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Making peace with nature

Michele Gierck  |  06 February 2019

Having witnessed environmental degradation and its impact on poor communities first-hand, Finbarr Horgan says it’s up to all of us to do more to protect our environment. The challenge for each of us is to figure out how best to play our part – how to mend our broken relationship and reconcile with creation.

When he was younger, Finbarr Horgan, otherwise known as Fionn, loved being out in nature: walking, wondering, and observing. There was something special about it. And he felt at peace being in it.

No surprise that in his 20s Fionn became an ecologist. Decades later, he’s remained fascinated by the complexity, diversity and intricate relationships that exist in the natural environment. For the last three years, until February 2019, the Irish-born ecologist was lecturing in The School of Life Sciences at University of Technology Sydney.

Having also worked around the world – from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Peru, to Sri Lanka and the Philippines – he remains acutely aware of how fragile many parts of the environment are.


In 2002, Fionn undertook extensive field work in six different forests in Peru, trying to explain the mechanisms underlying tropical biodiversity. After finishing the field work, he left for Canada where he completed his PhD. Returning less than 18 months later to Peru, he was confronted by shocking scenes. ‘Some forests had disappeared completely: one had been cut down to grow maize. In another forest they were cutting down the trees around me while I was collecting more data!’

Having seen the destruction of the environment and the effects of this on poor vulnerable communities around the globe, Fionn has long been an ardent advocate for a new way of caring for our planet. Like eco-theologian Fr Sean McDonagh, he believes that as people of faith, not only are we are called to care for the Earth, but it is our duty to do so.


Speaking personally, Fionn says that taking care of the Earth and living according to his faith are not separate issues. They are inextricably linked.

‘That’s nothing new,’ he says. ‘Saint Francis of Assisi was talking about all nature coming from God, and all being part of one creation, one humanity – brother sun and sister moon – back in the 12th century.’

‘I think people in Australia, and North America and Europe, forget that they are living in a utopia. The real environmental catastrophes are in the poor countries, where people don’t have clean drinking water, where deforestation leads to flooding and landslides, and farms and foods are toxic with pesticides.’

‘When you see the caravans of people marching to the US, this is the poor saying “We want a better life – a safe and secure environment.” The poor are not to blame. But they are the ones who pay a hefty price’, Fionn says.

Fionn believes that schools and church communities have a vital role to play in protecting the environment. ‘Unless we learn to respect nature, there’s no future generation.’


Some years ago, in the heady days of post-war reconstruction, Fionn moved to El Salvador. His official work was at the national university, training staff, setting up laboratories, and developing curricula. Come the weekends, however, he soon found himself in a poor parish, run by the Franciscans, on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador.

Fionn thought it would be good to develop an environmental program that suited this church community, by

1) caring for the poor,
2) encouraging a love of the environment, and
3) seeking a closer relationship with God.

As a result, he wrote and illustrated a simple training manual. It focused on the local environment – awareness-raising, and environmental education, project planning and a call to action – as well as values and spirituality.

Little did he realise that this no-fuss book would end up being used, and adapted, not just in local workshops, but around the world.

‘In all my time in science, none of my scientific papers have had such an impact’, Fionn says.


Fionn says he read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ through the lens of both ecology and faith.

‘I applaud him. Seems to me he’s one of the only world leaders coming out saying that our current emphasis on economic growth and industry is destroying the planet.

Laudato si' is so important. It talks about the environmental crisis, its effects on the poor, and some of the ways we can change things. But at heart, it calls for people through their faith to love nature – to respect its integral value.

‘After all, our planet is a gift from God,’ Fionn says reflectively. ‘So we need to make everyone on the planet an environmentalist! That’s what Laudato si’ is saying.’


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