Soon after his election to the throne of Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991, Bartholomew of Constantinople made clear that he saw his task not only as safeguarding the unity of the Orthodox Church but also doing all that he could to protect the world and its people in a period of extreme environmental peril. He quickly began to enlarge an initiative taken in 1989 by his predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios, who had invited all Orthodox churches to begin the church year, the first of September, with prayer for all creation and for its preservation. In the years since, Bartholomew has repeatedly declared that “crimes against the natural world are sins…. Creation care — the preservation of nature and the protection of all people — emanates from the essence of our faith…. The world is not ours to use for our own convenience. It is God's gift of love to us and we must return his love by protecting it and all that is in it. All human beings should draw a distinction between what we want and what we need.”
Bartholomew quickly became known as “the green patriarch.”
“The patriarch is a man of courage,” said Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, an adviser to Bartholomew on environmental issues. “For years he was going against the current of a significant segment of the Church, but little by little his work in this area has been recognized as prophetic. I see much of the work the patriarchate has been doing as a way of informing and educating our own.”
Not content to make speeches and issue written appeals, in 1995 Bartholomew launched a series of ship-borne floating conferences, involving not only theologians but also scientists, economists, jurists, political and business leaders, journalists, and men and women from other professions, that focused on environmental degradation. Sites chosen in the past have included the Black Sea, the Aegean, the Adriatic, the Baltic and the Danube as providing local examples of grave damage to the planet as whole.
The latest of these events, the ninth, took place in Attica, the region of Greece that has Athens at its center and includes the Saronic Islands. Two-hundred people took part in a four-day symposium, “Toward a Greener Attica.” It began June 5 in the lecture hall of the Acropolis Museum, on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill. Just a short walk from the museum is the Theater of Dionysus where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were first performed 25 centuries ago. Being in the shadow of so ground-breaking a civilization put our proceedings in a challenging historical context, as if Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and the Apostle Paul were invisibly present.
“The ecological crisis has revealed that our world constitutes a seamless whole, that our problems are universally shared,” Bartholomew said at the opening session. Highlighting the ecological problems of the surrounding region, he pointed out that “much remains to be done in order to reduce the trash in the surrounding mountainside of Attica with its deplorable landfills and to resolve all the plastic in the surrounding sea that threatens marine life.” He also spoke of the urgency of responding to the “forced migration [of many thousands of refugees] from the Middle East and Northern Africa.”
Pope Francis, in a message to the symposium read aloud by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, said: “The care of creation, seen as a shared gift and not as a private possession, always entails the recognition and the respect of the rights of every person and every people. The ecological crisis now affecting all of humanity is ultimately rooted in the human heart, that aspires to control and exploit the limited resources of our planet while ignoring the vulnerable members of the human family. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. We cannot ignore the ubiquitous and pervasive evil in today’s situation, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature. The duty to care for creation challenges all people of good will and calls upon Christians to cooperate in offering an unequivocal response.”
The following morning, June 6, we travelled by ferry to the auto-free island of Spetses where the conference continued its discussions, this time at the local cinema, the Titania.
The lead speaker was Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Potsdam, member of the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change and member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. There was no doubt, Schellnhuber said, that the human race has had and is having a massive impact on the world’s environment, a phenomenon known as “dangerous anthropogenic interference.” Unless dramatic steps are taken very quickly to reverse damage to the atmosphere and oceans, we can only expect rising temperatures with the result of melting ice-caps and a dramatic rise in water levels that will submerge shoreline areas, including island nations and coastal cities, producing millions of refugees and triggering massive social instability. But he insisted, late though the hour is, reversal is still possible. “Our problem,” he said, “is that we have a lot of knowledge but very little wisdom. We are like the passengers on the Titanic. Having hit an iceberg, we need to stop thinking about what’s missing on the menu or what the ship’s orchestra should play next and instead focus on the rip in the ship’s hull.”
