Spring 1986, Vol. 38, pp. .

Anthony J. Gittens:
      Ecology and World Poverty: A Christian Response

World poverty and ecological demands compel Christians to review, to change and to simplify their own life-styles asa full response to Gospel admonitions.

Father Gittens, C.S.Sp., is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, a social an thropologist, and associate professor of mission theology at the Catholic Theological Union Chicago.

EVERY disciple, every authentic Christian, must be on the road: not yet arrived or perfect, but moving, striving, falling and restarting in hope. In this article I consider an indictment which may go unheeded by many but which must be faced by the few. Those who are attentive may be less interested in gauging whether they are on the road or by the wayside like whited sepulchres (Matt. 23:27-28), than in simply drawing closer to Christ and initiating the Kingdom; yet the image of bleached graves may still serve to galvanize the lethargic.

The indictment -- not so much a specific verbal accusation as a cry from the heart of nature -- is that in a world of finite resources characterized by delicate symbiotic relationships and scarred by obscene poverty and unconscionable human suffering, our perceptions about Christian responsibility and our standard lifestyle are culpably unrealistic and selfish, our voiced good wishes for exploited and deprived humanity are pious velleities, and our good intentions are often the very stuff with which hell is proverbially paved.

Papal pronouncements are depressingly unhelpful, offering little more than a justification of humanitys right to dominate and master, subdue and rule, with scant respect or sensitivity for our world, and a deathly silence about moral values relating to ecology and environment. So, after briefly articulating the scope and urgency of the problem, I will consider a number of elements which might constitute a meditation leading to an individual and collective response. Consider these almost random statistics:

Topsoil erosion in U.S. resulting from mechanized agriculture, would each year fill a freight train long enough to circle the globe eighteen times.

The lower atmosphere is invaded each day by 500,000 tons of pollutants.

Acid rain returning to the land is estimated to kill lakes at such a rate that within the next fifteen years 48,000 in Ontario alone, will be dead.

In 1978, on average, each American produced over 100 pounds of non-toxic waste, per day (twenty tons per year). As for toxic waste, in 1980 there were an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 hazardous waste sites in the U.S.(1)

The developed nations, by systematic spoliation of the nonrenewable resources of the world, are destroying the ecosystem (the dynamic aspect of the environment, or the interrelationship between the various organisms). Fossil fuels are non-renewable; and to propose the development and use of nuclear energy to replace the billions of tons of coal, oil, and gas annually consumed, is, as Schumacher says, to solve the fuel issue by creating such a monstrous ecological problem that we should be terrified.(2) The pollution of the air, seas, lakes, and earth which is spreading like a cancer over the planet, will prove terminal unless halted very, very soon; and if the rape of the mineral reserves continues, then assuming only a 2.5% annual increase in use, and even projecting a 500% increase in the reserves, we would still reach 80% depletion of iron in 2140, having previously reached it for all other metals.(3)The future is no brighter when one looks at food production. Figures show that a peasant agriculture can produce perhaps ten times as many calories as it expends in labour, whereas a modern mechanized farm produces 6,000 calories for every calorie of energy expended. But once we quantify the mechanized energy in terms of calories we arrive at the astounding and depressing fact that in U.S. a can of corn (270 calories) costs 2790 calories of total energy to produce and deliver. And to produce the same 270 calories of beef (about 4 ounces), costs 22,000 calories of energy!(4)

The ideas of intermediate or appropriate technology, espoused and developed by Fritz Schumacher, provide a potential and partial answer, but unless we earthlings drastically modify our mentality of acquisitiveness and domination, we will soon reach a point where it is impossible to reverse the damage to ourselves, our world, and our future.(5) There are no simple solutions, only radical responses. Consider this from a North American Indian:

We saw the Great Spirit's work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind and mountains. Sometimes we approached him through these things .... I think we have . . . a stronger faith than that of most whites who call us pagans. Indians living close to nature and nature's ruler, are not living in darkness. Did you know that trees talk? Well, they do. They talk to each other, and they'll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don't listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don't suppose they'll listen to the other voices in nature.(6)
A nation which wastes eighty-five to ninety percent of its energy, and which annually squanders more fossil fuels than two thirds of the world uses, does not seem to be listening.(7) Not only do ostensibly pagan Indians accuse whites of blasphemy, but many others, sometimes ridiculed as ecology freaks, believe that the earth demands respect and that humanity will demean itself before it destroys itself, unless it learns to respond to nature's exigencies.(8) Francis of Assisi, in the words of Carlo Carretto, points to the irony:

You speak a great deal about human rights today, and this is good. The first human right is not to be subjected to violence, to be left in peace. [It] is biblical in scope and you should live it to the hilt. But . . . nonviolence regards first of all nature, the skies, the seas, the mines, the forests, the air, the water, the home.

