Social Action Office
The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Social Action Office (CLRIQ) invited Christine Milne to deliver the 2nd Common Wealth for the Common Good Address in Brisbane on 16 October 2003. Christine is the Oceania representative to the Global Council of the World Conservation Union and a Member of the Catholic Earthcare Australia Advisory Committee. This is her address:

Reclaiming the Common Wealth for the Common Good:
The Moral Challenges of Shaping a Sustainable Earth Community

In acknowledging that we are standing on indigenous land, I would like to begin with the introduction to the Earth Charter:

“Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life. Let ours be a time of firm resolve to achieve sustainability. Let ours be a time of quickening in the struggle for justice and peace and the joyful celebration of life in all its diversity.”

The Way Forward, The Earth Charter

Imagine the most beautiful tropical island in the world: An island with fertile uplands, white palm fringed beaches and an aqua lagoon stretching to the reef and beyond the reef, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. From the air, it looks like paradise and it is Aitutaki, home to 2,000 Cook Islanders.

But on closer inspection the island has almost reached the point of being uninhabitable, for life on Aitutaki depends for survival on a small lense of fresh water beneath the island which provides water for drinking, cooking and irrigating crops. Until recently life went on there as it had for centuries with the community living on fish from the lagoon and the deep ocean and on food grown on the land with extra goods and services delivered by ship and the airstrip built by the American forces during WWII. But then two forces impacted on the island, both human-induced and both global in nature, namely tourism and climate change.

As other Pacific islands became degraded by coastal resorts, effluent and waste, and as reefs were over-fished and dynamited for water ski runs and to provide building filling materials, the tourists moved on like an invasive species spreading to more and more remote places like Aitutaki. Tourist developers gained permission to build without environmental impact assessments and down went the bores to access unlimited volumes of the ground water and in went the substandard septic systems such that soon the ground water was contaminated by high levels of ecoli and the effluent and run-off seeped into the lagoon. At the same time the effects of climate change began to be felt. Rising sea levels combined with the drawing down of the fresh water resulted in salt water seeping into the fresh water lense.

The islanders’ children were sick from drinking the contaminated and brackish water; their crops were dying from being watered with the salty water; the lagoon increasingly warmed, developed toxic algal blooms giving the reef fish ciguatera virus which is toxic to humans. So suddenly the local community had no lagoon fish, few fruits or vegetables to eat and no fresh water to drink. Mosquitoes began breeding in the septic systems with waste pools spreading dengue fever and the response was to spray the island with DDT and to insist on the burning of all organic matter thereby killing all insect life and removing material which had been composted for years as part of the nutrient cycle.

The islanders had to import plastic bottles of drinking water, tinned salted meat, packaged goods, and fruit and vegetables from New Zealand with one lettuce costing $9 NZ. The specials board at the local bars has in bold print “Salad Bar” just as we would advertise “Sea Food” because in paradise fresh salad vegetables are a rarity and diabetes is on the increase.

In the closeted resorts, life went on as if nothing was wrong. The beaches were swept each morning, the cruises left on time, the feasting began after cocktail hours and the ice cubes clinked in the glasses. Apart from the problems like getting soap to lather in the brackish shower water, there was not even an awareness that the entire tropical experience is totally unsustainable and dependent on imports. Occasionally noticing that the reefs have deteriorated and have fewer fish than last year, the guests party in the evenings lapping up the floor shows of Cook Island music and dancing. Most would not even question the fires of burning rubbish in the villages or stop to think about where the food and water was coming from or the cultural impact of westernising the performance for the tourists.

When I sat down with the villagers and began to explain:

  • that restoring their fresh water supply was the key to solving their problems and to their continued existence on the island
  • that they needed to bring in environmental regulations to stop the tourism developments polluting and over-using their resources so that they could restore the ecology of the lagoon and the land, and get rid of the mosquitoes
  • that they needed to adapt to climate change by carefully monitoring the volumes extracted from their fresh water lense as well as thinking about fresh water tanks, roofing and closed loop grey water and septic systems,

they looked at me in disbelief. They had not made the connection between their environmental problems and the tourism boom. Most did not know about sea level rise and climate change.

They had jobs, roads, cars, TV and internet because of tourism development whilst never considering that the fresh water lense beneath their island was finite. Because there had always been enough, they assumed that there always would be and if there wasn’t then they would send their children to New Zealand or Australia. Already there are more Cook Islanders living in these countries than remain in the Cook Islands which now has a population of approx 17,000.

