Catholic Bishops and the Environment

 

This month the Catholic bishops of England and Wales produced a statement from their plenary (twice-yearly meeting) called Stewardship of God’s Creation. I thought I would give my thoughts on it as someone now deeply immersed in the world of conservation and the protection of life on earth.

This blog is taken from a letter I wrote to all those involved in the National Justice and Peace Network, a collection of fine and caring people who work for justice and peace projects in the different diocese throughout England and Wales. Environmental issues come under their jurisdiction but as far as I am aware they were not involved in the setting up of the newly formed environment committee for the Bishops’ Conference.

Dear NJP

The statement on the environment is very welcome and I applaud the bishops for their commitment to produce a fuller one later in the year. It is, therefore, timely to add your voice to this issue. As the National Justice and Peace Commission you represent the justice and peace initiatives of the bishops’ conference and have to be involved. I trust the bishops and the newly formed environmental committee will consult you all.

 
Red-eyed Tree Frog - From Digital Trends website: www.digitaltrends.com

Red-eyed Tree Frog - From Digital Trends website: www.digitaltrends.com

 

The first thing that struck me about this short statement is the tired phrase, Stewardship of Creation. Immediately it brings to mind a notion of hierarchy and management.

The Cambridge English Dictionary give this definition of stewardship:

Someone's stewardship of something is the way in which that person controls or organises it: The company has been very successful while it has been under the stewardship of Mr White

The Oxford Dictionary is similar:

The job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property: ‘the funding and stewardship of the NHS’ or ‘responsible stewardship of our public lands’

 In my opinion this is the wrong message delivered in the wrong language. I have no idea where ‘stewardship of creation’ comes from, it is not biblical, but it has been around for a long time. Stewardship is not a good word. There is no heart, no humility, no love in it. We are certainly not in control. We are not shop stewards of a factory floor, we are co-inhabitants of an astonishing planet that challenges and nurtures us and provides us with resources and wonderment. The earth and all its life forms are the source of our creativity and daily joy. We are not in charge of this planet, but we have a profound and holy responsibility towards it.

 The statement then goes on to recognise “an unprecedented ecological crisis,” which I hope embraces not only climate change but also the extinction of species. Yet again, however, the phrasing is cold and arm-wavy. I personally don’t like the use of the word ‘ecological’. Ecology is a field of study, like biology, theology, geology. We wouldn’t say there is a biological crisis on earth, but there is certainly an environmental one. I do know that this phrase has slipped into common vernacular but it lacks a depth of understanding that comes from pondering and contemplation on the real meaning behind words.

 Why am I being picky about language? Because language matters and words matter. We are acutely aware of the language people use. When the church says it is a steward or talks about ecology, that sets the tone for the discussion.

 It is also lazy thinking. Simply presenting phrases someone else devised a long time ago gives the impression that this is the sum of things, that this phrase is the best way of expressing the situation and that nothing has moved on. Clichés are detrimental to progress. They are superficial and simply graze the surface, they bring no fresh thoughts or ideas. This is a great shame. We are in unprecedented times and we need a new language that expresses that urgency. Words matter. Expressed well, they bare our uncertainty and pain, desire and weakness, acceptance and humility. We can do well to learn from Greta Thunberg’s eloquence and authenticity.

 “It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make change possible.”

And, yet again, David Attenborough strikes the perfect tone. He is a consummate and emotional storyteller who engages the heart as well as the mind. “We need”, he said, “to fall in love again with the earth.” Words matter.

It is true that everyone is both a storyteller and a lover of stories, it is how we communicate what is important to us. “Stories are just data with a soul” said the inspirational psychologist Brené Brown. Yes, indeed they are. Allow me to tell you one story about a visit I made recently to a nature reserve in Yorkshire.



