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Environmental concerns

The impairment of the ecosphere due to
human activities: war, overpopulation....

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War and Armament:

The bill for world-wide military spending was $236 billion per year in 1969, and $650 billion in 1983. 1 It escalated to $1,000 billion per year in 1985, a figure which exceeded the combined income of the poorer half of the people on earth. 2 This continuous growth in military expenditure is diverting vital human and natural resources away from the much needed areas of development and ecological restoration:

bulletIn 1995, it was estimated that less than 15% of the annual U.S. military expenditure would fund the most urgent global environmental requirements - halting desertification and soil erosion, protecting and replacing forests, protecting the ozone layer, moderating global warming, cleaning up hazardous waste, developing renewable resources of energy, and implementing population stabilization measures. 3,4
bulletFuel consumed by Pentagon in a single year would run the entire public transport system of the US for 22 years.
bulletWar itself has the effect of shortening planning horizons and shifting resources to immediate survival needs. For example, during World War II timber cutting increased in the interest of defense while investments in long-term environmental benefits were deferred.
bulletThe direct effects of modern war are now far more odious and permanent than at any time in the past - consider, for example, defoliation used in Vietnam; the consequences may last for centuries. 5
bulletThere are two and a half times as many military personnel as health workers, 1 and one in every two scientists is employed in perfecting the instruments of war and developing technologies that might do harm to human life and the environment. 6

Such facts and figures are a harrowing indictment of our society.

And what about actual wars? According to the National Priorities Project, toward the end of November 2005 the war in Iraq costs reached some $225 billion. 7 The National Public Radio (NPR) put the expenditure toward the end of 2005 past $200 billion. 8 Keith Hartley, Director of the York University's Centre for Defence Economics, puts the Iraq war cost (to the USA + UK together) to more than $260 billion by the end of 2006, with the UK contributing $7.5 billion. Eventually, he predicts that the total cost of the Iraq war is likely to top US $1.25 trillion! 9 Also, Keith Hartley calculates that the cost of the Iraq venture to the UK over three months in 2005 would build 25 hospitals in the UK.

Comments on the ecology of war and the preparation for it are obvious. It is therefore more than surprising that the horrendous waste of resources on the armaments industry were not on the agenda of the 2002 Johannesburg Environment Summit. 10

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Overpopulation is a ratio of two components: Population and resource. As to the human population of the Earth, the available figures are: 1 billion in 1804, 1.6 billion in 1900, 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1959, 3.5 billion in 1970, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1986, 6 billion 1999, 6.5 billion in 2006. The estimates for 2050 vary between 9.1 billion and 9.2 billion, almost all of the growth occurring in the developing world. Only slightly over 1.2 billion people are expected to live in countries that are currently designated as developed. 11 When a population cannot be maintained without rapidly depleting its non-renewable resources and without degrading the capacity of the environment to support it, the area is overpopulated. Africa, where currently the population grows at a phenomenal rate, is overpopulated, because the production of necessities, such as food, does not keep pace with the grooving number of people. Its soils and forests are being depleted so rapidly that, in the future, their carrying capacity for humans will be much lower than it is now. When the same criterion is used, even the United States had to be considered overpopulated: Namely, the consequences of American fertility, combined with substantial immigration, have to be seen on the background of the depletion of American soils and water resources by over-consumption. 12
Our wasteful generation has to be constantly reminded that our planet has limits to its capacity to support life. We are faced with:

bulletOverwhelmed water treatment systems;
bulletWater sources depletion;
bulletShortage of fresh water both for domestic purposes and for agriculture;
bulletReduced biodiversity;
bulletFalling production of grain;
bulletLoss of topsoil through erosion;
bulletMassive loss of forest cover;
bulletCollapsing ocean fisheries.
bulletDecreasing income in the fastest growing regions in the world;
bulletGrowing unemployment in much of the developing world; and
bulletA growing number of environmental refugees.

