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Climate warming: the present Original Sin?

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The religions of the world can work to counteract human action that generates undesirable climate warming by Tissa Balasuriya.


The concept of original sin, in traditional Christian theology, is said to be a sin communicated by propagation to the whole of humanity by the first parents, Adam and Eve.  The progeny of Adam and Eve are not responsible for their original sin, but bear some of its consequences of the human inclination to sinfulness such as greed, selfishness and violence.  Original sin was reflected in the individual behaviour. The Church’s teaching had a solution for this alienation from the will of God in the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism.

Medieval Christian theology developed the concept of Jesus offering a redemptive sacrifice of his life, making amends for human sinfulness. (cf. St. Anselm :Cur Deus Homo?).  This interpretation of Jesus’ life and death as atonement to the Father was a distortion of the life story and core teaching of Jesus of God as love, and His chief commandment of love of neighbour. This was an alienation of Christology that has come down to our times as the main leitmotif of a spirituality emphasising charity and neglecting social justice.

Since the 1960s,  more attention has been given in theology for a reinterpretation of original sin, related to the structural problems and situations,  which all of us are born to and are part of,  as victims and actors. We see interpretations of original sin as the structural sins of domination and oppression, and the unwillingness to deal with these structures.

Reinterpretating Original Sin: Capitalism and colonialism

I have myself developed a reinterpretation of original sin, referring to the sin of capitalism, colonialism and of the imperialism of modern times. This “sin” was mainly the conquest of weaker peoples by the more advanced (European) powers after 1492.  Thereafter the colonial powers set up the world order that prevailed from 1492 to at least 1945. Some of its characteristics continue even after the independence of the former colonies.  The present inheritors of the advantages of the colonial system of the past centuries – many European peoples- are not responsible for the situation of colonial exploitation, even though they benefit from it and must work for its reform.

As the colonised countries developed as part of the modern world system, there grew up a local elite that collaborated with the exploiting colonisers. There were also internal problems within the colonies such as of ethnic relations of majority and minority communities as in Sri Lanka specially after Independence in 1948 and three decades of internal civil conflict till March 2009.

There is no direct responsibility of the beneficiaries for the inequity of the prevailing social system or world order.  But there is an advantage for the Christians and Western peoples in the present situation. The Euro-American peoples benefit from  migration to open land spaces, and hence land ownership of colonies, called “terra nullius” like a gift of creation.  Correspondingly they had access to valuable natural resources, even when these were limited and not renewable.  There were positive aspects of Western colonialism such as development of the modern education and health services and the introduction of democratic forms of government.

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The Afro-Asian peoples were subject to the imperialist systems set up by the European, North American and Japanese empires.

Climate warming

A third type of original sin can be seen in the present climate warming and its consequences mainly on the poorer peoples of the world. The main human agents who helped to bring about the warming of the earth’s climate in the past two to three centuries are the industrialising countries, the modern coloniser countries using the energy derived from fossil fuels. They have developed technologies of mechanised production, motor transportation, domestic warming and cooking that depend on burning oils that generate CO2 and related emissions called greenhouse gases. The developed peoples, including third world elites, have adopted a life style that cannot be spread to the whole world due to a limitation of resources.   

Scientists note that the Western industrial powers have been polluting the space in the atmosphere while building up their wealth during the past centuries. “Developed nations already occupy 73 per cent of the carbon space … which is the space available for the emission of carbon dioxide and other green house gases, without serious negative impact on the earth.” (cf Nobel Laureate  K.K.Pachauri and K..M.George SJ  (Threat to Human Survival, Indian Currents  no 50 December 2009).  India has only 2.5 per cent of carbon space, compared to a due share of 17 per cent. The United States with 5 per cent of the world’s population occupies 29 per cent of the carbon space. This situation poses grave questions of present and ongoing future global equity.

Some of the consequences of climate warming have been described by James Pender, a climate change expert writing in the USPG, Anglicans in World Mission Autumn 2009:”There will be less rainfall for crops, heavier monsoons, flooding due to rising sea levels and more cyclones. This will have a serious impact on health.  Insects will thrive, which means more disease; drinking water will become salty, and there will be smaller harvests, which means malnutrition.”

Dr Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Centre for Global Change, said: “We have evidence of climate change. Records of rainfall and temperature of 50 years showed that night temperature in winter rose and the duration of winter shrunk.”

“An estimated 800 million people in developing Asia currently have no access to basic electricity services and some 1.8 billion people must rely on traditional biomass fuels to meet their cooking and heating needs” (Daily Mirror, 17th April, 2010 p.B 3).

