Back to Forum

Creation and Nonviolence: Reflections in Light of COP 26

Introduction

In November 2021, the UK played host to the COP26 Conference at which discussions took place to consider how nations could work towards the targets set out in the Paris Agreement and UN Convention on Climate Change. Whilst this generated a great deal of excitement and activity,[1] this was balanced by a sense of scepticism which questioned whether the conference’s aims would really be met, and whether those present could really be trusted to commit to them.[2] Indeed, it is already being widely lauded in the media as a failure.[3] Whether this is the case or not, only time will tell. However, one key issue left, worryingly, out of the debate was the issue of militarism and its effects on climate change.[4] This piece will reflect on the implications of neglecting this issue in light of Catholic social thought.

War, Militarism, and the Environment

According to the Scientists for Global Responsibility, global military action accounts for 6% of all emissions.[5] However, often, discussions around environmentalism tend to focus only on the effects of consumerism and business. Yet war and militarism has a staggering impact on climate change through the use of fossil fuels and natural resources, as well as damage to the earth caused through conflict. Prominent examples of this include the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War which caused defoliation, and the pollution caused through oil spills in the First Gulf War. In Afghanistan, over the last 30 years nearly one-third of the country’s trees have been cut down through illegal logging by warlords, backed by the US, or due to harvesting be displaced persons needing shelter and fuel. This has further resulted in drought, the loss of species, and desertification; Afghanistan has seen its number of migratory birds fall by 85%.[6]

Even when not engaged in direct conflict, the military industrial complex has a huge negative impact on the environment. The US military alone has a carbon footprint bigger than 140 countries. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization founded by students and faculty at MIT, found that the US military is the biggest institutional consumer of oil, using more than 100 million barrels of oil per year. This is equivalent to 4 million trips around the earth.[7] (And this is despite the fact that since the beginning of the 2000s the US military has been trying to reduce their fuel consumption). Since the start of the global war on terror in 2001, Brown University has found that the US military has produced 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases; this is equivalent to the annual emissions of 256 million cars, more than double the number of vehicles currently in America.[8] This is similar to the CO2 emissions that a mid-sized European country such as Denmark would produce.[9]

The testing and manufacture of nuclear weapons adds an even more aggressive element to this crisis. Often the debates around nuclear weapons frame the issue as a danger to our future. However, nuclear testing is already having a devastating affect now. Nuclear testing facilities around the world have contaminated water and land with radioactive waste, affecting the environment for 100,000 years, and the effects of just one nuclear warhead would result in widespread famine and drought. We can see such devastation in the aftermath of the Bikini Atoll tests, which caused radiation contamination to the local islanders’ food source. Furthermore, investment and manufacture in the arms trade further depletes the earth’s resources, for the purposes of violence, whilst simultaneously ignoring the ‘cry of the poor’ who lack the basic necessities.[10]

Moreover, ecological inequality and access to resources perpetuates the cycle of violence. According to the Ecological Threat Register, the 19 countries with the highest number of ecological threats, are also amongst the least peaceful countries in the world, further exacerbating the countries’ capacity to protect their populations from ecological threats; these include Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.[11] This denotes a worrying trend. According to the UN, whilst the number of deaths from war has been declining since 1946, violence and conflict are only rising, exacerbated by scarcity of resources due to climate change. In 2016, more countries experienced conflict than at any other point during the last 30 years, and in the past 15 years, more than half of the global population has lived in direct proximity to political violence.[12] Without immediate action this worrying trend is set to continue. By 2040, a total of 5.4 billion people are expected to live in countries facing extreme water shortages, and the same amount are projected to live in food insecurity by 2050, the consequences of which include mass displacement, competition of resources, increased civil unrest, and political instability.[13] In 2021, there were only 23 countries not engaged in some form of conflict.[14]

Integral Ecology and Violence

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks of the intertwined nature of violence. He states that

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22)’ (LS 2).[15]

Francis further emphasises how our salvation, and that of the earth is bound together and realised in the Cosmic Christ. He suggests ‘that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour, and with the earth itself’ (LS 66).