All these are symptoms of a serious global problem which is made much worse by the yearly addition of 80 million new people to the overall population. The sheer number of people on earth is already past what Paul Ehrlich has called the 'carrying capacity' of the planet. A vast numbers of people are becoming malnourished, marginalized, and disaffected 13, and there is an increased ecological destruction. 2

The present increases in human numbers and in per capita consumption has a considerable impact on the environment, disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources 14 - just about every step in the direction of reducing the effects of affluence and technology is negated by population growth. The more people are on earth, the more resources are needed to maintain them, and the greater is the amount of the waste-products escaping into the atmosphere. There is probably no practical way to achieve an improvement in this respect without population control. For example, as to the emission of greenhouse gases, every person who lives makes a contribution to the CO2 in the atmosphere by burning wood, coal, or oil. ... Small increases per person can have an enormous effect in China and India with huge populations there. The report of the Club of Rome stated already in 1972 that 'with the existing trend in population, food production, industrialization, resource use, and population continuing unchanged, limits to growth would be reached within a century'.

To achieve zero population growth in the twenty-first century even in the most developed countries, birthrates would have to fall well below replacement levels. The reason for the population momentum is the relative youth of the growing population.

The current situation is well demonstrated on the population of the Philippines, the islands of the archipelago being now one of the most densely populated areas in the world with 173 persons per square kilometre. 6 By 1960 the population of the Philippines was 6 million people. By 1949 it had jumped to 19.3 million; 1970 saw the population pass the 38.5 million mark, and in 1989 it was estimated to be 63.8 million. It was 70 million in 1991, and since 50% of the people are under the age of 18, the figure will most probably shoot past 100 million shortly after the year 2010. Meanwhile, the mangrove swamps are being destroyed, and 80% of the coral reefs, which are among the richest ecosystems on the planet, have been severely damaged. A third of the soil is severely damaged, two thirds are partly damaged, and the rain forest that once covered over 90% of the area will, it seems, soon be totally gone - only 10% survives now. 15 In 1988, a Catholic bishop in the Philippines presented a document called What is Happening in Our Beautiful Land? to the national meeting of all the bishops of the Philippines. They approved it, but only after taking out the statement on population, which was vital. This diminished the importance of the document and showed the reluctance of the Catholic Church to deal with the population problem, even though overpopulation is one of the most disastrous realities facing the Philippines and the planet. Population pressures will not go away with our refusal to face them.

Unless we solve the problem of overpopulation, all future generations will be impoverished. Where are the children and future generations going to grow food that they will need for their expanding numbers? For the sake of future generations, we need to 'lower population, alter consumption levels, and promote more resource-efficient technologies'. 16 We already know much of what is needed in order to solve the problem of overpopulation, but we are limiting ourselves to exhortations and promotion of general ideas. At the minimum, exchange of ideas on population control, family planning, and obstacles to it should be encouraged across cultural, religious and political boundaries. The present policy of fertility control, promoted by the leadership in the Catholic Church, may not be really pro-life when looked at from a wider angle.

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Trade and Economy:

In our society, it is acceptable to profit from other peoples suffering and misery. Economists identify the pursuit of private gain as rational, and imply that other sorts of behavior (that include regard for others and actions directed toward public good) are not rational. Current economic theory simply ignores everything to which monetary value cannot be assigned, This means that the gifts of nature, provided by the normal working of biospheric processes, are considered of no importance; to be deprived of these 'non-benefits' cannot constitute a 'cost', and the natural systems that provide them can thereby be destroyed with total impunity. 17 The most fundamental tenets with which we have all been imbued since our most tender childhood are that all benefits are man-made, that they are the product of the scientific, technological and industrial progress, and that they are made available via the market system. The normal benefits provided by the functioning of the ecosphere (fertile soil, fresh water, and so on) are totally ignored, and are assigned no value of any kind. We are told that to maximize all benefits and hence our welfare and our wealth we must maximize economic development and progress. 18 We assess the success of our government, the wealth of our country, as well as our standard of living by the so-called Gross National Product (GNP), which provides a rough measure of our ability to provide man-made commodities. However. it is a rather poor indicator of well-being - man's welfare is assured not by maximizing the GNP but by preserving the natural order. 19 And the difference between the GNPs does not give a feeling for what is hidden behind the numbers. It certainly does not show that for every well-fed baby in the north five die of malnutrition in the south. 20

The result of all this is that despite increased environmental concerns, the economy is not being steered onto an environmentally sustainable path.