In fact they were fatalistic about what was happening to them and told me that whilst the development was good, the crop failures, water shortages, fish toxicity, sea level rise, increasing storms and hurricanes all signalled the beginning of the second coming after which there would be eternal life.

It was my turn to stare in disbelief. They are strongly Christian with the majority attending church services on Sundays in an Old Testament tradition of “dominion over the Earth” handed down from the London Missionary Society for 150 years. While I was there a fisherman in a small boat washed up on the reef. He had drifted from Tahiti for six months with almost no food and water on board. He was plucked from the reef and treated as a modern day Moses and after a short hospital stint was brought to the Church where he was revered by all as one whom God had chosen.

It is clear that the Christian religion, far from being a driver for sustainability in the Pacific, is a force for disempowerment in terms of sustainability. At the Queensland launch of Catholic Earthcare Australia, Archbishop Bathersby said, “Gone is the narrow, limited understanding of religion that could be interpreted as merely our selfish attempts to get to heaven. Getting to heaven is certainly a part of Christ’s vision but just as importantly is engagement with the world to make it, with God’s help, a new creation.”i Getting that message out to the world’s 1 billion Catholics and those practising various Christian faiths, especially in the developing world where Christianity tends to be that handed down from the missionaries 100 years ago, would make a critical difference.

As I flew out of Aitutaki, from the air I saw work going on constructing a second runway excavated from the reef and the airline video was advertising the biggest foreign-owned resort on the island, a honeymoon dream at a mere $500 US per night, and it occurred to me that Aitutaki is a microcosm of the world, of our own planet Earth. The unsustainable development and over-consumption happening on Aitutaki is happening across the world to all of us and my perspective from the air on one island would be similar to that of the astronauts as they look back from space on planet Earth.

The Haves, like those in the resorts, live in enclaves of privilege in the countries of the developed world and are using a disproportionate amount of the limited wealth or natural capital of the Earth at the expense of the Have Nots who struggle to survive on their own land because it has been plundered, ravaged, polluted and appropriated for forests, oil, minerals, water, coffee and fisheries. Local people resort to violent conflict over scarce remaining land and water, and are being forced to leave as refugees, only to be told that there is no place for them in those countries that plundered their resources in the first place.

Bulging populations, sea level rise, extreme weather events and land stress are producing waves of refugees that spill across borders as is occurring from Bangladesh to Tuvalu. Dwindling supplies of water are causing conflicts between urban and rural dwellers from Africa to Australia and water scarcity is a major contributor to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Meanwhile those in the rich enclaves, including Australia, have no idea where their consumer goods come from or where their food is grown or where their water is taken from or goes to or indeed how much they use. Who checks to see where their coffee is grown and how it is grown or where their leather shoes are tanned or their gold jewellery is extracted and what happens to the toxic effluents? Who considers through which forest or desert ecosystem the oil/petrol is piped before it gets to the pump or which forest their floorboards came from? For the most part they do not care very much either so long as there is more for them and so long as restrictive immigration laws stop others from coming to threaten their access to those resources.

Like the people of Aitutaki, they have no concept that the Earth’s Common Wealth is limited and finite and that the Earth’s ecosystems can reach and are reaching a point where they break down irretrievably. This lack of awareness has been exacerbated by Corporatisation which has masked the realities of the global supply chain for food, goods and services.

It has been the history of human settlement on the planet that small numbers of human beings began by following the migrations of the animal species that they needed for survival, but once they learned to grow crops and domesticate animals and to stay in one place, they learned to bring back to that place the wealth of the lands which they continued to explore. The more they accumulated, the more they wanted and the greater the armies they needed to secure the source and repository of the wealth.

So it was with Empires from the Greeks and Romans and Egyptian times to the French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and British Empire and British Commonwealth. The British Commonwealth was based on the idea of appropriating the Common Wealth of the colonised lands and taking resources from any people who lived there for the benefit of the mother country on the understanding that the people of the colonised lands were lesser beings with no equal rights. It is our own history of indigenous displacement as well.

