Eighteen years ago, I took a long trip to Queensland and New Zealand. If the endless eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia did not astonish me, I was instead enchanted by the landscapes of the Māori’s islands, its volcanoes and its very cold lakes. It was winter. We have studied in geography books that, with the evolution, the fauna of those islands assumed the current physical features for not having to face predators. Small bats, non-flying birds like the extinct Moa, the Kakapo parrot and the Kiwi, or Tuataras, the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs: a marvelous living museum.

We have also learnt that the White Man brought native fauna almost to the collapse non only because of hunting and habitat destruction, but also because of the cats, dogs, rats and foxes that were introduced. During my trip, I visited with local green activists a biosphere reserve nearby Wellington, and which functions as a reversed zoological garden. Inside the fence which isolates a large portion of a hilly landscape, you have native trees and animals, while outside you have a “regular landscape”, which is the result of a centuries-long alteration course caused by the White Man: eucalypts, pine trees, grasslands, cats, sheep, rabbits and so on. So that the “exotic animals” are free, and the endemic nature is preserved inside enclosures to help them survive, reproduce and expand. New-Zealanders were explaining to me that they have set up biodiversity regeneration plans whose implementation horizon is five-hundred years long! They have defined targets from now into the half of this Millennium! Mother Nature shaped that New Zealand you can today still find it in secret valleys, fenced woods, alpine heights and volcanic landscapes only. All the rest is fake. Such a fantastic public awareness resulting in long-term policies of natural resource restoration is now threatened by something faster than anything expected: climate change.

This month of February, the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand has been affected by rare extensive bushfires, which the humid islands are not prepared for. At least over 2,000 ha have burnt, and 700 people were evacuated, all that in an island which is not equipped at all to combat forest fires[1]. I cannot imagine that this land of penguins, icy mountains and freshwater lakes, whose vegetation has not really adapted to fire at all, is burning, I cannot figure it out how that’s possible.

Four hours flight away, Australia is hit by temperature picks of 50 ºC. Last January, more than 50 fires in the southernmost state of Tasmania only have destroyed 173,000 hectares of land. I was never in Tasmania, but by reading books I know that the island hosts a unique ancient and endemic vegetation of rainforest and alpine gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage, which attracts scientists from all over the world like the Galapagos do. Unfortunately, the vegetation of these ecosystems cannot regenerate after fire[2]. If in New Zealand they are trying to heal and bring back nature, in Australia they are facing a massive risk of definitive eradication of unique ecosystems like the Tasmanian forests or the Eastern Coral Reef.

Oceania looks too far from here, from old Europe. However, something highly alarming is also happening above Norway.  We all pretend to know that ice banks are slowly melting, but we do not know what it could happen if the Barents Sea gets free from icecaps and the balance between ocean streams change. The loss of Arctic sea ice has flipped the Barents Sea from acting as a buffer between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans to something closer to an arm of the Atlantic. The ice acts as a barrier to exchanging heat with the atmosphere and blocks sunlight from reaching the ocean water, helping keep the Arctic colder in the summer. The loss of ice also means therefore that the surface water in this area is exchanging heat with the atmosphere and absorbing more sunlight during the long Arctic summer days. Warm Atlantic water will no longer be pressed deeper by freshwater around the Svalbard islands because the fresh water floating south from sea ice disappears, and with the progressing saltier Atlantic water sea ice formation will decrease.  Nobody knows what effects will it generate on ocean streams and the global climate. Scientists talk about a “tipping point”[3]. What is already sure is the drastic decline of commercial fish stock. Probably, we shall soon forget about cheap cod fish on our tables.

In analyses carried out by behavioral scientists, researchers explain that humans are not well-built for this kind of challenge[4], they are reacting to the threat of climate change too slowly and that as well because we are not or have not been yet directly hit by catastrophes. On the other hand, for a problem as big and overwhelming as climate change, negative messaging tends to leave people feeling hopeless or defensive. How to overcome this vicious circle? The problem is that: if we leave catastrophes reach us, the no-return point might have already been surpassed. We lack a collective species consciousness, and instead we behave as lion males contending for a lioness: one against the other. We do not see that when we destroy a lagoon, or build another highway, or keep consuming packaged food, or cooling our offices at any cost we are generating the climate change, besides contributing to the coming sixth mass species extinction on Earth, as already warned by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)[5].

I am currently in Tunisia, and even in such a small country I see how far behind the people are with waste management, or how fast urban plots are expanding and devouring sections of the Capital city’s marshlands.