Population growth requires more jobs to be created. Since no government can hope to survive widespread and protracted unemployment, it becomes necessary to stimulate economic growth regardless of consequences. This conclusion is directly contradicted by the fact that the economy that we have institutionalized in the last few years is so highly automated that it could probably function with less than 20% of the world's work force, thereby marginalizing 80% of humanity. 19,21 It also disagrees with the notion that to move towards increased environmental sustainability will necessitate a substantial reduction in the throughput of industrial economies. There is an impasse over how to proceed with long-term planning in order to make it compatible with environmental needs. A similar impasse exists over the agreement of global trade agreements with global environmental agreements. At present, primarily through inaction, we seem to be perfectly willing to contemplate sacrificing forests, fisheries, and the ozone layer on the altar of free trade.
We consider acceptable that third world governments service their debts by cutting more trees or planting more cash crops, which is the only way open to them. 6

Under present conditions, undeveloped nations have little or no hope of markedly improving their standard of living. 14 The main stumbling block is that many third-world countries depend on a single primary export like wood, coffee, copper, or cotton, and that the prices of such commodities have been declining. Another obstacle is that over the past 40 years, food aid has deteriorated into a political instrument: In the third-world countries there is now dependence on imports, local markets are disrupted, local agriculture is discouraged, and, to a large extent, the ability to purchase food locally or regionally has been lost. Attempts to fully open all markets to imports threaten the livelihoods of agricultural workers from South Korea, India, the Philippines, and Brazil. Many poor countries have been left behind as rich countries have subsidized agriculture and blocked access to their markets. Huge agricultural monetary grants by the main Western countries to their small farm population ($350 billion) far outweigh the aid given the developing countries ($50 billion). 22 And yet the world's richest nations are refusing to cut subsidies to their own farmers and remove import tariffs for overseas producers, i.e., stop measures that ruin the livelihoods of millions of poor people who rely on farming to survive. The US and EU repeatedly promise to take down their domestic subsidies and export assistance programs, but fail to deliver, denying the poorest countries access to the lucrative Western markets.

Any food aid sold in the local markets is competing with local food producers. (The same considerations apply also to clothing collected in the West and sent as aid to the various third-world countries.) This has the same effect as the dumping of products below cost prices on world and local markets. If, on top of that, this food aid in kind is the result of surpluses created by agricultural subsidies in the donor countries, then subsidized food aid in kind is to be considered as dumping.

Some published comments on free trade:

bulletIn 2001 Europe exported 770,000 tonnes of subsidized white sugar to Algeria and
150,000 tonnes to Nigeria, both natural export markets to African producers like
Mozambique. But sugar farmers in Mozambique (one of the poorest countries in the
world) can't compete with subsidized EU sugar. Meanwhile, small farmers in Europe
don't benefit - traders and retailers are the main beneficiaries of subsidies. 23
bulletBefore 1992 Jamaican dairy farmers produced over 25% of the milk consumed in the
country. After the World Bank had Jamaican import taxes eliminated, subsidized
powdered milk from the European Union poured in. In 1993, millions of dollars worth
of local milk had to be dumped, hundreds of cows were slaughtered prematurely, and
many dairy farms closed down. 23

A new threat to the third world agriculture comes from genetically engineered (GE) crops which could have a devastating effect. These crops certainly will give enormous control of the staple foods of the world to a handful of powerful first world agribusiness companies. People are hungry either because they do not have access to food production processes, or do not have enough money to buy food. Do the proponents of genetically engineered food assume that agribusiness companies will distribute GE food free to the hungry poor who have no money?

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Nature is a source of raw materials. They are not destined for selfish exploitation by one group of people, but are available to be shared by all creation. We must accept the fact that they form a closed system that has a limited carrying capacity. An overuse of renewable resources by a massive, uncontrollable economic development, which we usually identify with progress, 19 converts them into non-renewable ones - this is a triumph for greed and self-interest and a tragedy for the environment.

Consumption has become an overall aim, with the objective to process the greatest possible amount of natural resources as quickly as possible, and then (after some use) throw the product onto the waste heap. The faster this process goes, the more of the natural world is consumed, the higher is the Gross National Product, the happier we are supposed to be. This is the myth of our times. We do not see the rising junk, the expanding garbage heaps, the increasing amount of radioactive refuse. We are estranged from nature which we use primarily for our own purpose. The West is without any meaningful ethic of the environment, it has practically no moral direction in the manner the resources are used.