Just as the misappropriation of the Commons has always been part of this scenario, its condemnation has always been part of every faith tradition. The notion that the global commons, the atmosphere, the oceans, the wild species were there for us all, the Common Wealth for the Common Good is encapsulated in the creation story. The Bishops’ statement in 1992 stated “the Earth is God’s creation intended for the use and enjoyment of all who inhabit it. Human beings have been entrusted with its stewardship. If this principle is accepted with the proviso that the integrity of creation must be safeguarded when the Earth’s goods are used to serve the needs of humanity, it is completely unacceptable for some inhabitants of the Earth to possess far more than they need while others lack the most basic necessities.”ii

Yet the industrial and technological wealth and power of the North: Europe, Japan and the United States of America was built and is continuing to be built with both the state and the corporate sector plundering the natural resources of the rest of the planet and forcing those countries so plundered through the World Bank, IMF and WTO processes to borrow to buy back goods and services developed from what was appropriated in the first place. Iraq and its oil is just the latest example. The fact is that all civilisations have been built using the biodiversity and abundance of the planet, the diverse ecosystems, species and genetic diversity as if they were infinite and free.

Herein lies the heart of the problem. We utterly refuse to accept that the Earth’s resources are finite and cannot be stretched to go around at the same level of Western consumption for everyone, no matter what technological breakthroughs or redistributions occur. We have become so reliant on the idea that science and technology will fix everything that we have not addressed the rate at which we are using up resources believing that we will find a way to continue with business as usual. It is as if we think the loaves and fishes miracle will keep on working. We look to genetic modification, desalination of sea water, antibiotics and cloning, instead of habitat protection and conservation of biodiversity.

We turn a blind eye to the extinction crisis, feeling sad about the loss of plants and animals but not modifying behaviour if it means not having what we want to consume. According to the Secretariat of the Biodiversity Convention, 150-200 species become extinct every day mainly due to habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution and overexploitation. If the current rate of destruction in forests and coral reefs is maintained, 50% of plant and animal species will be gone by the end of the 21st Century. Our grandchildren will inherit a lonely planet.

Recently I was in Africa and visited a place in the Transkei on the Wild Coast because it is a global hotspot of plant endemism. Species found there occur nowhere else on the planet and the coastal area is about to be mined by an Australian mining company and a road will be built right through the area. Whilst it was a beautiful landscape the thing that I noticed most was the silence. There were no wild creatures or birds at all. They had been hunted and eaten out of existence. The bush meat trade in Africa is huge and the pattern is repeated across the continent. In the Congo, lowland gorillas are being eaten to endangerment by the miners mining coltan which forms a component part of the mobile phones that we all use.iii

We cannot comprehend that ecosystems like forests, deserts, lakes, rivers and coral reefs are the basis of our Common Wealth and provide ecosystem services for our common good, such as air and water purification, waste detoxification and decomposition, flood and drought modification, pollination, soil fertility renewal, nutrient recycling, maintenance of genetic diversity, stabilisation and moderation of the Earth’s climate.

We forget that about 30,000 species are edible and of these 7,000 have been cultivated or collected as food for humans. 15-20 crops are of major economic importance. 20,000 species are used in traditional medicine which forms the primary health care for about 80% of the 3 billion people living in developing countries. 5,000 species are potential sources of commercial drugs. Fish and shellfish provide 5-10% of the world’s food supply and source of protein.

But it is not only for food and shelter that we look to nature. It is also a spiritual thing.

“One cannot think of a single composer, painter or writer who has not tracked at least one major source of inspiration to a bird, a rose, a tree. People automatically lose themselves in wordless reverence at the sight of a curlew or a silver cloud of anchovies or at the mournful wail of howler monkeys. Or they stare dumbly out at oceans, as if longing for their microbial past.”iv

“Before this panorama of meadows and mountain peaks that touch the sky, we all discover afresh the desire to thank God for the wonders that He has made and we wish to listen in silence to the voice of nature, so that we can transform our admiration into prayer. For these mountains awake in our hearts the sense of the infinite with the desire to raise up our minds to what is sublime. It is the Author of Beauty Himself who created these wonders.” John Paul II.v

So if the natural world is so critical to us in satisfying our need for food, shelter and clothing, and our longing for spiritual nourishment, and it clearly has limits, why is it that we cannot get our heads around the fact that unlimited growth based on non-renewable resource extraction is an impossibility?

Why do we tolerate politicians and companies constantly reporting growth figures and projecting yet more growth and citing economic growth as the way forward for us and for India, China and the developing countries of East Timor and the Solomons for example, when we know that growth means clearing forests, building on crop lands, and polluting and over-allocating rivers?

