The Amazon Fires: Notre Dame, Nostra Culpa—Our House is Burning

By: Aaron Perry

November 15, 2019

Religious Responses to the Amazon Rainforest Fires

Our Lady is burning! The Amazon Rainforest— a critical, primary Earth ecosystem often called the “lungs of the world”—is burning. At a time of critical importance for our shared planet—for humanity itself and the myriad species world-wide being affected by ecological destruction—the last thing we need is further deforestation. The last thing we need is further climate-destabilizing carbon-loading in the atmosphere. The last thing we need is the accelerated destruction of Earth’s life-support systems.

The Earth—“Mother Earth”—“Our Lady”—“Notre Dame”—is best understood in her totality as a living organism that functions like a sophisticated space ship for humanity. Indeed, we’re in space, and this is our Mother Ship. Like any living organism, the Earth has veins, organs, and a plethora of countless species making up the totality of her global biospheric community. Among the organs, the Amazon Rainforest produces 20% of the oxygen we breathe— one out of every five of our breaths is filled with oxygen recently breathed out by the vines, shrubs, and trees of the Amazon. 

Let us give thanks for the miracle of air that we breathe!

Fire, meanwhile—one of God’s most potent and mysterious phenomena—is the rapid conversion of this oxygen-exhaling biomass into gaseous, airborne carbon dioxide and ash. 

The August 2019 National Geographic article “See how much of the Amazon is burning, how it compares to other years” identifies the primary cause of these fires—some 76,000 of them (an 80% increase over last year!)—as land-clearing for unsustainable agricultural production. Motivated by immediate financial gain, unfettered by the prudence of existing environmental regulations as President Bolsonaro deliberately rolls back and ignores these essential protections, Brazilian farmers are setting forests aflame on a massive scale. Estimates put the combined acreage reduced to smoke and ash in 2019 alone at the size of New Jersey. This is a travesty of the worst kind—a devastation of staggering proportions. 

And the fault is ours. 



And our entire human family’s. 

You see, although it is individual farmers who are pouring the fuel and lighting the flames, it is the far-reaching “invisible hand” of our global consumer demand signals that are feeding the conflagration. It is the misguided and destructive policies of the Trump administration, which has built a trade wall between U.S. farmers and Chinese buyers, effectively driving Chinese demand to accelerate destructive agricultural practices in Brazil. And, it is our demand for non-sustainable, non-regenerative, industrial soy, corn, and beef products that is driving this destruction. 

Our demand. 

Our fault. 

Nostra Culpa

And it is, therefore, our responsibility. 

As Pope Francis exhorts in his monumental encyclical, Laudato Si, “Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is” [1]. Laying out the moral, spiritual, and religious imperatives of cultivating an understanding of integral ecology, and an ethos of love, care, humility, and stewardship, Pope Francis has made crystal clear what is at stake, and what is to be done. 

He tells us, “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone,” and that “…there is a need to change models of global development” [2]. Of course, this implies that those of us blessed to live in democratic societies must support and vote for those leaders who understand, articulate, and commit to the protection of our shared environment, and the care, safety, and protection of the poorest among us—children, women, and men—who are already being impacted worldwide by ecological devastation. This is not an option. This is our obligation. 

This urgent imperative of healing and harmonizing our domestic and global policies is essential and necessary. But it is not by itself sufficient. We must also each also do everything we can—every day—to cultivate stewardship, regeneration, and sustainability throughout the world. And we have a very powerful tool at our disposal—each and every one of us—to do so. Our consumer demand

Every time we make the choice to buy and eat food, we are impacting soil, water, communities, and ecosystems throughout the world. We are deciding whether the fires of destruction will be exasperated or extinguished. We must therefore lean-in to our own personal education around these issues and must connect the dots in the complex context of the global economy in which we all participate. In Pope Francis’ words: “An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits” [3]. And at the root of new habits is education – as Francis tells us: “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change…A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal” [4].

For this change, education is essential—and it is necessary that we understand such education is limited neither to the rarified halls of our universities, nor to the busy classrooms of our early childhood and primary schools. No, this sort of education—this “leading out”—needs to infuse our daily conversations and to suffuse our community gatherings, our religious congregations, and our transformational behavior at work, at home, and while traveling. 

We must embrace and share the core truth of our time, so saliently articulated by author and theologian Thomas Berry in his must-read The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth: “To preserve this sacred world of our origins from destruction, our great need is for renewal of the entire Western religious-spiritual tradition in relation to the integral functioning of the biosystems of planet Earth” [5].

Our path of renewal—our atonement: re-harmonizing with the natural living world, and bringing our dynamics back in to balance through healing—must also center on social justice for our indigenous brothers and sisters—many of whom are the last, courageous line of defense in critical regions like the Amazon. As reported just a few days ago by the BBC, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, “a young indigenous land defender” who had been protecting the Amazon forest from destruction, was “shot dead…by illegal loggers in the Amazon.”

Pope Francis has already connected the dots between ecological stewardship and social justice, and has provided our global Catholic community the articulation and framework to guide us forward – this is the beauty and importance of Laudato Si. And throughout Christendom, many other enlightened religious leaders are providing similar guidance.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew tells us: "The way we respond to the natural environment directly reflects the way we treat human beings. The willingness to exploit the environment is revealed in the willingness to permit avoidable human suffering. So the survival of the natural environment is also the survival of ourselves. When will we understand that a crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and sin against God?" 

Reverend Fletcher Harper, executive director of Green Faith, is mobilizing thousands of interfaith religious and spiritual communities in the context of our climate emergency: “We have a moral responsibility to face the urgent threat of climate change. Together with The Climate Mobilization, Extinction Rebellion and many others, we’re calling on the U.S. Congress to declare a Climate Emergency” [6].

And, helping to heal the cultural and environmental wounds found worldwide, with a particular focus on healing the Muslim-Christian rift, Safi Kaskas, author of The Qu’ran with References to the Bible, reminds us that “Love will win in the end. The essence of life on Earth is Love” [7].

We live in extraordinary times. The Amazon is burning. California is burning. Millions of our brothers and sisters are displaced, homeless, hurting, and frightened. We have the opportunity, the responsibility, the moral imperative to respond in every way that we can—each and every day. With God as our witness, may we choose Healing, Atonement, and Love. 

Let us follow Pope Francis’ leadership: “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” [8].

  1. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2015), 40. 
  2. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 64; 127. 
  3. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 136.
  4. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 133.
  5. Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 60.
  6. Reverend Fletcher Harper, interview by Aaron Perry, Stewardship and Sustainability Series, Y on Earth Community (July 10, 2018).
  7. Safi Kaskas, interview by Aaron Perry, Stewardship and Sustainability Series, Y on Earth Community (July 10, 2018).
  8. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 31.
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