These are the first objects of nonviolence. It is a terrible sin you have committed all around you, and I do not know whether you can still be saved. You have violated the forests, defiled the seas, plundered everything like a bunch of bandits. Your contempt for nature knows no bounds. If there were a court of the skies, or of the mines, you would, all of you (or almost all) be under sentence of death . . . Your punishment has certainly begun. You can scarcely breathe your air. Your food has become unhealthy. Cancer assaults you with more and more regularity. And now that you have destroyed almost everything, you have appointed me patron saint of ecology. You have to admit it is a little late.(9)

Where are the armies of committed Christians responding to the denunciation: "Away from me . . . for I was hungry and you never fed me . . ."? Where are Christians in general, in the crusade to respect the earth in a spirit of stewardship and with a sense of responsibility for future life? Even if we are swayed by the prospect of Armageddon, fear alone is hardly an adequate motive for conversion. And unless we scrutinize our current attitudes we will find it almost impossible to produce a compelling reason for radical change, and easy to rationalize our behavior and argue for the insignificance of our own efforts in a mad world. So perhaps a little self-examination is in order.


There is probably a systemic relationship between religions or belief-systems and the ecology. If nature is in some way the model for anthropomorphic ideas of the deity, this may be a partial explanation for the diversity of notions about the supreme being. For example, Western civilization, fattened on Rationalism, prospering through the Enlightenment and maturing in the industrial Revolution, has dethroned God and enthroned science and technology (though lately the throne seems less secure). We have been affected as the "Secular City" has expanded to invade our lives and attitudes; though we would not want to kill a bird or cut down a tree, we passively assist each day at mass executions of organisms and stand mute while mayhem is committed on the atmosphere. Modern technocracies feed on progress and are gluttons for energy; their ethics reflect this voraciousness and they rationalize or justify increasing entropy.(10) Human ingenuity may be invoked as a deus ex machina to rescue a godless world, but there may come a point when ingenuity and the machina simply do not measure up; ingenuity is impotent to redeem the human family, and science lacks the power to save. Only a world with room for a God has adequate and appropriate grounds for hoping it will not destroy itself. But Christians need to rediscover the balance and equilibrium that is such a palpable element in the traditional religions of Africa and the Americas. A happy phrase speaks of Indians who, "for many generations . . . learned to live in America in a state of balance; or, as a Christian would say, a state of grace."(11) Would that we returned rapidly to that state!

The Beatitudes are about justice; about the justice expected of the believer who is really on the road. There is a current running through Matthew, chapters five to seven, like a gathering wave, creating an overwhelming impression of the urgency and involvement implied in the conversion asked of the hearers. We must hunger for the justice of God, not simply spiritual righteousness but social justice. We are children of God (Matt. 5:3-48) if we undertake our practical obligations (6:1-18), become detached from riches (6:19-34), and socially responsible (7:1-12). We must work for justice -- for all, since all have equal rights to the earth -- because this is what the justice of God demands. Pious prayers for those who are less fortunate than ourselves are surely sterile if they replace a real commitment to the disenfranchised. Going without food for cosmetic or dietetical reasons, without undertaking a redistribution of our surplus is hypocritical and unjust. Economizing, or choosing between scarce resources, is not a sign of the Kingdom unless we also choose not to use things that we can reasonably do without, and unless we actively refrain from using up finite resources. And sleeping comfortably in our beds while 1000 million human beings are not just suffering but surely and painfully dying from deprivation in hopelessness and fear, speaks not of our conversion but eloquently of our complacence (cf. Amos 6:3-4).