Until the 1960s very few people had any concept of environmental limits. The global debate was focussed on the inequitable distribution of resources. It was a debate which assumed that the Earth’s capacity to support life was unlimited, that ecosystems were capable of generating more and more, and the problem was about redistribution of wealth and power, about social justice and equity, about the need for all people to be regarded as equal with equal rights to fulfil their human potential and the need to redress the balance between the Haves and Have Nots. It was about the justice of some having more and others less, about the injustice of forcing indigenous people from their lands, the injustice of bad working conditions, low wages, unemployment and poverty, and gender inequality, and the injustice in the treatment of refugees and the atrocities associated with wars and invasions.

The churches were at the forefront of this debate about civil rights, social justice and racial equality, and self-determination. They were there urging people in the developed world to give, to respond generously to famines and floods, to give to the poor, to feed the hungry, to extend compassion to those in need. At the same time the Churches in the developing world were leading the struggle against poverty and for human rights and democracy. But collectively, they failed to recognise that there was an even more fundamental problem and that was that they, like many others, were redistributing the deck chairs on the sinking ship, Earth. They recognised that economic, political, spiritual and social challenges were connected but largely overlooked the environment as the basis on which all the rest depended.

That changed for many people in the 1960s when the most compelling image of the 20th Century was beamed back from space. There hanging like a precious ball in the solar system was planet Earth. It demonstrated what was really meant by our Common Wealth because from the perspective of space, the Earth was seen as an incredibly complex and beautiful system of feedback loops and interconnections of oceans and rivers, icecaps and mountains, deserts and forests. We saw for the first time that the environment has no boundaries, that this planet has physical limitations, is finite and totally interconnected in supporting life. We saw that the political lines on maps creating nation states were totally irrelevant to planetary climate, ecosystems and survival. It was a revelation. It inspired awe and wonder in us all.

It confronted us with the idea that six billion of us have to live on a finite planet with nowhere to go and by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion of us not only competing amongst ourselves for water, land and food, but also with our fellow creatures. It made seeking ecological sustainability a common cause for humanity and a moral imperative born of global interdependence and universal responsibility. If we want peace, we have no other option.

As Mikhail Gorbachev said at that time, “For all the contradictions of the present day world, for all the diversity of social and political systems in it, and for all the different choices made by the nations in different times, this earth is nevertheless one whole. We are all passengers aboard one ship, the Earth, and we must not allow it to be wrecked. There will be no second Noah’s Ark.”vi

But it took the Churches quite a bit longer to recognise the centrality of the environment as Archbishop Bathersby conceded, “Only in more recent years has the Catholic Church become intensely interested in these same matters of the environment. This deficit of interest was due largely to an inadequately developed theology, as well as a lack of vision in our leadership. Indeed, where concern for the environment existed, it did so largely outside the mainstream Christian churches. In the last 10 years however, all that has changed markedly, partly due to a new theology of Evangelisation based upon Christ’s vision of the Kingdom, and partly from the leadership of Pope John Paul II who in a remarkably consistent series of statements on the environment has passionately promoted “Ecological Conversion” as the norm for all Catholics.”vii

He said, “It is immediately evident that humanity has disappointed divine expectations … humiliating … the Earth, our home. It is necessary therefore, to stimulate and sustain ecological conversion.”viii

The Australian Catholic Bishops in their statement on the distribution of wealth in Australia, Common Wealth for the Common Good released in 1992, recognised Stewardship and Sustainability as one of the 10 relevant principles and themes in the Catholic Church’s social teaching. The Bishops said that “An authentic concept of development cannot ignore the use of the elements of nature, the renewability of resources and the consequences of haphazard industrialisation – three considerations which alert us to the moral dimension of development.”ix

They went on, “In a sense sustainability is good stewardship through time and in effect a matter of intergenerational justice. It means that the Earth’s resources are to be used with future needs always in mind.”x

“Using them as if they were inexhaustible with absolute dominion seriously endangers their availability not only to the present generation but above all for generations to come.”xi

“When Greed and selfishness lead people to destroy rather than preserve, and to jeopardise the well-being of millions of their fellow human beings and of future generations, they are gravely abusing God’s trust.”xii

But in spite of the inclusion of environmental stewardship in the statement in 1992 and the questions posed in that statement, and the great work done in schools, the central role of the Earth as our Common Wealth has largely been on the backburner in the Australian Catholic Church to the point that in the review of the Common Wealth for the Common Good statement 10 years on published in 2003, the principle of Ecological Stewardship was not revisited.

