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The Earth does not belong to us

In his book Testament, published in 1994, Abbé Pierre dedicated a chapter to the Earth, this “Earth which does not belong to us” but that we must look after. Far from being a pioneer in the field of ecology - as he himself admits in the text - Abbé Pierre nonetheless delivers his message, calling on humanity to preserve, halt and reverse the harm caused to the Earth. Almost 30 years later, this message is still relevant and a source of inspiration, as the environmental disaster gets worse.

Chapter 20: The Earth does not belong to us

     "Sometimes you have to let nature take its course. And it is good to listen to the Earth. True, its manners are rough, but it is an irreplaceable teacher.

     The Earth is faithful to the rhythm of the seasons, the periods of sleep and fertility. It keeps its promises to those who not only work, but who know how to plan and protect themselves together. While it may be frugal, its miserliness itself becomes a lesson because it ridicules individualistic approaches and fulfils those who have managed to organise cooperation and reserves on a large scale.
Its whims, which can be terrible and make men live through terrible tragedies, underscore this rigorous lesson, repeating that human survival and fulfilment is only possible through solidarity. Yes, the Earth is a school of wisdom.

     These whims remind us of the madness of how we are squandering the means available to us through science: with these means, we could predict earthquakes, build quake-resistant buildings where needed, make Everest a fantastic water tower, create dams on the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, thus protecting Bangladesh from flooding, and simultaneously providing electrical power to the entire Indian sub-continent.
Human beings need nature, even when, through choice or necessity, they live in the heart of cities. Under the third (French) Republic, Abbot Lemire, a member of parliament who today would be described as a "leftist", launched a trend for allotments, cultivable areas around towns where each family, in its spare time, kept a small vegetable patch. In some neighbourhoods, we can still see these plots neatly aligned. There are some nearby, in the Caux region. This could be a scheme that could be revived and adapted.

     Observing, knowing how to plant or sow seeds, entering into the rhythm of the seasons and bringing children into contact with nature at a very early age, which teaches them respect for life, is essential to human equilibrium.
When we see fruit, when we come across grains of wheat, the attitude that generally prevails here is to consume it immediately. It is necessary to have seen, among people who know hunger, how the head of the family takes care - almost ferociously - to preserve what is needed for the seeds. Moreover, this is one of the issues that haunts me when we are shown photos of Somalia or Sudan: it is great that we are sending aid! But what have we provided for the next harvests? Nobody tells us. Somalians, who are massively displaced, do not know where their home will be tomorrow, where they will be allowed to dig a hole to plant a seed. Our Homeland is primarily the land where one can sow.
What are these so-called “reception” camps? The images we see show rough encampments surrounded by barren land. These camps are centres of concentration and rejection. How can those who live there not be driven to despair? Let us demand that they be involved in the reflection process that will enable us to give back to each family, to each ethnic group, the land on which, through an act of credit to nature, they will rediscover the sacred gesture of sowing at the next monsoon.

     Some of us still remember being scolded when, as playful children, we used to take the soft part of the bread to make it into a ball that was so much fun to throw. It was very important for our father or mothers to get cross and say: “Bread should be respected because there are too many people, some close by and some far away, who don’t have any.” Yes, it is important that children today are aware of the sacred nature of what we all need, but which does not belong to anyone.

     The Earth does not belong to us. This fundamental notion is repeated by ecologists. Putting aside all parasitic phenomena, I believe that this new focus on the environment is a capital event for the history of humanity. From now on, we will take a fresh look at human activities. Up until now we exploited Earth like you squeeze a sponge, without any limits, with an obsession: going faster than our neighbour to win the competition. Disaster, already well underway, was assured.
Thank goodness, humans have understood that they need to stop this unfettered mode of exploitation. That they need to stop producing as much without considering the catastrophic effects of pollution.
Over the millennia, humanity has developed by destroying the forest. We have done - and continue to do so - without taking precautions. Just look at what is happening in the Amazon! Fortunately, we can see countries nowadays in the Sahel, like Burkina Faso, who are engaged in large reforestation campaigns.
Aware of the damage caused to what we refer to today as ‘the environment’, aware that we are sawing through the branch that we are seated upon, we must, without further delay, find solutions and put them into practice.

     There is no single response. Skills must be brought into play. I trust in human ingenuity. Instead of destroying the thousands of hectares of forest without which the Earth would start to lack oxygen and water, we have invented ways to provide heating and food without causing more harm to nature. Instead of bringing people who are hungry shipments of foodstuffs, which all too often perish before being distributed, let us offer them seeds adapted to their soil and fertilisers that do not pollute. And since chemistry makes it possible to manufacture completely new materials which, by adding to the fruits of nature, can meet the needs of an ever-growing number of people, let us make this research a priority!

     Urbanist should listen to nature’s lessons. In 1954, I myself did not manage it. I was in such a hurry to provide a home to all the homeless families that some of these "emergency housing schemes" were built in a hurry on barely packed rubbish dumps, the only land that some municipalities had been kind enough to grant us. The buildings soon cracked, and it was so noisy that no privacy was possible. (Luckily, the vast majority of these building held up and forty thousand families were able to be housed there).
I carry the responsibility of another mistake in these housing schemes. Pressured by the pleas of all these young households, I was unable to impose on the architects the need for green spaces and playgrounds...Oh, I am not talking about impeccably mown lawns, but meadows where the kids could have played without being caught by the HLM (low-rent housing) caretaker.

     In forty years, I am happy to say, project after project has been built, new neighbourhoods have appeared everywhere. Yet now when I walk through them, I cannot help but wonder: what soul inhabits this place?"

The Earth does not belong to us