As professing Christians we need to experience a conversion which really does stop us in our tracks and turn us around and lead us to discover an ethics and praxis centred on conservationism, which sensitizes us to our abuse of nature and our wasteful consumerism.(12) And this conversion must be prayed for and embraced by those who do not wait to be swept up by winds of Change but who actually cause such winds by disturbing the still air of complacency and cynicism.

If Kant's "Categorical Imperative"(13) were to become normative for Christians, it would create a revolution. But wishing alone is otiose; it is useless to think how nice it would be if everyone had good housing or electricity or automobiles or a hundred other things, when the fact is that our world could not support the drain on its resources. We must not think in terms of "Average American Standard" since the earth could not support such indulgence for all. As Carmody states: "if I cannot extrapolate my standard of living to the whole world and still find nature flourishing, my standard of living is immoral."(14)

We have, not simply a duty to be honest stewards of a world which is not ours, but a pressing obligation, surely, to understand the conditions which our co-tenants experience. Poverty is not only lack of food or clothing but lack of means of survival: deprivation.(15) In U.S. though only about eleven infants out of a thousand live births actually die before their first birthday, many people would still rightly claim that poverty is not a thing of the past. Infant mortality rates are notoriously unreliable, yet no cold statistic expresses more eloquently the difference between a society of sufficiency and a society of deprivation.(16) The IMR in Sierra Leone, West Africa, given as 206/1000 is certainly an underestimate, and certainly eloquent. Now W.H.O., the Overseas Development Council, and U.N.I.C.E.F. "have agreed that when a country has brought its IMR down to a level of 50 or below, it could be said that hunger as a basic societywide issue has ended"(17) not poverty, but only hunger, and hunger is deemed to be no longer an issue for society as a whole when it is reduced to 4½ times as bad as currently in U.S. But if there are 40 million in U.S. living in poverty, then how many more are hungry?(18) And if the poverty in U.S. in the past 20 years has been reduced by between a third and a half, the fact that the richest country in the world still has a problem, not only makes depressing reading but points to horrendous realities in the really poor countries.(19) But statistics only dull the senses. What is needed is a rude awakening and no easy appeals to spurious religious values! What do the statistics, figures, images, and statements mean to me? What do I mean when I call myself Christian?

In the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 30:7-9) we read: "Two things I beg of you, do not judge them before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty I should fall away and say, 'Yahweh, who is Yahweh?' or else, in destitution take to stealing and profane the name of my God."

The early Church, probably reflecting deeply on this, was char,acterized by sharing, koinonia (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). But any Christian's primary sharing is with Christ in the life of God. It is in virtue of this that we share with each other, and beyond to the rest of humanity. We cannot in justice say that we are prepared to share our goods with others, and then do nothing; and in fact the goods may be "bads"; they may represent a culpable misuse of the finite world. In addition, we cannot aspire, as noted earlier, to a world with an automobile in every driveway, "a chicken in every pot," and so on.(20) We must surrender, each according to possessions and resources; we must return what is not ours and what is unjustifiable to keep. No longer can we be excused as invincibly ignorant of inequities, injustices or our social duty; the night is over now and it is time to mobilize. Let me try to spell out some practical courses of action.


I, believe we are most urgently called to a simplification of lifetyle. Mainstream Christianity has developed along with the Protestant Ethic, the Calvinistic attitude to work and diligence and rewards. The spirit of capitalism hovers amiably overhead and the legitimate recompense of hard work is emphasized at the expense f the pleas of those who can get no work or who are unfit because they are destitute. Capitalism produced consumerism, wastage and unjust acquisition; it defends functional unemployment on a gigantic and chronically painful scale. The sort of poverty espoused by Jesus, on the other hand, is much more concerned with freedom for rather than freedom from, and should be providing our contemporary world with a challenge it cannot ignore. The Son of Man claimed to have nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20), and instructed his followers (Luke 10:4) to take nothing for the trip and not to take a purse or a beggar's bag or shoes. This is the poverty and freedom embraced by Francis of Assisi and his followers. If it is too much for us, could we not espouse, as a mark of simplicity, the principle of using only what we genuinely need? Some will maintain stoutly that they do this already, and perhaps they do, even though they belong to communities with huge resources. But for others it may be possible to reassess radically the notion of genuine need. Jesus warns that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom (Matt. 19:24). What force does this carry for me, in a world of poverty?