But I am pleased to welcome the ratification by the Bishops of Catholic Earthcare Australia and the release in 2002 of the Social Justice statement and its accompanying video, The Garden Planet, which focussed on the environment.

I want to pay tribute to the advocacy and leadership of all the Bishops but especially to Archbishops John Bathersby and Adrian Doyle, and to Bishops Chris Toohey and Bill Morris, who really got behind the initiative.

Archbishop John Bathersby said at the launch of Catholic Earthcare Australia, “our task like that of St Francis of Assisi, the Patron of Ecology, is to love life comprehensively and totally, but it warns us that such activity will not be easy, as it was not easy for Christ. …Life and God are inextricably linked. Just as we cannot contemplate life in all its grandeur without seeing behind it all God, its creative source, so also we cannot seek to expand life in this world for ourselves and others without taking up the cross. The diminishment of life in this universe in any way, in some way, diminishes our capacity for knowing God because faith and life are deeply linked.”xiii

Herein lies the moral challenge of ecological sustainability. Whereas speaking out on issues of peace and non-violence and social justice are expected from the Church and are seen as legitimate if somewhat irritating to those in the political process, such statements frequently relate to economic and social justice, or lack thereof, of government allocations to defence, welfare, public housing, pensions, taxation reform, gambling revenues and licenses. In other words they relate to the redistribution of the Common Fiscal Wealth collected in taxation for the Common Good. They have at their heart the aspiration to eradicate poverty and promote human development in an equitable and sustainable way but they do not challenge the moral legitimacy of those industries that contribute to the Common Fiscal Wealth by exploiting non-renewable resources and by promoting over-consumption. In so doing they do not challenge those who give political support to, own or operate, the industries that destroy biodiversity or those who work in them, whereas advocacy of sustainability does.

Ecological sustainability poses great moral dilemmas. We know that the vast wealth of Australia from agriculture and mining has come at the loss of native ecosystems and species, and land and water quality. We know that our vast coal reserves have generated cheap electricity but have been and continue to be a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The State of the Environment report warns that “under present conditions, Australia is not ecologically sustainable.”xiv We know that land clearance in Australia is the greatest cause of habitat loss across the nation. We know that old growth forests in Tasmania are being logged at the fastest rate in history and that only 10% of Australia’s original old growth forest remains. We know that those ecosystems cannot be replaced; that agricultural runoff, invasive species and coral bleaching are damaging the Great Barrier Reef; that salinity levels are rising and laying waste to thousands of hectares of land in Western Australia and in the Murray-Darling Basin; wetlands are being drained for coastal development or as in Ranger and Jabiluka contaminated and polluted by radioactive waste; water shortages are forcing a rethink on whether we have over-allocated water from our rivers for irrigation; 80% of the Murray now surrenders its flow for human consumption; fisheries are being destroyed as in the case of the orange roughy for example, and our cities and atmosphere are clouded with greenhouse gas and pollution hazes from traffic and industrial emissions.

In the midst of so much compelling proof that across the planet from Aitutaki to Brisbane we are living beyond our environmental capacity and that the planet is on the way to ecosystem collapse, why are we not facing the hard decisions of what needs to be done? Why are we still paying lip service to ecological sustainability? Yes, it gets a mention, but if we in Australia with our relatively small population and high standard of living cannot address our own sustainability, what makes us think that the millions who live with dirty water, poor sanitation and hazardous waste can? If we know about the ecological crisis facing the planet and the moral imperative to exercise good stewardship of the fragile ecosystems that support all life on earth, why aren’t we doing it? Is our valuing of human life above all other life, the root of our own species demise? Why do we duck the moral imperative implied by Socrates when he asked, What ought one to do?

The answer can be summed up in the words of Martin Luther King when he said,

“Cowardice asks, Is it safe?
Vanity asks, Is it popular?
Expedience asks, Is it politic?
Conscience asks, Is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”xv

Taking up the cause of planetary sustainability challenges us all in a very direct way, even more so than does poverty alleviation. You can give away excess cash as aid and donations but it costs a great deal more in lifestyle sacrifices and in votes and shareholder profits to save ecosystems.xvi

It is hard and, summed up by the Bishops in their statement, A New Earth: The Environmental Challenge when they said that, our lifestyles should not make such demands on resources such that others are left in need. We should practise simplicity, moderation and discipline so that others may live.xvii It means that at a personal, local, national and global level, we have to drastically reduce consumption of everything that is not renewable and reuse and recycle what we have.