At the same session Raj Patal, a research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, raised the haunting question, “What sort of ancestor do you want to be? Will we be seen as the generation which ignored all warnings and failed to prevent catastrophe or the generation that changed course?” The environmental crisis, he continued, dwarfs all other crises of the present moment.
The following morning the focus shifted to economics, philosophy and theology.
The first speaker of day was Jeffrey Sachs, bestselling author, professor of sustainable development at Columbia University as well as advisor on sustainable development to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Sachs pointed out that a basic shift in economic ethics occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Until that time the basic model was Aristotelian, based on the model of the family and household economics: handle your wealth with prudence and self-restraint. But for such men as Thomas Hobbes, Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith, social good was achieved not through restraint but the pursuit of self-interest. Putting theory into practice, the Dutch and British East India Companies developed the concept of limited liability — the investor profited without responsibility for any damages caused by his investment. “In effect, companies were invited to misbehave — they were given the right to pillage and even the right to make war. Thanks to limited liability, greed was unleashed and to his day remains the driving force of the modern economy…. A basic shift in our thinking is needed if we are to decarbonize by 2050. Meanwhile campaigns are needed to challenge our politicians, to boycott companies causing environmental harm, and to call on shareholders to divest the oil, gas and coal industry.”
Maude Barlow spoke at the same session. She is honorary chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. Her latest books are Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Foreverand Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis. Barlow emphasized the growing number of water-stressed and desertified areas on the planet, pointing out that it’s not only climate change that accounts for this calamity but the commodification of water (plastic bottles of water, for sale or discarded, were everywhere to be seen in Greece) plus the use of vast quantities of water in manufacturing. Meanwhile all over the world major corporations are competing for control and ownership of water. Our job, said Barlow, is to work for recognition of water as a sacred trust that must be protected as an essential part of the eco-system belonging to all. Campaigners need to focus on water as a human right and public trust.
The well-known Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, author Being as Communion, concentrated on the transformed spiritual life that undergirds care of the environment. He is currently visiting professor at the University of Geneva and the Gregorian University in Rome. Zizioulas stressed that the role of the heart was even more important than that of the mind. It is a mistake to try to solve our problems with the unaided intellect. Dealing with climate change is more than a matter of education. Our ecological problems arise from neglect of the heart, he said, and it is in the heart, where the will resides, that they will be solved. We must purify our hearts. Conversion is needed. As St. Maximos the Confessor taught, selfishness — putting one’s own interests above all others — is the source of all our problems, while care of the other is rooted in the heart. The way of the heart is the way of asceticism — the way of restraint and sobriety. The way ahead requires sacrifice of our self-interest and eucharistic gratitude for the world as a gift from God.
Elizabeth Theokritoff, a research associate and lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge and co-chairwoman of the Religion and Science group in the International Orthodox Theological Association, stressed that the word “creation” is not a synonym for the environment but rather that creation comprises everything. “Creation is not something outsideof us. We are part of creation. Creation is not what we are deputed to care for; it is what we are.”
Following lunch, we went by ferry to the nearby island of Hydra where, with church bells ringing, much of the local population turned out to welcome the patriarch.
The symposium’s next session, held in a conference hall provided by the local church, focused on the refugee crisis — the migration of a tidal wave of reluctant migrants who are escaping war, environmental destruction and destitution.
Philippe Leclerc, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, explained that many myths surround the refugees, not least in Europe and America. “In fact, most refugees are not dreaming of a life in Europe or the United States. The vast majority, 85 percent, are being hosted in the south. For example, today one-third of the population of Lebanon is made up of refugees.”
Mohammed Abu-Nimer, professor of international peace and conflict resolution at the School of International Service of American University, emphasized that war is the main source of refugees. “These are not people who want to leave their homeland, in fact it’s just the opposite. They are running for their lives. Those seeking to respond to the refugee crisis need to become peace builders, but peace building takes much longer than making war. Signing peace agreements is only the beginning.”