 
Whimbrel, Andreas Trepte; A.Trepte@gmx.de

Whimbrel, Andreas Trepte; A.Trepte@gmx.de

 

 The Lower Derwent Valley is a National Nature Reserve, an area of open grassland that floods in the winter and dries out in the summer months and provides soft soils, worms and insects for all kinds of life. The wetness of the soil has, so far, saved it from intensive agriculture and conurbation, although both of these press in all around. A hundred new houses are being built nearby and already the site is under increased pressure from dog walkers, light pollution and noise. On this calm spring morning, though, it was beautiful. A whitethroat sang in the bushes and sedge warblers were remarkably prominent as they caught insects for their young that were hidden somewhere in the low shrubs. My favourite sound, the bubbling soul-cry of the curlew, rang out in the distance.

 I sat in a hide with the ranger and we watched 30 whimbrels feeding in long grass about 200 metres away. They are fabulous long-distance migrants that spend the winter in West Africa and breed in Iceland. Their average round trip is 16,000 miles and the fields of the reserve are a stop-over site, or avian service station, that provides food and safe refuge while they gain strength for the final leg of their journey. The birds used to feed in a wider area, in the agricultural land surrounding the reserve, but the continued drainage, intensification and development of the land, as well as increasingly dry weather, has made this very difficult. If this reserve were ever to be requisitioned, the birds would die. It was so sobering - this group of beautiful, tough, long distance travellers are now totally reliant on a couple of fields in a nature reserve in Yorkshire to survive. “You can set your calendar on the day they arrive, 99% of the time on April 19th, its incredible how they time things,” said the ranger “but it also shows their vulnerability. They have to come here, there is nowhere else left.”   

The whimbrels had just flown in from west Africa where they spend the winter months. That part of the continent has seen a 5-fold increase in the human population level since 1950. Back then there were 73 million people but this is projected to exceed 1 billion by 2060. It is the fastest growing region in the world, and 40% of the population is Christian. It is also true that Africa is the future heartland of Catholicism. The number of baptized Catholics on the continent is growing at a significantly faster rate than anywhere else in the world.

 What then for the whimbrels? They face increasing pressures from the spread of agriculture and development on their African wintering grounds, an increase in intensive agriculture and urbanisation in Yorkshire and accelerating climate change affecting their arctic breeding grounds in Iceland. All of these are related to the huge and embarrassing elephants in the room – population increase and rampant consumption, including a diet rich in meat and dairy. All of these difficult issues have to be addressed directly and honestly if any progress is to be made, but I wonder if there is the courage and conviction to do so. It will be painful to tease out what the Church can contribute, but there is no doubt that it has a lot to offer if it squarely faces the challenge.

 Whimbrels, godwits, terns, ducks and geese, to name but a few world travellers, use the whole planet to live out their wild lives, they don’t inhabit just one place. They tie the world together in great migratory flights and we are privileged to host them for just a few short weeks. The responsibility on us is huge. They are telling us an important story.

I hope the bishops’ environmental committee recognises that nothing is seen in isolation, that England and Wales are not isolated from the rest of the world. A whimbrel may not be on the bishops’ radar, but all wildlife tells us about the state of the planet. According to the devastating UN biodiversity report published on May 6th, we are in danger of losing 1 million species because of the way we are using the earth, especially for farming.  We depend on the intricate web of life to keep ecosystems functioning to provide us with pollinators, fresh water, clean air and rich soils - to name but a few essential ‘services’. It is also a terrible tragedy because we are losing the wellspring for so much that makes us human. Not to mention the fact that other life on earth has a right to exist too.

Catholicism is a global religion and in a prime position to address these global concerns. Arm waving statements about an ecological crisis and saving creation only go so far. The Church has 2000 years of truly beautiful and poetic wisdom to draw upon. It has profound insights into the meaning of human and other life on earth. It has the words of inspiring environmental writers like Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry. I hope that these will be drawn out in the summer environment paper. Now, more than ever, we need to be moved to action. We live on a planet that is connected by a web of life upon which we all depend, but there is little in the statement so far that even comes close to recognising this. However, we wait to see, and I wish the authors the very greatest of blessings as they write.