When I was a young green activist, in the ‘80s, my Italian compatriots were depicting us as “Those who want to take Humanity back to the Stone Age, to the time of candles [note: before electricity reached our homes]”. Others were teasing us by saying: “You are like watermelons, green outside, but red inside. And you know, Communism is over”.

Those fellow citizens are the same who still support new highways, large-scale useless and imposed infrastructures, and an economy based on urbanization and fossil energy. They are the Stone Age. We are entering the Stone Age, and not because we have replaced light bulbs with candles.

Last week, a catholic Pope visited for the first time ever the Arab peninsula, where the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam. It was a special moment. Five-hundred religious leaders met in Abu Dhabi for the Global Conference of Human Fraternity. God listens to Humans in times of crisis, and this is one of them. In a period of ideological confusion and de-spiritualization of peoples, especially in Western countries, recurring to our soul’s inner voices is fundamental to understand the gravity of what Humanity is facing. Religions should not only be drivers of peace and reconciliation, but also social institutions and inner forces making people aware, and pushing them to take responsible action, to take the path of that real collective behavioral change we have not seen yet. Spirituality can be the “carbon-free fuel” that makes people to radically change their minds, force their governments to be accountable, review their lifestyles, and behave consequently. It is wonderful that Pope Francis and Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam al-Tayyeb signed a joint commitment for mutual understanding[6], but calls for peaceful coexistence solely bring nowhere if we are forecasting another “Great Deluge”. Environmental awareness among Muslims, at least in the Arab World, is extremely weak and inconsistent. I still remember the images of those Egyptian families living right underneath the chimneys of cement factories and oil refineries in Alexandria’s outskirts, or the zigzagged real estate developments devastating Mount Lebanon. In Europe, on the other hand, although we have advanced environmental regulations, we have not reached yet the point of understanding what an “ecological transition” means. Fossil fuels are still the backbone of our industries, and our multinational companies contaminate the world’s regions. So, dear religious leaders, please take this appeal of us seriously: start from your own communities and clergy, who have to give us the example in deeds, so that people believe again in immaterial values. And instill in us the vibrant power of the God of Life. Now.

A last remark. I do not believe that we can reach mutual recognition, peaceful coexistence and eventually a radical re-examination of development without  empowering people. And the only way to do so is democracy. After Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, the Supreme Pontiff has written a personal letter to Egyptian president Al-Sisi thanking him for his commitment for interreligious dialogue, according to reports[7]. No, this is wrong. Dictators have often used religion to divide people and empty their rights with diverting propaganda campaigns. Mr. Al-Sisi’s Rule detains thousands of Egyptian citizens for opinion crimes, some of them have disappeared, others have endured torture, and that despite Pope Francis’ appeal for human rights voiced during his visit to Egypt in April 2017 [8]. Al-Sisi’s God is not the same Pope Francis addresses his prayers to. And, by the way, the coming environmental disasters Egypt is confronted with (progressive withdrawal of the Nile delta, Cairo’s and other cities’ heavy contamination, disruptive chemical agro-business, etc.) seem showing that his Government does not care about the message behind New Zealand’s fires and the Barents Sea’s upward streams.

 

Tunis, February 10, 2019.

[1] See Kate Lyons, “Rare New Zealand bushfire, burning for days, threatens town of 3,000”, The Guardian, February 8, 2019.

[2] Richard Flanagan, in “Tasmania is burning. The climate disaster future has arrived while those in power laugh at us”, The Guardian, February 4, 2019, explains that Tasmania’s sea waters are warming at two to three times the global rate!

[3] Thomas Nilsen, “The Northern Barents Sea is warming dramatically”, Arctic Today, July 8, 2018.

[4] See for instance: Emily Bobrow, “Fight Climate Change with Behavior Change”, Behavioral Scientist, October 16, 2018.

[5] See: https://www.ipbes.net/; https://www.ipbes.net/news/media-release-worsening-worldwide-land-degradation-now-%E2%80%98critical%E2%80%99-undermining-well-being-32.

[6] The full text of the Document on Human Fraternity for world peace and living together is here: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-02/pope-francis-uae-declaration-with-al-azhar-grand-imam.html. You can read in it: “This Declaration, setting out from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality, valuing its successes and in solidarity with its suffering, disasters and calamities, believes firmly that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles”.

[7] I have been looking for the letter’s text after having heard about it on Italian Radio, and could not find it online. Has the Vatican realized that the importance of such a move should have been downsized?

[8] Follow the updates on human rights crimes and repression acts by the Egyptian authorities here: https://mailchi.mp/euromedrights/situation-of-human-rights-defenders-and-activists-in-egypt-15-january-7-february-2019?e=f7818e395e.

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