June 2010

 From the coast of Louisiana we now have the poignant image of a majestic pelican drenched in oily sludge. It’s an odd looking bird with a foot long bill and a pouch for catching fish as she skims over the surface of the sea.  She lives among the trees and sea grass along the water’s edge, nests in the bull rushes and feeds her young from the abundant sea life.

The brown pelican has survived near extinction by hunters, fishermen and industrial polluters and was only recently removed from the federal endangered species list.  Now the bird’s future is seriously challenged by a man made catastrophe that is sending millions of gallons of oil to pollute the waters, coastal islands, marshes and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.  The brown pelican is uniquely at risk because it dives under water to forage.  They are eating tainted fish and feeding them to their young. Their feathers are oil-soaked; they are now susceptible to hypothermia and drowning. "They're still just clinging to existence," said David Ringer, of the National Audubon Society.  Pelican Island, so named because so many of the great birds once nested there, now has only a couple of brown pelicans gliding above the water in their constant hunt for fish. Also at risk are a dozen species listed by the federal government as endangered or threatened, including birds, sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

In what is being described as the latest ‘ecological disaster’ we quickly see just how delicate the balance of nature really is.  Oil spilling into the ocean pollutes water, contaminates the sea bed, poisons fish and other sea life, threatens extinction of species, endangers birds, and disrupts the livelihood of fleets of fishermen and the countless businesses dependent on their commerce.  The long and spiraling catastrophic effects of this man made ‘accident’ should cause us to ask questions about our relationship with the earth and her resources. 

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, is an internationally respected ecologist and environmentalist.  In response to this, the latest man contrived assault on our planet; the Patriarch has drafted the following encyclical against our continued exploitation of the Earth.   

Sins Against Nature and God:
We Are All Accountable for Ignoring the Global Consequences of Environmental Exploitation

Once again, in a matter only of a few years, the eyes of the world are turned with suspense toward the Gulf Coast. Sadly, the oil spill is following a path similar to Hurricane Katrina and threatening the coast of Louisiana as well as neighboring states. 

As citizens of God's creation, we perceive this monumental spill of crude oil in the oceans of our planet as a sign of how far we have moved from the purpose of God's creation. Our immediate reaction is to pray fervently for the urgent and efficient response to the current crisis, to mourn painfully for the sacrifice of human life as well as for the loss of marine life and wildlife, and to support the people and communities of the region, whose livelihood directly depends on the fisheries of the Gulf. 

But as the first bishop of the world's second-largest Christian Church, we also have a responsibility not only to pray, but also to declare that to mistreat the natural environment is to sin against humanity, against all living things, and against our creator God. All of us -- individuals, institutions, and industries alike -- bear responsibility; all of us are accountable for ignoring the global consequences of environmental exploitation. Katrina -- we knew -- was a natural calamity. This time -- we know -- it is a man-made disaster. One deepwater pipe will impact millions of lives in several states as well as countless businesses and industries. 

Therefore, we must use every resource at our disposal to contain this disaster. But we must also use every resource to determine liability for the fact that 11 people have died and 5,000 barrels of oil are flowing daily into the delicate ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. In exchange for the benefits and wealth generated by deep underwater drilling, individuals, institutions, and industries assume responsibility for protecting the earth and its creatures from the well-known potential hazards. In this instance, they have clearly failed in those responsibilities; that failure must be acknowledged and strong measures taken to avert future catastrophes. 

Although we are halfway around the world from this incident, our interest in it is deeply personal. We visited Louisiana and its bayous only four months after its devastation by Hurricane Katrina and we returned there just last October to convene our Eighth Religion, Science, and the Environment Symposium, "Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi," in New Orleans. At that time, we noted: 

Although the time we have been on the planet is insignificant in the context of the life of the planet itself, we have reached a defining moment in our story. Let us remember that, whoever we are, we all have our part to play, our sacred responsibility to the future. And let us remember that our responsibility grows alongside our privileges; we are more accountable the higher we stand on the scale of leadership. Our successes or failures, personal and collective, determine the lives of billions. Our decisions, personal and collective, determine the future of the planet. 

In the spirit of responsibility, the White House and certain Congressional leaders have declared that, before beginning new offshore drilling for oil, there must be greater understanding of the environmental impact and responsibility for such endeavors. We support this approach. For, as confident as interested parties were that a disaster like this could not occur because of watertight controls and fail-safe mechanisms installed, those controls and mechanisms failed, with the horrific results we witness unfolding each day. 

Until such understanding and responsibility have been determined, may God grant us all the strength to curtail the spill, the resources to support the region, and the courage to make the necessary changes so that similar tragedies may be avoided in the future.

In the wake of the Gulf disaster we can call out with the Psalmist, “I am like a pelican in the wilderness. I have become as an owl in the waste places.” Psalm 102:6There is a call for the government to re-place the brown pelican on the endangered species list.  Scientists intend to study the effects of the spill on pelican reproduction.  Placing them back on the list will become necessary as their food supply is contaminated and their natural habitat is lost.  "They're in a very precarious position," Louisiana wildlife biologist, Scott Walker said.   

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