We as individuals, and at an institutional level, have to stop buying shares and investing in banks and superannuation schemes that directly sponsor companies destroying ecosystems.

We have to forego huge houses, elaborate furnishings and multi-vehicle garages. We have to opt in favour of water-efficient devices, for example, and reduce our use of carbon fuels and energy.

But at another level we have to challenge corporatisation: global political, economic and social structures that force millions to live in squalor burdened by crippling debt while a few continue to accumulate wealth from the Common Wealth of the planet.

Nationally we have to speak out and say with the same passion as we do on refugees that some trade and agricultural practices have to stop or be severely restricted in favour of restoring ecosystems. We have to say that land clearance and old growth logging has to stop. We have to question the morality of mining uranium. We must convert quickly to a non-carbon economy, sign the Kyoto Protocol and adopt policies that protect wetlands and reefs from unsustainable tourism development and promote eco-tourism and renewable energy sources.

But all this is hard because it means that it will affect someone’s job somewhere and someone’s capacity to develop or expand their business and it will incur the wrath of political parties no more so than in Australia because despite our urban lifestyles, we are still a resource-based economy where the popular mythology of the outback has it that real men in real jobs work on farms, down mines, build dams, log forests or drive trucks, and in their spare time shoot and hunt and fish and live by the refrain that if it moves shoot it and if it doesn’t chop it down. If you challenge this mythology, you are attacked for challenging the very essence of our self identity.

Status is determined not by the kind of person you are but by the amount of material wealth you have accumulated. It is not safe, popular or politic in churches or schools or the public debate to speak out in opposition to development in this country no matter how unsustainable it is. We are still living in a nation where if you speak for the environment you are labelled as anti-development.

We have to reach a stage where we realise that development has to be ecologically sustainable or it is not acceptable and we have to be courageous enough to say so. We need to understand that once basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. We have to reach a stage where gross demonstration of materialism is seen as socially unacceptable.

This will require courage and ingenuity. In Australia we have the knowledge and technology to provide for all at a reduced rate of consumption and to reduce our impact or ecological footprint on the environment and to assist our Pacific and Asian neighbours to adopt ecologically sustainable practices so that they can remain in their own countries and not be forced to leave as refugees.

But that will require governments to redirect resources away from ecologically unsustainable industries and practices and towards employment restructuring, education and retraining, especially in the primary industry sector, and towards promoting employment in the emerging fields of environmental technology, management and energy efficiency for example.

It will require a much greater political generosity of spirit, resources and endeavour with our Asian and Pacific neighbours and a policy commitment to technological transfer, multi-lateralism and to the United Nations. We have to have the courage as active citizens to stand up and demand it of those standing for political office.

In Tasmania, following the release of the Social Justice statement and The Garden Planet, members of the clergy were harangued by those who are employed in the native forest logging and woodchip industry and for the first time ever some parishioners walked out of Mass. In spite of the fact that the native forest industry in Tasmania has shed jobs dramatically in the last decade as it has increased woodchipping and company profits, it is always the workers who are manipulated by the companies to oppose old growth protection. Huge pressure was brought to bear to silence the church on the basis of jobs. Three moral imperatives were on a collision course: the right of every person to the dignity of work, the right of ecosystems to exist, and the right of future generations to experience and benefit from old growth forest ecosystems.

Elsewhere in the country, the Bishops were threatened with legal action from a polluter because they dared to alert the public to pollution issues. After the release of the statement on global warming, a Federal Minister told the Bishops to stick to religion and keep out of things that did not concern them.

Yet the moral imperative says that we must all continue with courage. The Church has a major role in assisting faith communities across Australia to work through the anger and frustration which arises when protecting ecosystems comes into conflict with current industrial practices and employment patterns. The ability of the Churches to educate their parishioners and the community by raising awareness of the centrality of ecology to theology will be critical to ecological conversion and intergenerational equity on a planetary scale.