This view of an integral ecology links the care of the natural world with care and justice for each other, which sets the tone for how Francis believes we should approach ‘ecological conversion’. Part of what a call to ecological conversion must entail, therefore, is a conversion to nonviolence. In his 2017 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Francis argues that nonviolence gives us a style of politics for peace. Here he calls us to ‘make active nonviolence our way of life’ and reiterates Pope Paul VI’s claim that ‘Peace is the only true direction of human progress’. Here Francis includes the ‘devastation of the environment’ as an act of violence, as well as the injustice of resources being channelled into militarism and away from those who really need them. Francis explains that violence leads to both physical and spiritual death.[16] It is here that his call to “ecological conversion” becomes so central; this means readdressing our relationships not just to creation but also to each other.

Integral Peace

Amy Woolam Echeverria, from the Global Catholic Climate Movement, argues for such an approach in what she terms ‘integral peace’. She argues that ‘‘To work actively for the care of creation is to actively work for nonviolence. This work, grounded in an ecological spirituality is more than environmentalism; it is a path of our vocation and peaceful Christian discipleship for the 21st century’.[17] She continues to demonstrate how a commitment to integral ecology necessitates a commitment to integral peace. She writes that:

Integral ecology is an idea in Laudato Si’ that invites us to see the interconnectedness of all things… In this same way, an integral peace invites us to an expansive understanding of what must be included in building peace within and among communities. If we do not consider just peace and active nonviolence to include all of Creation, we will continue to perpetuate lifestyles and systems of violence that wound each other, the environment and the Cosmic Christ.[18]

This commitment to nonviolence lies at the heart of our faith; it is the strategy offered to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and exemplified in the Crucifixion. Here, violence encountered in the world is met with the unconditional, nonviolent love of God.[19] Indeed, this ethic of nonviolence lies too at the heart of creation. As the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative expresses ‘The nonviolent life to which we are called is rooted in the life of God and God’s longing for humanity.’ This unconditional love grounds, creates and maintains all life, rooted in the infinite goodness that the three Persons of the one God endlessly and inseparably share with one another and with all creation. This eternal communion is the ceaseless mutuality of ontological nonviolence in action, grounded in the foundational relationality of God.[20]

Whilst Pope Francis has pledged ‘the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence’,[21] there is still much work to be done. As John Dear notes, Pope Francis’ calls for nonviolence have often been met with indifference, even hostility, in factions of the Church.[22] Bishop Robert McElroy too, emphasises how, ‘We need to mainstream nonviolence in the Church. We need to move it from the margins of Catholic thought to the centre. Nonviolence is a spirituality, a lifestyle, a programme of societal action and a universal ethic’.[23] To truly embody an integral ecology, therefore, the Church needs to commit to an integral vision of nonviolence, to convert hearts and minds. Our pre-existing faith communities offer us with a rich resource to move forwards here.

Conclusion

Due to the huge damage that global conflict has caused to the environment, a failure to mitigate the effects of military activity calls into question any success in tackling climate change. Whilst, international organizations, such as the UN, are becoming increasingly aware of the links between environmental damage and peace and security,[24] it is clear that for many, military might and national security are prioritised over environmentalism. Due to the intertwined nature between environmental degradation and conflict, part of what a call to ecological conversion must entail, therefore, is a conversion to nonviolence. The magnitude of the problems of environmental damage demand such an approach. Any solution must be marked by global solidarity and cooperation; we cannot restore harmony to the earth without restoring harmony amongst ourselves. As Francis notes in Laudato Si’, ‘we require a new and universal solidarity’ (LS 14).

