11 Oct 2022

Respect for our environment and each other begins with really noticing what is going on around us.

It is difficult to respond to the environmental crisis. The hardest thing, I find, is to allow it to flow into my whole life and not remain only one small section of it. The way forward is to grow in respect.

Respect not only to the family, friends and strangers in our lives but to our whole environment, embracing our gardens, wilderness, animals birds and insects, our homes and our workplaces and our institutions.

Respect is at its most striking when we see it given in places where we would not expect it.

I remember vividly lunching with refugees in a camp by the Cambodian border with Thailand. We ate at a wooden table in a bamboo hut. The floor was red dirt, always dusty. Surveyors from the United Nations team had somehow calculated that in each hut there were 4.7 rats. They decided not to try to exterminate the rats because the slaughter might lead to plague. So, the rats were allowed to survive not out of respect but out of fear.

I was moved by the care, almost daintiness, of the leader of the Khmer team who each day would sweep the dust and crumbs from the table into his hands and shake them outside the hut. His gesture showed a deep respect for us his fellow diners, for the table and hut, and for the good manners that he wanted to restore in the future community and future Cambodia that would emerge from the camp.


In a Cambodia dehumanised by Pol Pot that simple act of respect expressed an enormous hope. Not only for a cleaner camp but for a world more just in every respect.

Pope Francis has also been building respect for the environment: through his speeches, his diplomacy, his talks, his setting aside years, months and days and months in the Catholic calendar to the environment, and particularly in his powerful letter Laudato Si’.

Whenever he speaks, he insists on the connection between the threat of global warming and the oppression and neglect of people who are poor and disadvantaged. The misery, poverty, pollution and squalor that mark the lives of people in slums are caused by the same greed and exploitation of wealthy people that destroy forests, poison fishing grounds and drinking water, and trash the oceans

In Australia the link between lack of respect for people seen as dispensable and the lack of respect for the environment was seen in the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves sacred to Indigenous people. In their focus on profits and on technology the Rio Tinto miners did not notice the memorials of Australia’s past. Nor did they notice the Indigenous people to whom the site was sacred. In failing to notice what was in full view they and their company failed also in respect.


To live with respect begins with noticing. This is a gift. We all remember with regret occasions when we have failed to notice. When we did not notice the early signs of a friend withdrawing from society, for example, or the leaking pipe that later caused damp in the house. On the other hand, noticing small changes can have huge effects.

Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring introduced many of us to the fragility of the natural world and the effects of human actions on it. It began by noticing the relative quiet of birds one spring, seeing dead birds, and then traced the loss to the massive use of DDT as a pesticide.

The book gave birth to the environmental movement, inspiring others to notice similar effects of poisonous chemicals in the natural world. It led eventually to regulations that controlled their use.


The cycle from noticing, to wondering, to reflecting and acting, can bring together the separated commitments of our lives. A prayerful walk in a park or by the sea in the early morning can spark thankfulness in us for the privilege of being alive in such a beautiful world.

That in turn can remind us of our childhood delight in gardens and of the paradise places that have kept us returning to thankfulness in our lives.

Our wonder at the delicacy of our world can then make us attend to what we eat for breakfast, how it is packaged and how we dispose of the waste.

As we reflect, we may find ways in which to live more respectful of our environment, and find companions with similar commitments who demand action from our governments. And at each step our noticing becomes more delicate, more focused.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Madonna – a quarterly magazine for those interested in spirituality. Madonna’s aim is to enrich the spiritual lives of our readers, especially those who are lay people using scripture readings for the day as a focus. The daily prayer reflections in pray.com.au are taken from Madonna magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe to Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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