To talk about "saving the earth" is hardly an exaggeration. Flooding due to global warming threatens vast areas of coastland. An estimated ten percent of all species are threatened with extinction. Irreplaceable forests vanish by the acre every second. Great rivers no longer reach the sea because their water is taken for irrigation, industry, or to water lawns.

These facts portray creation as something precious and fragile. But the proverbial Martian landing in the USA might conclude that natural resources are so limitless that they do not merit even respect. About 50 percent of the paper and 30 percent of the plastics manufactured at great environmental cost go simply into packaging - they are made just to be thrown away. Whole neighborhoods are built around use of the car. Every day, millions of bags and other receptacles are thrown away because using durable substitutes would have been inconvenient. Foods such as beef, produced at staggering costs in feed, water and energy, are considered basic staples. If there are some environmental problems, that just means that you insulate your house better (and save on fuel bills!) and put some of your waste into the recycling bin rather than the garbage.

So do we really need to save the earth - or just to reduce reliance on imported oil?

To some, the environmental crisis means that "progress" has encountered a mere technical hitch, soon to be solved by genetically-engineered super-crops and renewable, non-polluting energy sources. Others, more realistically, call for a change of lifestyle in affluent societies. Limited resources and polluting energy sources are overused, while much of the world's growing population still lacks basic amenities; so, it is only fair for the heaviest users to make the greatest cuts.

Increasing numbers of people conclude that the way out of the crisis requires spiritual renewal: not just a change of habits, but a change of hearts - in Christian terms, repentance. Tragically, the environmental implications of our Christian Faith are so little understood, even among Christians, that the Church is the last place most people look for spiritual solutions. They are more likely to turn to the worship of Mother Earth, or native American religions, or witchcraft, or New Age spirituality. Yet this realization that the world needs salvation, requiring a change of heart, is a challenge to the Church. It presents a missionary opportunity perhaps not paralleled since Saint Paul noticed the Athenians' altar to "the unknown god."

In 1989 the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios took a vital initiative when he called for the first of September to be a day of thanksgiving and special prayer for the salvation and protection of God's creation. Following the interest this generated, an inter-Orthodox conference on protection of the environment was convened in Crete in November 1991. Its recommendations speak of "the increasing burden on the natural environment due to human abuse, which the Church names as sin, and for which it calls all human beings to repentance," and continues, the Orthodox Church believes the solution is to be found in the liturgical, eucharistic and ascetic ethos of the Orthodox Tradition."

A eucharistic ethos means, above all, using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. Such an attitude is incompatible with wastefulness. Similarly, fasting and other ascetic practices make us recognize even the simplest of foods and other creature comforts as gifts, provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste just so long as we can pay for them.

We worship as a community, not as individuals; so a liturgical ethos is also one of sharing. Long before the earth was seen as a whole from space, the Church knew that we stand before God together, and that we hold in common the earthly blessings that He has given to mankind and all creatures. "Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs," Saint John Chrysostom reminds us. This principle, applied to the whole range of natural resources, is particularly relevant because the global environment is squeezed on two sides: by the over-consumption, greed and waste of the affluent, and by the pressing needs of the poor, often forced to deplete the land around them for the sake of food or fuel in the short term. Equitable sharing with other people does not only involve using less of finite resources. It also precludes enjoying conveniences and luxuries for which others are having to pay the hidden environmental price, living with the toxins used in their manufacture and the pollution caused by their use and disposal.

The ethos of the Church means reverence for matter - the world around us, other creatures, our own bodies. It would be hard to miss this attitude in the worship of the Church: we make the sign of the Cross, we venerate icons, we receive Christ Himself in the Eucharist. But it seems quite easy to combine it with contempt for matter in everything non-liturgical, even in Church: thus we bless water, and then drink it out of plastic cups destined straight for the landfill! What the Crete conference calls for is simply a consistent attitude of respect in all our dealings with the world. We cannot expect to leave no trace on our environment. We have to choose either to make it reflect greed and ugliness - the pile of used packaging, the polluted river with its dead or mutant fish, the barren eroded hillside - or to use it in such a way that its beauty shows God's handiwork through ours.

Recognizing that the Church community should take the lead in making manifest the ethos of the Church, the Crete conference makes a number of suggestions:

  • initiating programs of Christian environmental education at all levels.
  • involvement by parishes in local initiatives, such as organizing recycling programs, conserving energy in buildings, and encouraging less use of the car.
  • holding educational gatherings covering fields from theology to environmental sciences, in order to aid the Church in further practical involvement in environmental and bioethical issues. These should involve Church members and non-Orthodox experts in scientific and ecological fields.
  • mobilizing Orthodox young people to initiate projects of environmental action.

Practical steps such as these are essential, if limited in nature. The underlying message needs to be heard clearly: "the Church should offer once more this simple, yet fulfilled way of life to its own believers as well as to the wider world. Humanity needs a simpler way of life, a renewed asceticism, for the sake of creation."

The author. Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff is an Orthodox theologian and writer from England, and former Secretary of the Anglican - Orthodox Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius.

The Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book is produced by SYNDESMOS, The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth.
Editor: Alexander Belopopsky and Dimitri Oikonomou