Aubrey Manning Memorial Service

Professor Aubrey Manning died in October last year, aged 89. He was a wonderful man. Our relationship began as a presenter on a Radio 4 series we made together, Rules of Life, and ended as a dear friend. Aubrey taught me much more than simply love of nature. He showed what it is to be an authentic human being full of integrity and love. This is the address I gave at his memorial service in Edinburgh on 13th April 2019. I was asked to comment on his concern for population growth on the natural world, something that concerned him a great deal.

Big Foot - Homo magus pedites

This image was a favourite of Aubrey’s. Big Foot - Homo magno pedites – made by a company in Bristol called Cod Steaks. It has stood in various locations around the country, including outside the Natural History Museums of both London and Oxford. As you can see, it is a large human figure that is squashing the earth out of shape. It is deformed, tearing it apart by its sheer weight. Oil is leaking into the oceans, landscapes are flattened and wildlife is trampled. The outsize figure has the air or someone not too concerned, the pose looks like he is removing annoying debris from the soles of his feet. He, I assume a he, looks down with not a great deal of concern, perhaps a little curious? The sculptor has chosen not to make the figure gross, bloated or ugly, this is a finely proportioned figure - fit, well-fed and young. The overall impression is that the life is being squashed out of the earth by someone who doesn’t really understand what they are doing. Look more carefully and you’ll see that Big Foot is made of lots of small metal babies, forming the lattice work of the body. It is a striking piece of art and I wanted to get to know it better, to understand why it appealed so much to Aubrey. If you’d asked me to pick something that Aubrey would have liked, it probably wouldn’t have been this.  To understand it I wanted to try to get into Aubrey’s heart and mind. I have though a lot about it over the last few weeks. It has to do, of course, with population. Aubrey understood, with a sense of real pain, that the mass of humanity is damaging the world he loved so much.

 

I admit I was quite shocked when I first saw it. Despite being a skilled piece of art it’s not a pleasant message. It’s complex and a little accusatory. And if one thing I know - all of us in this room know – Aubrey loved people. He really did. Everyone fascinated him, he loved humanity in all its variety and difference. But what he did struggle with was the numbers.

 

Aubrey was born in 1930 when the population of the UK was 46 million. He died in 2018 is was 66 million, 20 million more people in these small islands.  The world population in 1930 was 2 billion, today it is fast heading for 8 billion. In Aubrey’s lifetime we have lost well over half of the mass of wildlife on earth. There are far fewer insects humming, birds singing, fish swimming and so on. Not just abroad in the savannah or rainforest, but right here in the UK too. I remember a programme I made with Aubrey on what has happened to wildlife around his boyhood home in Surrey since he was a boy. He said the natural world just seems thinner, more threadbare. There is less accessible, everyday nature than when he was a boy. He remembers wood warblers, kingfishers and many wildflowers. They have gone.  There are far more people, far fewer wild corners, many more pressures on wildlife. It made him immensely sad.

 

So, there is no denying he thought the increase in the human population was to blame, but I think he liked this image so much because it doesn’t blame any single group or nation in particular – it doesn’t finger point – this is all of us.  We all consume and take from the earth. Of course, Aubrey well understood that some take far more than others, that richer western countries consume the vast amount of the world’s resources, but the direction of travel for all nations is towards greater consumption, not less. And the trajectory, at least for the next few decades, is for an increasing population. This ate away at him, particularly in his later years.

 

Aubrey joined David Attenborough and became a patron of the charity Population Matters, which raises awareness of the problems caused by the growing human population and he was passionate about it. He wrote many letters and campaigned and lobbied tirelessly. But not because he thought people are a bad thing, his concern didn’t come from being anti-people, it came from a deep love of the earth and he wanted future generations to experience the awe and wonder of the natural world as he had done. He wanted people to live on a thriving planet that supported their needs but at the same time allowed other life to flourish too.

