Seán McDonagh – Making Peace With Nature

Seán MacDonagh’s article from The Tablet 30 Dec 2020:

The year ahead: the environment

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.” The apocalyptic nature of what is happening to our world was captured by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in a virtual address on the state of our planet that he gave at Columbia University, New York, a few weeks ago, writes Sean McDonagh.

Full article below:

The year ahead: the environment

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.” The apocalyptic nature of what is happening to our world was captured by the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in a virtual address on the state of our planet that he gave at Columbia University, New York, a few weeks ago, writes Sean McDonagh.

We are waging this war without understanding the consequences either for humanity, or the planet. As Guterres points out, biodiversity is collapsing, with one million species facing extinction. In Australia’s Black Summer bushfire last year, it is estimated that three billion koalas, kangaroos and other animals were killed or displaced. Dr Lily van Eeden, one of the researchers who took part in the study, said that she couldn’t think of a worse fire for wildlife: “If we think about known mass mortalities of animals, I’m not aware of anything that compares.”

In August, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported more than 7,000 fires, the second largest wildfire season in history, creating havoc. Many scientists thought that the Arctic fires in the summer of 2019 were a once-off occurrence, with computer models predicting it would not happen again until 2050. The Arctic fires of 2020 proved these projections wrong. It now appears that in future these fires will start earlier and end later.

Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes; deserts are spreading, wetlands are being lost and we are losing 10 million hectares of forest each year. Every marine ecosystem is being destroyed by plastic pollution.

The UN Convention on Biodiversity aims to protect biodiversity by using the diversity of nature without destroying it and sharing any benefits from genetic diversity equally. The fifteenth UN Biodiversity Conference – COP15 – had been scheduled to take place in Kunming in China last October but because of Covid-19 was postponed to 17-30 May this year. It is due to end before the UK hosts COP26 in Glasgow in November, and one of the goals of COP15 is for nature-based solutions to contribute significantly to achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is estimated that there are almost 300 global, regional and local conventions aimed at protecting biodiversity, locally and globally. These must be strengthened.

The last few decades have given us a host of pandemics, from Covid-19 to Sars, Mers, Ebola, HIV, Zika and H1N1. Because of the way humans are colonising every ecosystem we can expect more frequent pandemics – because degraded ecosystems favour creatures such as bats and rodents that carry these diseases to the human population.

To avoid the next pandemic we must control the enormous global wildlife trade, eradicate illegal bushmeat, and protect forests. This would benefit the global economy significantly according to a report by the intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It estimates that implementing these policies would cost between $40-58 billion each year – but the report claims that the Covid-19 pandemic had cost the global economy up to $9 trillion by July 2020. However, the health benefits for humanity are even more important. If we continue our attack on nature, the next virus to cross over to infect humans might be as infectious as Covid-19 and more deadly than Sars.

Our world is under threat, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable – even in rich countries – who are facing the brunt of the consequences. As Pope Francis writes in Let Us Dream: “For a long time we carried on thinking we could be healthy in a world that was sick. But the [pandemic] has brought home how important it is to work for a healthy world … The green and the social go hand in hand. The fate of Creation is tied to the fate of all humanity.”

In his address, António Guterres declared: “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the twenty-first century.” And, he added, echoing Pope Francis, “ultimately this is a moral test … We cannot use [our] resources to lock in policies that burden [future generations] with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.”

There are signs of hope. The US President-elect, Joe Biden, has signalled his intention to hitch the United States back to the wagon of the Paris Agreement, to pursue a green recovery from Covid. Biden along with countries including China and the UK, and the EU, have adopted targets of reaching net-zero emissions around the middle of the century.

Renewable energy is now as cheap as coal in many regions, and new technologies such as electric cars are gaining pace. By the end of 2021 we will have a clearer idea of whether or not the world is truly committed to rising to the greatest scientific, political and moral challenge it has faced.

Sean McDonagh is a Columban missionary priest and President of An Taisce – the National Trust for Ireland.



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  1. Kevin Walters says:

    Unfortunately, you have to subscribe to The Tablet to read the full Article. Nevertheless “it is peculiar, though, how the observation of life, birth, and the rounds of nature’s dance can lead to the contemplation of death”

    Harrogate Town
    Harrogate’s banner of civic pride we have green on every, side
    Crocuses and snowdrops displaying *The Stray
    Soon the cherry blossom will chase them away
    But to-day is March and it is grey
    Moist mist clinging to tree,
    Sodden earth, mould on wet leaf mingled with grass,
    Snapped twigs of winds long past
    Popping heads pushing through
    White and gold with a tint of purply hue
    Snowdrops bent looking at you
    Trees tinged with bud
    Giving life to dry wood
    But marring the town a flag of success
    A thing to be seen in every village and stream
    A bright red can saying “Look who I am”
    The epitaph of modern man
    Profit make’th the man.

    *’The Stray is a long area of public parkland in the centre of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, comprising 200 acres of contiguous open land. Looks awesome during Cherry blossom time’

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Making peace with nature? Make peace with the indigenous of the planet and they, themselves will help plough the way for a reconnection with nature. They are experts and can show us what to do.

    Mountains of debt – return it all to the fed (Caesar) – money doesn’t work in isolation except for perhaps fire-starting. It certainly doesn’t work in a pandemic or in an emergency. Benefitting the global economy? Really? Can we lock the natural environment now into some sort of planned obsolescence too? How does one grow GDP without planned obsolescence? The Paris agreement that took place was also met with one that ensured that 66 countries retained access to off-shore locations (oh, Ireland you are one of them sadly) so that tax relief without trickle-down economics can be assured. TIEAs and faulty tax codes in the lot of them. Joe Biden may present a “hope” but until action that fits science comes into the forefront, there is nothing to hope for. Scientists haven’t been able to advance the spiritual awakening that is needed across the species – perhaps they are awaiting the Roman Catholic Church to answer that call?

    Net-zero targets at a time when the oceans are heaving and umbilical cords are testing positive for synthetics/plastics (oh the horror of fertility affecting chemicals *draw attention to a comment on your article here Fr. McDonagh in 2013) don’t seem like they are addressing the complexity of the fossil fuel issue. 100s of millions of tonnes of decaying munitions at the bottom of the ocean complicates things a tad as well. Staring into the apocalypse is no fun. Understanding the economics and wealth distribution isn’t any walk in the park.

    The Council on Inclusive Capitalism (my mind pictures “fresh-frozen” as a like-comparison in an oxy-moronic sense) appears to want to push The Great Reset even further. Inclusive, circular, regenerative, cosmo-localized approaches are all great in theory but the scientists have no real way to bridge the gaps on the outside world while they work on the individual sectors. ART + SCIENCE = TRANSITION – repeat it. What could be born within this Church under that simple addition is marvellous. I can see it, have been trying to advance it locally, but the general population is still stuck in a planned obsolescence model/culture.

    Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, comes to mind…

    A likely Climate Change Task Force would be: Michel Bauwens, Gabor Kiss, Neri Oxman, Elon Musk – circular economics, cosmo-localization, regenerative design, cloud-based manufacturing – but the key ingredient is regenerative design…extracted compounds + planned obsolescence = shattered dreams.

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