China and India are nations that cause considerably high emissions of greenhouse gases as their total contribution to climate warming is due to their high population. But their per capita  impact on climate warming is relatively very low due to the poverty of their populations.  To improve their standard of living they have to modernise their economies. The rich developed countries want China and India to reduce their impact on global warming, but these insist on an equitable standard of living for their poor peoples.

On the other hand the highly developed countries want to maintain their standard of living and place in the global economy.  Thus North Americans generally have a private motor car for each adult, and travel very long distances by private car.  They want to keep up their industrial production and ensure a future supply of petroleum, if need be by armed invasions.    

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The impact of climate warming is already being felt in the occurrences of earthslides, floods and the melting of glaciers. Earthquakes occurred in Haiti this year killing about 200,000 persons, the same happened in Indonesia and  China.  Volcanoes erupting as in the Artic on 16-17 April 2010 are said to haven  impact on growing pollution. Is the earth taking revenge for  the way we exploit her?

The present distribution of population to land as in China and India will, if continued as at present, lead to widespread deaths due to malnutrition. Recently 200,000 farmers in India committed suicide due to frustration with crop failures. Here we experience the connection between the second and third types of original sin inflicting further harm on the poorest peoples.

Need for a world authority

The two original sins of colonising capitalism and iniquitous climate warming pose problems the world as a whole must solve.  But there is no world authority that can bring the 200 or so sovereign states together to agree to a solution for the common good of all peoples. As independent nations they tend to act in their self interest, without due regard for the common good of the whole planet.  International negotiations on climate change did not arrive at an agreement among them concerning a solution that all accept and benefit all. Different meetings in Bali, Kyoto and Copenhagen led to no legally binding agreement among all the nations.

There has to be a radical reform of United Nations Organisation if it is to bring about justice in global climate policy.  The problems of climate change are a new phenomenon in human consciousness in international relations.  The factors which give rise to climate warming (or cooling) cannot be controlled by warfare or mere military power. The industrially and economically developed countries have been the main contributors to climate warming due to their methods of industrial production which imply more emission of greenhouse gases that cause the climate warming and pollution of the atmosphere  of land, water and air. Global policies concerning climate warming have to help poor countries to develop economically without adding to climate warming.  Maintaining the standard of living of developed countries can no longer be the priority.

Positive global remedies to climate warming need to be taken.

Humanity has reached a new stage in its journey on planet Earth.  Climate warming poses new and serious problems that demand global action by the world’s peoples together.

•    Helping poor countries to mitigate climate warming by technologies that reduce emission of green house gases.
•    Developing reforestation of the earth by agreed international policies as in the more open spaces in South America.
•    Adopting simple life styles and eating habits such as consumption of more vegetables, fruit and green leaves by all peoples.
•    Overcoming the pan-epidemic of HIV/Aids, especially in Africa.
•    Ensuring better urban planning and reducing slums.
•    Providing cheap public transportation country-wide.
•    Introducing planned population migration of the landless to more open spaces as in the Americas and Oceania
•    Maintaining the standard of living of developed countries by adapting better technologies such as organic farming.
•    Caring for nature, animals, fish.
•    Protecting public health care and indigenous medicines and sharing state pharmaceutical products.

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Could we therefore suggest the setting up of an International  UNO Commission that works on two levels:  
•    on the impact of colonialism globally from 1492– 1945  and to seek a redistribution of land and population in order to deal with the big gap between rich and poor.
•    on the impact of climate warming since the industrial revolution and on the advantages for different countries and the cost to others.

World religions must come together

Can religions inspire the required changes to meet the oncoming global emergency?  The religions together have a core of spiritual values that can inspire the care for neighbour and nature that the religions advocate. The world’s religions can work together for the common good of humanity, to save human lives and planet earth.  They can inspire the required changes to meet the oncoming global emergency

Christianity  has a special responsibility due to its encouraging the spread of Empire from Roman times, and the colonial empires since 1492. Christian peoples must be prepared to share their lands with the peoples of Asia and Africa, who will face the heaviest pressure for migration. The old laws of citizenship can no longer serve human needs. What would be the meaning of “sharing bread so that no one is in need” as in the Acts of the Apostles. How is the weekly Eucharist to be understood in the face of climate warming and the future challenges as of droughts, cyclones, rising sea level and shortage of water?

What would the Christian catechesis, pastorate in the coming decades be? How would formation of leadership be?

Religions may have an impact on acceptance of new migrants, by encouraging just population planning and fair use of arable land and resources for industry.

Religions can work together for the common good of humanity, to save human lives, and planet earth.

They can work to counteract human action that generates undesirable climate warming in different parts of the world.

Tissa Balasuriya OMI is a Sri Lankan Catholic priest and theologian

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