The ecological crisis has revealed that our world constitutes a seamless whole, that our problems are universally shared. This means that no initiative or institution, no nation or corporation, neither science nor technology, is in the position to respond to the ecological crisis alone, without working closely together. Our response calls for the convergence and common drive of religions, science and technology, of all social sectors and organizations, as well as all people of goodwill. A model of cooperation is what is required and not a method of competition; we must work in a collaborative and complementary way. Unfortunately, however, today we witness economic interests and geopolitical models working against such cooperation in the field of environmental protection.
We must recall that climate change is an issue that is closely related to our current model of economic development. An economy that ignores human beings and human needs inevitably leads to an exploitation of the natural environment. Nevertheless, we continue to threaten humanity’s existence and deplete nature’s resources in the name of short-term profit and benefit. How can we possibly imagine a sustainable development that comes at the expense of the natural environment?
As you are already aware, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has long highlighted the spiritual and moral roots of the ecological crisis, while emphasizing the solidarity between humanity and nature. Moreover, it has underlined the need for a spiritual transformation of human beings and their attitude toward creation. Ecological problems point to a problematic view of human beings, of our needs and priorities that shape our attitudes and practices towards the world. The destruction of the natural environment can only be reversed through a radical change of our perspective towards nature that results from a radical change of our self-understanding as human beings. How ironic it is that we have never possessed so much knowledge about our world as today, and yet never before have we been more destructive toward one another and nature.
For the Orthodox Church, creation care – the preservation of nature and the protection of all people – emanates from the essence of our faith. Any kind of alienation between human beings and nature is a distortion of Christian theology and anthropology. As declared by the encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in June 2016, every Christian is called to be a “steward, protector and ‘priest’ of creation, offering it by way of doxology to the Creator.”
This is precisely why our Church undertook various international, interfaith and interdisciplinary initiatives for the environment throughout our Patriarchal tenure. We organized symposia, seminars and summits; we addressed religious communities and political assemblies; and we were personally involved in the process leading up to the historic Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015. This is also why we issued a joint message with Pope Francis last September, pleading for the priority of service in our relationship to nature and our fellow human beings. And, finally, this is why we organized the present symposium to explore the environmental problems in this region, examining the connections between ecological justice and social justice, in the context of pressing environmental and social challenges of our time both in Greece and globally.
Therefore, during our sessions over the coming days, we will focus on the critical relationship between religion and science, especially as it impacts the natural environment. We shall assess the fundamental connection between ecology and ethics, especially as it relates to social attitudes. We shall address the intimate association between war and immigration, especially as it generates forced migration. And throughout, we shall emphasize the vital, transformative role of faith in the lives of individuals, communities and peoples.
Of course, there is always a very tangible and local dimension to caring for creation. This is the principal purpose behind our symposium title: “Toward a Greener Attica.” For while much is done to raise awareness about climate change in this beautiful country, much still remains to be done. For example, when will we see a reduction of the unacceptable trash in the surrounding mountainsides of Attica with its deplorable landfills? Or when will we see a solution to the unjustifiable plastic on the floor of the surrounding sea that threatens marine life?
Like almost half of Greece’s population, more than half of its marine litter lies in the region of the Saronic Gulf. And it is not only the Saronic Gulf. The Ionian Sea is also at risk, threatening residents of Lefkada and the mainland with increasing nonbiodegradable waste from vessels.
We must protect our waters and our seas. Greece’s marine environment is a vital part of its story and its people, of its economy and its ecology. Would it not be refreshing to see that area of the Ionian Sea honoring its designation as one of the largest Natura 2000 areas of the country, protected by the European Union? Would it not be inspiring to see Athens join other cities like Paris and Berlin in promoting the human right to water and defending it as a common good? Recently, Thessaloniki became the first Blue Community in Greece. These are the joint efforts that we are called to strive for and create if we truly wish to protect our water for future generations.
From the outset, we have underlined the interconnection between environmental and social problems, as well as the necessity to address them in conjunction and in collaboration. Preserving and protecting the natural environment, as well as respecting and serving our fellow human beings, are two sides of one and the same coin. The consequences of the ecological crisis – which affect, first and foremost, the socially and economically vulnerable – are a serious threat for social cohesion and integration. The identity of every society and measure of every culture are not judged by the degree of technological development, economic growth or public infrastructure. Our civil life and civilization are defined and judged primarily by our respect for the dignity of humanity and integrity of nature.
Moreover, there is an intimate link between caring for creation and worshipping the creator, between an economy for the poor and an ecology for the planet. When we hurt people, we harm the earth. So, our extreme greed and excessive waste are not only economically unacceptable; they are ecologically unsustainable. In fact, they are ethically unforgivable. This is how we must interpret the Lord’s words in the parable of the last judgment: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” (Matthew 25.35)
Dear friends, all of us are called to challenge – but also to change – the way that we consume in order to learn how to conserve for the sake of our planet and for the benefit of its people. When we conserve, we recognize that we must serve one another. “Conserving” implies sharing our concern for the earth and its inhabitants. It signifies the ability to see in our neighbor – in every other person – the face of every human being and ultimately the face of God. This is surely the deeper justification of all that we do – each of us from our own profession, vocation and belief. Otherwise, we cannot say that we demonstrate compassion for our planet and our neighbor, or that we really care about the world’s resources and communities.
May this symposium be an opportunity for inspiration, conversation and transformation. Our aim is to advance a collaborative response to the ecological crisis while advocating for a sustainable planet and social justice for humanity as a sacred legacy for all people, especially our children. We have no doubt that our presentations and deliberations will help us move “just a little farther” and rise “just a little higher” (as the Greek Nobel laureate George Seferis would say) through the invaluable contributions of those who have devoted their lives, their work and their skills to advocate for and promote the integrity of creation and a just world. Let us, however, always bear in mind – beyond any success or failure – our ultimate hope as Christians lies in our Savior’s humble descent from “the highest” in order to “make all things new” (Revelation 21.5) and help us ascend into the “righteousness and peace and joy” of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14.17)
Thank you and may God bless you!
* The above comprises extracts from the keynote address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios at the opening of the Ecological Symposium at the Acropolis Museum in Athens on June 5.