Although it will be difficult, as Archbishop Bathersby said, “we cannot seek to expand life in this world for ourselves and others without taking up the cross.” I cannot emphasise enough the critical role the churches have to play in mainstreaming the connection between the environmental and the economic, social, political and spiritual challenges facing us all.

Pope John Paul II has recognised environmental vocations and again I cannot underestimate the difference it will make to legitimising environmental concerns in Australia if the churches stand beside those campaigners standing for environmental protection, just as they have stood beside those campaigning for peace, reconciliation and social justice. In the Philippines Catholic priests supported the campaigners on a hunger strike against the introduction of genetically modified crops, in the Solomons they have stood beside villagers opposing logging and in South Africa against the miners, in Tasmania they stood beside those supporting forest protection.

Just as I experienced on Aitutaki, information alone is not a driver for action. It has to be aligned to the values that people hold. Thus a huge responsibility lies with the Churches, both in the developed and in the developing world, to educate their followers to take up the challenge of addressing global sustainability at a personal and institutional level as a matter of faith, justice, intergenerational equity and survival. Imagine what a difference 1 billion Catholics committed to sustainability could make.

One way of doing so is to promote the Earth Charterxviii as operationalising the theology, values and principles of Christianity as they pertain to the environment. This document emerged from the need to develop a set of principles which would underpin sustainable development. It was part of the unfinished business of the Rio Earth Summit Conference in 1992 and it reflects extensive international consultation conducted ever since.

It calls for respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice and democracy, non-violence and peace. It has been supported by UNESCO and forms the basis of the Global Greens Charter adopted by the Green political parties of the world.

In conclusion, when I was at school at St Mary’s College in Hobart, the Presentation nuns inculcated in us a sense of justice and personal responsibility, to stand up for what we believed in regardless of the consequences or whether we would see immediate results. It has sustained me throughout my life and kept me optimistic because it is reassuring in the struggle to know that it is enough to have tried. It is summed up in the words of Schumacher,

“We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether or not we will be successful, because if we do not do the right thing we will be doing the wrong thing, we will be part of the disease not part of the cure.”xix

I look forward to working with everyone inside and outside the Christian church community to give effect to ecological conversion so that the Common Wealth of the Earth is reclaimed for the Common Good as was envisaged when the Australian Catholic Bishops released their statement in 1992 and as has been championed by Pope John Paul II. In time to come his call for ecological conversion will be seen as the most visionary, insightful and prophetic initiative of his papacy.

Thank you.

i Archbishop John Bathersby, Queensland Launch of Catholic Earthcare Australia, Marymount Qld, 5 June 2003.
ii Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, A Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia, Common Wealth for the Common Good, Collins Dove, Victoria, 1992, p 26.
iii Guerilla forces from surrounding Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe armed by weapons supplied by UK and French companies have burned villages and forced villagers into the World Heritage Area to mine coltan. The 10,000 miners have no option but to eat animals and birds to survive. 88% of the world’s arms are produced by five members of the UN Security Council: UK, USA, France, Russia, China.
iv R Rosenblatt, Time Magazine, April/May 2000.
v Pope John Paul II, Homily in Val Visdene, Italy 1990.
vi Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and The World, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.
vii Archbishop John Bathersby, Queensland Launch of Catholic Earthcare Australia, Marymount Qld, 5 June 2003.
viii Pope John Paul II, General Audience, 17 January 2001.
ix Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 34.
x Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, A Statement on the Distribution of Wealth in Australia, Common Wealth for the Common Good, Collins Dove, Victoria, 1992, p 26.
xi Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, p 34.
xii Common Wealth for the Common Good, p 27.
xiii Archbishop John Bathersby, National Launch of Catholic Earthcare Australia, St Francis of Assisi Church, Paddington, Sydney NSW, 30 June 2002.
xiv State of the Environment Report, Commonwealth Government, Canberra, Australia, 2001
xv Martin Luther King.
xvi Archdiocese of Brisbane Lenten Programme 2003, Attending to the Sacred, was a great example of this new challenging thinking.
xvii A New Earth: The Environmental Challenge, 2002 Social Justice Sunday Statement.
xviii The Earth Charter,
xix Ernst F Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper and Row, 1978.

Christine is pictured here on the right with Mary Tinney rsm
and Mark Copland, both of whom made a response to her address

Click here to download a pdf version of Christine's address (152 KB)

Click here for Mary Tinney's response to Christine's address


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