The Amish Mennonites are one of many communities whose life-style is easy to ridicule but difficult to fault, both practically and evangelically. But then they do not expect the world to understand, for theirs are not worldly but gospel values. They are constantly struggling with the question, what shall we permit and what reject, of technology and progress? Many of us never even raise the question. They have explicit respect for nature and the earth, and are not willing to sacrifice community for convenience. They are at peace with themselves and with the earth.

A plethora of non-institutionalized forms of Christian living, spontaneous and voluntary ad hoc communities, have arisen in many religious institutions, seeking insecurity as a prophetic sign, and in real solidarity with the poor and insecure. Such life-styles might convince the fainthearted that something can be done. Dorothy Days inspiration still guides Catholic Worker communities, and other leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. remind us that we must have a dream if we are to live out our vocation. We need dreamers inspired by the Spirit (Joel 3:1).(21)

Moving finally from general to specific and assuming we nurture a reverence for nature which is not just a trendy ecological courtship, how are we to pursue the simplicity in a way which is at once in conformity with our faith and effective in improving the lot of others? I spoke of conservation ism. A concomitant mentality will awaken us to many possibilities of modifying our behavior; each of us must question a whole lifestyle. A simple example: every second the world uses 30,000 gallons of petroleum.(22) How socially aware are we of our use of automobiles? When we choose to produce luxurious autos we choose to limit future human lives.(23) Listen to the anger here: "Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation by bus. Each merchandised refrigerator reduces the chances of building a community freezer. Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred lives . . . ; had each dollar been spent on providing safe drinking water, a hundred lives could have been saved."(24)

It is easy to claim that all this is an over-simplification, to carp at individual figures, to bury one's head in the sand; but the problem will not go away, and we can change things. Modern agriculture has achieved high yields only by squandering the energy stored in fossil fuels, but by conserving only ten to fifteen percent of the cereals now being fed to the livestock that constitute our steaks, we could adequately feed 450 million starving people -- nearly half of the really poor of the earth! All we need is determination, foresight, planning, and concern.(25) And the replacement of percentage of cereals is extremely easy to find; it could almost all be replaced by grass!(26) In view of the enormous energy costs of producing steak, we could contribute to energy-saving and to helping the starving, by a concerted public policy of non steak-eating.

The gospel calls us to embrace simplicity of life-style and concern for the poor as a full-time occupation. A frugal pattern of life will commend itself to those who are sensitive to the demands of the gospel and the human rights of others. We need, I suggest, to draw up some kind of program of discipleship which goes beyond our own selfish concerns and risks reaching out to others who need our help if they are even to survive. So, we can eat less, but we must share the surplus and some of the staple itself with the poor. We can drive less but must walk with the poor and listen to them. We can sleep less but must keep vigil with the poor. We can be a little less comfortable and warm in our heated homes, but must comfort the poor and warm the freezing, for our efforts should not be directed inwards at ourselves, but projected outwards toward those in greater need. Few of us really need much in the way of new clothes for the next couple of years; we might discover thrift stores, to supply some of our needs or to accept some of our excesses. From our economizing we will be able to redistribute, and by embracing some insecurity we will be free to address the chronic insecurity of the poor.(27) We cannot justify increasing our surplus for investment "where rust and moth consume," but must dare to trust in the Providence we profess. However we react, we must react, seriously, radically, and now. Leviticus 25 and 2 Corinthians 8 are uncompromising: "as a matter of equality your abundance should supply their want . . . that there may be equality' (2 Cor. 8:13-14).(28)


"The Establishment" does not initiate fundamental change, so we cannot realistically appeal to all clergy or religious in this matter. No, the response has to come from brave and prophetic individuals. This does not, of course, exclude clergy and religious, but the world cannot wait for them to reach a consensus. Individuals are needed as catalysts for change at a society-wide level, concerned about gospel values and not about what others do or think. People will have to be prepared to go it alone or to work in very small groups; certainly they will need to be an embarrassment and a nuisance. And perhaps those newly-forming Christian communities springing up like flowers after winter, are best placed to provide the variety and the growth and the environment for a response to new challenges; they have the flexibility and the youthfulness and the idealism to be spontaneous and generous. They are explicitly concerned about a more human Church, and perhaps will make an authentic contribution toward a new attitude to suffering humanity and nature.(29)

Some people will surely say that they deserve what they have honestly worked for, but we simply cannot claim not to be adversely affecting the lives of others when we reach into the closet or larder of mother earth. I am, as never before, my brothers' and my sisters' keeper, partly because the carrying capacity of the earth is finite (around 6000 million), because we are closing in on that capacity rapidly, and because the more some people have, the less that remains for others.