Vandana Shiva, a physicist, founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and also Bija Vidyapeeth, an international college for sustainable living. She has become a leading advocate for organic food production. Her work has demonstrated that harvests can be increased by up to 300 percent by using organic farming methods, in contrast, to using products made by the “poison cartel” involving such companies as Monsanto and Bayer. The global system of growing food is killing people, she said; she estimated that 75 percent of all chronic disease is linked to current methods of global food growing. Our task, she insisted, is to see food as sacred. Her comment that “all bread should be seen as a sacrament” brought a nod of agreement from the patriarch.
The last speaker of the session on Hydra was himself a refugee, Mohammad Vahedi. With great difficulty he had made his way from Iran to Greece sixteen years ago when he was fifteen. There was no one to welcome him — no accommodation centers or organizations to support unaccompanied young refugees arriving in Greece. It took Vahedi a decade before he was finally recognized as a refugee. He is now pursuing postgraduate studies while working for the SOS Children's Villages in Greece with a program hosting unaccompanied minors. He spoke movingly of failed attempts to cross the Aegean Sea before reaching the Greek coastline. “No one wants to be a refugee,” he said.
Our ferry back to Spetses that afternoon was attended by a pod of playful dolphins. We took their presence as a sign of support for all efforts to promote living more lightly on our small planet.
Returning by ship to Athens the next morning, there was an on-board final session of the symposium.
One of the speakers was John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, who is credited with saving Nigeria from dictatorship. In 2012 he was named Pax Christi International’s Peace Laureate. Cardinal John spoke of his appreciation for Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si, a document several other speakers had especially recommended. “We are called,” Cardinal John said, “to listen both to the cry of creation and the cry of the poor.” Laughing, he commented that no one speaks these days of the death of God — “the Death-of-God theologians have died.” “God is with us,” he added. “Faith and grace can change the human heart.”
Rabbi Avraham Soetendorp from Amsterdam, a founding member of the Islam and the West dialogue group of the World Economic Forum, remarked that many people today look toward the future with despair. He recalled how in 1943, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, he had been rescued by a Catholic family who were ready to risk their lives in order to save his. “We are wood that has been plucked from the fire,” he said. “How can we ever despair? With compassion we can confront the truth without compromise. Let us seize the moment!”
Patriarch Bartholomew had the last word. “Dear friends,” he said, “we have come to the conclusion of our gathering but a long journey lies before us. We have heard some inspiring presentations. Now it remains for us to preach what we oractice. Now we must begin the long and difficult way from the mind to the heart. There is so much more we can do to change attitudes if only we work with one another. May God in his abundant mercy guide you in your service to his people.”
During several sessions of the conference the two of us sat near Patriarch Bartholomew. We were impressed not only at his continuous presence but at how attentive he was, often nodding his head in assent when a speaker made a suggestion for action.
In the discussion period at the first session on the island of Spetses, a participant made the comment that the speeches being given were all well and good but a waste of time — “this symposium is a case of pastors preaching to the choir.” In fact, as became clear in discussions, a significant number were definitely not of one mind or singing from the same hymn book. Even for those who had similar convictions and analyses and thus might be seen as members of an environmental crisis “choir,” choristers sometimes burn out. Each of us needs renewed inspiration to reach further into the minds and hearts of those who have, in the past, turned an indifferent or even hostile ear. Our sense is that most who took part in the symposium, whatever their differences, left not only freshly challenged but with revitalized hope.
Nancy Forest is a Dutch-English translator of fiction and non-fiction and has worked extensively with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. She is married to Jim Forest, who is the author of biographies of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan, as well as books on pilgrimage, the basic teachings of Jesus, religious imagery, and overcoming enmity. They are members of the Parish of St Nicholas of Myra (Moscow Patriarchate) in Amsterdam and sit on the Advisory Board of The Wheel.
Web site of the symposium: