dwell in
it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the
air and even the fish of the sea are taken away" (Hos 4:3).
The profound sense that the earth is "suffering" is also shared
by those who do not profess our faith in God. Indeed, the
increasing devastation of the world of nature is apparent to all.
It results from the behavior of people who show a callous
disregard for the hidden, yet perceivable requirements of the order
and harmony which govern nature itself.
People are asking anxiously if it is still possible to remedy the
damage which has been done. Clearly, an adequate solution cannot
be found merely in a better management or a more rational use of
the earth's resources, as important as these may be. Rather, we
must go to the source of the problem and face in its entirety that
profound moral crisis OF WHICH THE DESTRUCTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT
IS ONLY ONE TROUBLING ASPECT.
II. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS: A MORAL PROBLEM
6. Certain elements of today's ecological crisis reveal its moral
character. First among these is the INDISCRIMINATE APPLICATION of
advances in science and technology. Many recent discoveries have
brought undeniable benefits to humanity. Indeed, they demonstrate
the nobility of the human vocation to participate RESPONSIBLY in
God's creative action in the world. Unfortunately, it is now clear
that the application of these discoveries in the fields of industry
and agriculture have produced harmful long-term effects. This has
led to the painful realization that WE CANNOT INTERFERE IN ONE AREA
OF THE ECOSYSTEM WITHOUT PAYING DUE ATTENTION BOTH TO THE
CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH INTERFERENCE IN OTHER AREAS AND TO THE WELL-
BEING OF FUTURE GENERATIONS.
The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related
"greenhouse effect" has now reached crisis proportions as a
consequence of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations and
vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of
fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types
of herbicides, coolants and propellants,: all of these are known to
harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological
and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible
future submersion of low-lying lands.
While in some cases the damage already done may well be
irreversible, in many other cases it can still be halted. It is
necessary, however, that the entire human community -- individuals,
States and international bodies -- take seriously the
responsibility that is theirs.
7. The most profound and serious indication of the moral
implications underlying the ecological problem is the lack of
RESPECT FOR LIFE evident in many patterns of environmental
pollution. Often, the interests of production prevail over concern
for the dignity of workers, while economic interests take priority
over the good of individuals and even entire peoples. In these
cases, pollution or environmental destruction is the result of an
unnatural and reductionist vision which at times leads to a genuine
contempt for man.
On another level, delicate ecological balances are upset by the
uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless
exploitation of natural resources. It should be pointed out that
all of this, even if carried out in the name of progress and well-
being is ultimately to mankind's disadvantage.
Finally, we can only look with deep concern at the enormous
possibilities of biological research. We are not yet in a position
to assess the biological disturbance that could result from
indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous
development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing
of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life
itself. It is evident to all that in any area as delicate as this,
indifference to fundamental ethical norms, or their rejection,
would lead mankind to the very threshold of self-destruction.
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.
The complexity of the ecological question is evident to all.
There are, however, certain underlying principles, which, while
respecting the legitimate autonomy and the specific competence of
those involved, can direct research towards adequate and lasting
solutions. These principles are essential to the building of a
peaceful society; *no peaceful society can afford to neglect either
respect for life or the fact that there is an integrity to
III. IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION
8. Theology, philosophy and science all speak of a harmonious
universe, of a "cosmos" endowed with its own integrity, its own
internal, dynamic balance. THIS ORDER MUST BE RESPECTED. The human
race is called to explore this order, to examine it with due care
and to make use of it while safeguarding its integrity.
On the other hand, the earth is ultimately A COMMON HERITAGE, THE
FRUITS OF WHICH ARE FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL. In the words of the
Second Vatican Council, "God destined the earth and all it contains
for the use of every individual and all peoples" (Gaudium et Spes,
69). This has direct consequences for the problem at hand. It is
manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to
accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while
masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very
lowest level of subsistence. Today, the dramatic threat of
ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and
selfishness -- both individual and collective -- are contrary to
the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual
9. The concepts of an ordered universe and a common heritage both
point to the necessity of a MORE INTERNATIONALLY COORDINATED
APPROACH TO THE MANAGEMENT OF THE EARTH'S GOODS. In many cases the
effects of ecological problems transcend the borders of individual
States; hence their solution cannot be found solely on the national
level. Recently there have been some promising steps towards such
international action, yet the existing mechanisms and bodies are
clearly not adequate for the development of a comprehensive plan of
action. Political obstacles, forms of exaggerated nationalism and
economic interests -- to mention only a few factors -- impede
international cooperation and long-term effective action.
The need for joint action on the international level DOES NOT
LESSEN THE RESPONSIBILITY OF EACH INDIVIDUAL STATE. Not only
should each State join with others in implementing internationally
accepted standards, but it should also make or facilitate necessary
socio-economic adjustments within its own borders, giving special
attention to the most vulnerable sectors of society. The State
should also actively endeavor within its own territory to prevent
destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by carefully
monitoring, among other things, the impact of new technological or
scientific advances. The State also has the responsibility of
ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants
or toxic wastes. THE RIGHT TO A SAFE ENVIRONMENT is ever more
insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an
updated Charter of Human Rights.
IV. THE URGENT NEED FOR A NEW SOLIDARITY
10. The ecological crisis reveals the URGENT MORAL NEED FOR A NEW
SOLIDARITY, especially in relations between the developing nations
and those that are highly industrialized. States must increasingly
share responsibility, in complimentary ways, for the promotion of
a natural and social environment that is both peaceful and healthy.
The newly industrialized States cannot, for example, be asked to
apply restrictive environmental standards to their emerging
industries unless the industrialized States first apply them within
their own boundaries. At the same time, countries in the process
of industrialization are not morally free to repeat the errors made
in the past by others, and recklessly continue to damage the
environment through industrial pollutants, radical deforestation,
or unlimited exploitation of non-renewable resources. In this
context, there is urgent need to find a solution to the treatment
and disposal of toxic wastes.
No plan or organization, however, will be able to effect the
necessary changes unless world leaders are truly convinced of the
absolute need for this new solidarity, which is demanded of them by
the ecological crisis and which is essential for peace. THIS NEED
PRESENTS NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR STRENGTHENING COOPERATIVE AND
PEACEFUL RELATIONS AMONG STATES.
11. It must also be said that the proper ecological balance will
not be found without DIRECTLY ADDRESSING THE STRUCTURAL FORMS OF
POVERTY that exist throughout the world. Rural poverty and unjust
land distribution in many countries, for example, have led to
subsistence farming and to the exhaustion of the soil. Once their
land yields no more, many farmers move on to clear new land, thus
accelerating uncontrolled deforestation, or they settle in urban
centres which lack the infrastructure to receive them. Likewise,
some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural
heritage, at the price of irreparable ecological imbalances, in
order to develop new products for export. In the fact of such
situations it would be wrong to assign the responsibility to the
poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their
actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less
than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty.
This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new
ways of relating among peoples and States.
12. But there is another dangerous menace which threatens us,
namely *war*. Unfortunately, modern science already has the
capacity to change the environment for hostile purposes.
Alterations of this kind over the long term could have
unforeseeable and still more serious consequences. Despite the
international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological
and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research
continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the
balance of nature.
Today, any form of war on a global scale would lead to
incalculable ecological damage. But even local or regional wars,
however, limited, not only destroy human life and social
structures, but also damage the land, ruining crops and vegetation
as well as poisoning soil and water. The survivors of war are
forced to begin a new life in very difficult environmental
conditions, which in turn create situations of extreme social
unrest, with further negative consequences for the environment.
13. Modern society will find no solution to the ecological
problem unless it TAKES A SERIOUS LOOK AT IS LIFESTYLE. In many
parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and
consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these
cause. As I have already stated, the seriousness of the ecological
issue lays bare the depth of man's moral crisis. If an
appreciation of the value of the human person and of human life is
lacking, we will also lose interest in others and in the earth
itself. Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit
of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer
the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few.
AN EDUCATION IN ECOLOGICAL RESPONSIBILITY is urgent:
responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth. This
education cannot be rooted in mere sentiment or empty wishes. Its
purpose cannot be ideological or political. It must not be based
on a rejection of the modern world or a vague desire to return to
some "paradise lost". Instead, a true education in responsibility
entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.
Churches and religious bodies, non-governmental and governmental
organizations, indeed all members of society, have a precise role
to play in such education. The first educator, however, is the
family, where the child learns to respect his neighbor and to love
14. FINALLY, THE AESTHETIC VALUE OF CREATION CANNOT BE
OVERLOOKED. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative
power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and
serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and
beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God (cf. Gen 1:4ff;
Ps 8:2; 104:1ff; Wis 13:3-5; Sir 39:16, 33; 43:1, 9). More
difficult perhaps, but no less profound, is the contemplation of
the works of human ingenuity. Even cities can have a beauty all
their own, one that ought to motivate people to care for their
surroundings. Good urban planning is an important part of
environmental protection, and respect for the natural contours of
the land is an indispensable prerequisite for ecologically sound
development. The relationship between a good aesthetic education
and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked.
V. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS: A COMMON RESPONSIBILITY
15. Today the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as
to be THE RESPONSIBILITY OF EVERYONE. As I have pointed out, its
various aspects demonstrate the need for concerted efforts aimed at
establishing the duties and obligations that belong to individuals,
peoples, States and international community. This not only goes
hand in hand with efforts to build true peace, but also confirms
and reinforces those efforts in a concrete way. When the
ecological crisis is set within the broader context of THE SEARCH
FOR PEACE within society, we can understand better the importance
of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are
telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which
must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the
capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to
preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I
wish to repeat that THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS IS A MORAL ISSUE.
Even men and women without any particular religious conviction,
but with an acute sense of their responsibilities for the common
good, recognize their obligation to contribute to the restoration
of a healthy environment. All the more should men and women who
believe in God the Creator, and who are thus convinced that there
is a well-defined unity and order in the world, feel called to
address the problem. Christians, in particular, realize that their
responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and
the Creator are an essential part of their faith. As a result,
they are conscious of a vast field of ecumenical and interreligious
cooperation opening up before them.
16. At the conclusion of this Message, I should like to address
directly my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church, in order
to remind them of their serious obligation to care for all
creation. The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for
everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from
their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and
from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ. Respect for
life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the
rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God (cf.
In 1979, I proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi as the heavenly
patron of those who promote ecology (cf. Apostolic Letter Inter
Sanctos: AAS 71 , 1509f). He offers Christians an example of
genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation. As a
friend of the poor who was loved by God's creatures, Saint Francis
invited all of creation -- animals, plants, natural forces, even
Brother Sun and Sister Moon -- to give honour and praise to the
Lord. The poor man of Assisi gives us striking witness that when
we are at peace with God we are better able to devote ourselves to
building up that peace with all creation which is inseparable from
peace among all peoples.
It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us
to keep ever alive a sense of "fraternity" with all those good and
beautiful things which Almighty God has created. And my he remind
us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with
care, in light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists
within the human family.
From the Vatican, 8 December 1989.
Joannes Paulus II