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Teaching Environmental Ethics in Africa

Teaching Environmental Ethics in Africa

By:  Peter Knox SJ

For the past semester I have been teaching an elective course in Christian Ethics and the Environment at Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya.  I have been heartened by the participation of the students, and by their awareness of issues surrounding the environment. Informed and inspired by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) we engaged enthusiastically with issues arising from experiences of environmental degradation.


The participating students were from Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Issues on which they wrote their research papers ranged from air pollution and its associated respiratory diseases, to industrial pollution of rivers causing loss of livelihood for communities dependent on fishing, to deforestation through the wholesale plundering of the forests of the Congo River Basin and the attendant loss of biodiversity, to bushfires resulting in untold damage to grassland and the resultant soil erosion.


We were very pleased to share the final class with Prof. Veronica Gaylie, from the University of British Columbia, who is spending part of a sabbatical year in Kenya. Veronica showed how simple it is to link one’s spirituality to environmental concerns. She reduced biodiversity to day-to-day terms, saying that each human being is an expression of biodiversity, according to God’s design. Veronica has been one of the authors contributing to “Healing Earth” an online textbook launched this year by the International Jesuit Ecology Project out of Loyola University in Chicago. See . This attractive textbook is a wonderful resource for undergraduate studnets of pupils in their final years of high school.


I was intrigued at how the students have a high degree of awareness of the mega-issues and yet feel quite powerless and demonstrate little initiative when it comes to tackling some of the local issues, even on campus, or in our city of Nairobi. We all heartily agreed with LS 38, 179 and 181 where Pope Francis advocates applying pressure to local and national governments to enforce healthier and more sustainable environmental options. Yet there was a singular lack of ideas about how we can do this in our respective coutries. We agreed with the principle of changing lifestyles (LS 206), but were a bit challenged about how we might do this in practice.


In retrospect, it has become apparent to me that our classroom teaching is still very cerebral. (This is a Jesuit School of Theology, after all.) We understand the principles; we see the larger picture; we concur with the idea of political pressure. But translating theory to practice remains a major challenge. Is it because of institutional inertia, lack of time, lack of conviction, or lack of empowerment? Is it ineveitable that Catholic Social Teaching focuses on the global themes, but leaves us stranded when it comes to local action? Even participation in the Kenya Green Universities Network launched in January under the auspices of the United Nations seems to be an effort that we could not manage. These are issues I will bear in mind the next time I am teaching the elective.