[1] Estimates place attendees at the march alone at 100,000. See ‘COP26: Thousands march for Glasgow’s biggest protest’, BBC News (6/11/2021) [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-59185007]

[2] See for example the opinions of Greta Thunberg; Emily Atkinson, ‘Greta Thunberg dismisses Cop26 as more ‘blah, blah, blah’, Independent (14/11/2021) [https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/greta-thunberg-cop26-blah-b1957364.html]

[3] For example, see John Vidal, ‘It could have been worse, but our leaders failed us at Cop26. That’s the truth of it’, Guardian (31/11/2021) [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/13/heres-the-truth-our-leaders-at-cop26-have-failed-us-the-rest-is-spin] and Michael Sheldrick, ‘COP26: A Failure for the Planet and the World’s Poor’, Forbes (15/11/2021) [https://www.forbes.com/sites/globalcitizen/2021/11/15/cop26-a-failure-for-the-planet-and-the-worlds-poor/?sh=4486f0fd2275].

[4] Tom Ambrose, ‘World’s militaries avoiding scrutiny over emissions, scientists say’, Guardian (11/11/2021) [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/11/worlds-militaries-avoiding-scrutiny-over-emissions]

[5] Dr Stuart Parkinson, ‘The carbon boot-print of the military’, Scientists for Global Responsibility (2/1/2020) [https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/carbon-boot-print-military-0]

[6] Karl Mathiesen, ‘What’s the environmental impact of modern war?’, Guardian (6/11/2014) [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/06/whats-the-environmental-impact-of-modern-war]

[7] Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘The US Military and Oil’ (1/6/2014) [The US Military and Oil | Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org)]

[8] Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs ‘Pentagon Fuel Use’ [https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/ClimateChangeandCostofWar]

[9] Mathiesen, ‘What’s the environmental impact of modern war?’

[10] Marie Dennis and Ken Butigan, Pax Christi International, ‘Gospel Nonviolence for a Laudato Si’ Future’ [https://nonviolencejustpeace.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Gospel-nonviolence-for-a-Laudato-Si-future_ENG_V2.pdf]

[11] Vision of Humanity, ‘Countries Facing Most Ecological Threats are Least Peaceful’ [https://www.visionofhumanity.org/countries-facing-most-ecological-threats-among-least-peaceful/]

[12] UN, ‘A New Era of Conflict and Violence’ [https://www.un.org/en/un75/new-era-conflict-and-violence]

[13] Vision of Humanity, ‘Countries Facing Most Ecological Threats are Least Peaceful’

[14] Kaisha Langton, ‘The 174 Countries at War in 2021’, Express (1/9/2021) [https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1484509/countries-at-war-2021-map-EVG]

[15] As Pope Francis illustrates, the story of Cain and Abel provides us with an excellent example of how violence towards each other and violence towards the earth is inherently conjoined. Here, ‘we see how envy led Cain to commit the ultimate injustice against his brother, which in turn ruptured the relationship between Cain and God, and between Cain and the earth from which he was banished’ (LS 70).

[16] Pope Francis, ‘Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace’ (1/1/2017) [https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-l-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html]

[17] Nonviolence and creation care/climate justice, Amy Woolam Echeverria

[18] Amy Woolam Echeverria, ‘Nonviolence and creation care/climate justice’, (2019) [https://nonviolencejustpeace.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Nonviolence-and-creation-care-climate-justice.pdf]

[19] Pope Francis, ‘Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace’.

[20] ‘A Universal Ethic of Nonviolence’, (23/8/2019) [https://cac.org/a-universal-ethic-of-nonviolence-2019-08-23/] Adapted from a document by Pax Christi International’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, ‘Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and the World: Biblical, Theological, Ethical, Pastoral and Strategic Dimensions of Nonviolence’.

[21] Pope Francis, ‘Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace’.

[22] John Dear, They Will Inherit the Earth (Orbis, 2018) pp. 112; 137.

[23] Bishop Robert McElroy: Statement, ‘Path of Nonviolence: Toward a Culture of Peace’, Symposium, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (Vatican City; 4-5/4/2019).

[24] Amy Woolam Echeverria, ‘Nonviolence and creation care/climate justice’.