A duty of respect for the integrity of creation

Faith and Reason Pollution is theft, writes Margaret Atkins. We all have a part in the dispute between Greenpeace and Shell over the disposal of the oil-rig Brent Spar.
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Jon Castle is either a hero or a fool. Who else would choose to spend his time a hundred feet below sea-level in the company of tons of oily sludge, radioactive waste and poisonous gas? Mr Castle is no stranger to uncomfortable situations: he was the skipper of the Rainbow Warrior when French secret agents blew her up in New Zealand. He lived to fight again; this time to defy the allied forces of Shell and the British police. Greenpeace is back in the news.

Shell want to dump the disused oil-rig Brent Spar at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Greenpeace argue that the waste will poison the sea: the structure should be removed and disposed of on land. Shell reply that the costs of this would be enormous and would be met by the tax-payers; and some environmental risk would remain.

The radicals catch the headlines; but it is not only the radicals who insist that we should take full responsibility for the effects of our behaviour on the rest of the material world. Although the new Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church is usually seen as a conservative document, it contains plenty to encourage a green campaigner.

The basis of this encouragement is simple. When God created the world "he saw that it was good" (Genesis i). All creatures have value, each reflecting "a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness". In their beauty we catch a glimpse of the all-encompassing beauty of their Creator.

The earth is ordered and harmonious through the diversity of her creatures and through their relationships of interdependence. They exist "in the service of each other". St Francis is quoted: "May you be praised, My Lord, for sister earth, our mother, who bears and feeds us and produces the variety of fruits and dappled flowers and grasses . . . Praise and bless my Lord, give thanks and serve him in all humility."

The Catechism does not merely leave us to admire the wonders of creation. It insists, as Pope John Paul II himself has long insisted, that the gifts of creation carry with them a serious responsibility. "Use of the mineral, vegetable and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives." Our dominion over the earth is not absolute: we must always exercise it with attention to the way we affect our human neighbours, including future generations and with a "religious respect" for the integrity of creation as a whole.

The moral teaching of the Catechism is structured around the Ten Commandments. The section on "respect for the integrity of creation" is included under the seventh commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." To abuse the gifts of creation is to show both disrespect towards the Creator and injustice towards our fellow human beings.

Polluting, it follows, can be assimilated to theft: the theft of the clean air and the clean water which ought to be our shared inheritance. That is why we must take full responsibility for the consequences of our use of natural resources. And because the world is an ordered, interconnected whole, those consequences will often be distant and far- reaching. Brent Spar is our problem.

I could, of course, have chosen many Christian sources other than the Catechism. It is important that Christian concern for the environment is not the exclusive property of any one group, whether conservative or radical, pragmatic or idealist, moderate or fanatical. It is based on tenets so fundamental that no shade or variety of Christianity could do without them; that the earth is the gift of God our Creator; that we are to treat one another fairness and with love; that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions.

The responsibility does not belong to Shell alone. We all benefit from their products. It is reasonable, then, that we should all share the bill, whether as tax-payers or as purchasers, for the real cost of the safe disposal of their waste.

Nicholas Schoon suggested in the Independent that Greenpeace have diverted attention from the more important issues of pollution and from over- fishing. But without Greenpeace most of us this week would have neglected the North Sea altogether. It is always easier to forget the distant effects of our ordinary everyday activities. The value of activists such as Mr Castle is that they remind us of uncomfortable truths.

Daily life is warmer, safer and easier than ever before in our little patch of the planet. Thanks to Shell we can turn on our radiators and jump into our cars. Thanks to organisations like Greenpeace we might learn to do so responsibly. That is the least return we can offer for the privileges of material progress, in justice and charity to our fellow creatures and in gratitude to their Creator.