So-called traditional societies all over the globe, have, if they have survived, a sensitivity toward their environment that we are losing or have lost. Thus the American Indian can say:

The white people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes; . . . we don't ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don't chop down the trees. We use only dead wood. But the white people plow the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything. The spirit of the land hates them. They blast out trees and stir it to the depths. They saw up the trees. That hurts them. They blast rocks and scatter them on the ground. The rock says, 'don't, you are hurting me.' But the white people pay no attention . . . How can the spirit of the earth like the white man? Everywhere the white man has touched, it is sore. (30)
Before he and his household had received the Holy Spirit or been baptized -- or even instructed -- Cornelius, a Roman soldier, worshipped the one God and did much to help the poor -- the Jewish poor! (Acts 10). His lively faith may shame us; it must not fail to impress us; and it may even help change us. Cornelius was definitely "on the road." Our world is bleeding and sore, as are many, many of its people. We, graced and chosen, Christian women and men, entrusted with a mission to announce good news, must respond and heal a broken world, find a new balance in our lives, and maintain it." It can be done. It has been done. It must be done. Otherwise we destroy ourselves and our earth, destroy the trust placed in us by God, and as arrogant challengers of nature and as whited sepulchres, prove ourselves not only guilty, but stupid, too.

  1. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, (Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 15-20.
  2. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 16.
  3. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, p. 32.
  4. Peter Farb, Humankind, (Houston: Triad/Paladin, 1978), p. 177.
  5. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 143. "The technology of production by masses, making use of the best modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralization, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it "intermediate technology . . . ."
  6. Walking Buffalo, a Stoney Indian and a peace emissary for the Canadian government, went on a world tour in 1958, to speak as a representative of Indian people, cf. T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), p. 23.
  7. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, p. 59.
  8. Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion, (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 23.
  9. Carlo Carretto, "I, Francis," (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982), p. 76.
  10. Entropy, a technical term in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics and communications theory, refers here to the wastage of the matter and the energy of the universe; the general trend of the material universe towards disorder and death.
  11. T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth, Introduction.
  12. There are many helpful writings on this issue; quoted in the present paper are Wallis, Carmody, Longacre, Sider.
  13. 'Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.' This formulation is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia II: 637. 15th Edition, Chicago.
  14. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, p. 134.
  15. From the first Draft of the Bishops' Pastoral: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy: Para. 194: Here we cannot enter into a full discussion of the nature of poverty but we want to raise a few central points. Poverty is not merely the lack of adequate financial resources. To be poor entails a more profound kind of deprivation, for it means being denied full participation in the economic social and political life of society. It means being without sufficient control over and access to the decisions that affect your life. It means being marginalized and powerless in a way that assaults not only your pocketbook but also your fundamental human dignity.
  16. The Hunger Project: A Shift in the Wind.' (San Francisco: P.O. Box 789), p. 4.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Michael Harrington, The New American Poverty, (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1984).
  19. Mitchell Sviridoff, "New Faces, Old Problems," New York Times Book Review, 26 August 1984, p. 7.
  20. Not an electoral promise of recent years, but attributed to Henri IV of France, 1589.
  21. Cf. Jim Wallis, The Call To Conversion, p. 133.
  22. R. Barnet, "A Reporter at Large," New Yorker, 17 March 1980, p. 47.
  23. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, p. 151.
  24. Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1970), p. 163.
  25. Peter Farb, Humankind, pp. 178-179, footnote.
  26. John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, pp. 39-40.
  27. Doris Jantzen Longacre, Living More with Less, (Scottsdale, Arizona: "Herald," 1980).
  28. Many practical suggestions can be found in Longacre, 1980, and particularly in Sider, 1977, Chapter 7.
  29. 29 Jim Wallis, The Call To Conversion, Chapter 5.
  30. T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth, p. 15.
  31. Anthony J. Gittins, "Mission as Communication"; Review for Religious 43 (1984): 345 ff.