 

And there is no doubt Aubrey revelled in the wildness of the earth. I remember going with him to the Scottish island of Rhum to do a programme on the red deer rut. If you have never experienced it, the rut is a life tick.  Red deer males are so pumped up in the breeding season they barely eat, they bellow and paw the ground and they swish their antlers through vegetation. We spent the night in a row of tin huts on a remote part of Rhum, away from any houses or roads, to see the deer being studied by Josephine Pemberton as part of a famous, long-term research programme. That night, after we had gone to bed, a red deer stag called Clatter 95 came to the hut and I was woken by the sound of him bashing his huge antlers against the tin wall of my bedroom. He was bellowing outside my window. It was quite scary! The next morning Aubrey was like a 6-year-old, so excited by what had happened. “Did you hear it!  It was fantastic!” And many a time afterwards he said, “I wonder what happened to dear old Clatter 95??” It amused him greatly to discover that Clatter was impressive in the antler department but in fact sired very few offspring and died a few years later from exhaustion! His skull rests in the research station as one of the famous red deer stags of the island.

 

On our way back to the mainland we chartered a small boat. It was a windy, stormy day. I am a poor sailor and sat in a corner of the deck going a deeper shade of green by the second. Aubrey, though, stood at the bow, open coat flapping in the wind, loving every single second. He reminded me of a passage from a book by my conservation hero, John Muir, who describes sailing off the east coast of America, the white spray and wind thrilling him to his soul. That was Aubrey. He was a giant of a man who was as excited about discussing natural history as music as my work on curlews as he was describing the “delicious” characters conjured up in the mind of Trollope, his favourite author. And no one, simply no one, could say “delicious” like Aubrey.

 

I personally learned so much from him. I treasured every minute I spent with him. As Stephanie Hilbourne said, spending time with Aubrey was like reading a book you never want to end. But I think what I learned most from him was the importance of integrity. His life was full of integrity. He was an authentic, deeply honest and good human being, and that is worth more than anything else. I shall miss him so very much.

Finding words

IMG_1951.JPG

Yesterday a friend asked me to help with some phrases for a talk he was giving on curlews and the crisis they are facing. It was a strange request in some ways as I haven’t thought like that before. So I sat down and wrote from the heart.

I said I would start by asking the audience what really matters to them? I bet if you did a poll very few, if any, would say just money. No one runs their lives purely on the basis of what something costs. Be that an otter or a sparrow, an elephant or a river, we value them for their own, magnificent selves, not because somehow their presence translates into cash. They lift our hearts, that is all that matters. I’d then ask, what do you teach your children? What do you want for their future? We all want the next generation to be good, fine citizens - rounded and balanced. We want them to inhabit a world that is full of wonder and awe. So, I doubt anyone tells them a bedtime story on how to invest in shares or hedge funds. We read to them about songs and animals, love and joy. We take them through forests and into outer space. We ask them to listen and be a quiet person when a mouse comes tiptoeing through the brambles, then shout loudly when a dolphin leaps or an elephant charges. These are the fantastical, earth inspired adventures we take our littles ones on when we pick up a book or go to the park. So what happens as we get older? Why don’t we notice when something beautiful slips away? Why does it take the empty seat on the bus where the curlew sat, or the eagle or the lion, to be permanently empty before we realise what is happening?  Sadly we do, despite being members of wildlife organisations and caring in our hearts for the state of the planet.

We are a species that wants to live with other species, it seems to be part of our nature to reach out to our fellow travellers, but we do a good job of letting them fade away.

I think we love birds like curlews simply because they take us to where the wild things are - out onto the estuary, onto the shores of the ocean, into cold, wet, quiet fields. We love that burst of song that stops us in our tracks and for a moment, we can just listen, just be with a beautiful, shy bird.  But the declines continue and we are getting perilously close to the time when it will be silent in those places where we loved to listen to them tremble their way through spring and summer. Is there no longer any room in our lives for a singer of wild songs? Sadly, it seems not.