There is a certain amount of conviction on the part of a lot of people (like the US commercial establishments) that the well-being of everybody depends on keeping the industrial economy going, i.e., on keeping the jobs and on keeping a high rate of production and consumption. Today's policy is to create a global economy totally controlled by vast, uncontrollable, and socially and ecologically irresponsible transnational corporations, catering for the world market. 19 Mass production has become skewed to provide not what is needed by the customer but what is needed by the manufacturer to maintain or even increase profit.

Overproduction demands overconsumption. Advertising companies fan the flames of consumerism, creating unbridled consumerism and a throw-away mentality, and various methods are used to manipulate the customer into buying a new product before the old one has come to the end of its life:

bulletDemand is created by changes in fashion (such as swinging from fancy frocks to hooded tops, or from lace-less trainers to sharply pointed shoes, as advocated in the glossies). The fashion demands that styles must change, otherwise what will the shops sell and what will the people buy?
bulletCustomer is manipulated into buying a new product before the old one had come to the end of its life. For example, products may have expiry dates indicating expiry long before the item becomes inedible or unusable, but there are more sophisticated methods:
bulletIf machines break down because some part wears out, the repair and replacement cost may be, (and frequently is) approximately the same or even lower than the repair cost. Typical example is the malfunction of the timer of a microwave. Similar cases are known from the repair of food mixers, refrigerators, washing machines, heaters, cars, computers, and so on. The current industry-projected lifespan for personal computers is about two years! Today, there are over 100 million people using PCs in the U.S. alone. Since 1997, the country has produced a tidal wave of junked laptops, monitors, and hard drive, estimated in excess of $300 million. 24 And, in addition to PCs, 3.2 million tonnes of other high-tech hardware gets tossed every year. 24
bulletA specific method of stimulating consumer demand is planned (or built-in) obsolescence: Products are designed to wear out or become outmoded after rather limited use. The method has great benefits for the producer: The consumer will buy the product repeatedly. The impact of planned obsolescence is felt particularly strongly when the cost of bringing the item to the required level is comparable to the replacement cost. Obsolescence can also be created by stopping the provision of service parts. For example, Microsoft by withdrawing customer support for Window 95 and reducing interoperability for the system, created a greater incentive to buy a more updated versions of Windows (such as XP).
bulletA type of obsolescence, frequent in computers, consists of the introduction of new lines of products that do not interoperate (are not compatible) with older products. The production of the older line may then cease. The new technology may provide many benefits, but the sale is driven by lack of support for the product people already own, and by making all new developments incompatible with it. Example: Norton Internet Security 2006 is designed for Windows XP and 2000 only, and not for the Windows 98, for which the older Norton Internet Security 2005 applied.
bulletThe electronic industry, most notably producers of cell phones and personal computers, has brought built-in obsolescence to dizzying new heights.

As long as the full environmental impact is not incorporated into the price of consumer durables, there will be an undue economic incentive to replace items rather than to repair or to upgrade them. Since continuous replacing creates waste and pollution, and uses up natural resources, it has to be avoided. Also, unbridled consumerism and a throw-away mentality have to be abandoned as quickly as possible, as well as manipulating a customer into buying a new product before the old one had come to the end of its life.

The mass consumption and rampant consumerism, so typical for the U.S., have spread not only to other industrialized nations but succeeded in penetrating much of the developing world as well. Millions of middle class people across the globe have adopted lifestyles pioneered in the United States. 25 But why are we doing all the damage to nature? Edward Goldsmith claims that this is because our society is committed to economic development and progress - a process which by its very nature must systematically in-crease the impact of our economic activities on an environment not capable of sustaining it. 18 A shorter answer would be that we are degrading nature (biodiversity) in the name of profit (of large agribusiness corporations making megabucks). 10

The greatest of the environmental challenges which lie ahead is our need to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

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Survival Diet:

It is claimed that ten times as many people can survive eating a corn crop as can survive eating cattle that have been fed on corn. However, the ratio ten to one appears does not appear to quite right. In 1990, the World Food Program at Brown University calculated that, if the world harvest over the previous few years was distributed fairly to all the people of the world, it could provide an adequate vegetarian diet for 6 billion people. In contrast, a meat-rich diet could only manage to feed 2.6 billion. The ratio of 2.3 to one appears to be more realistic than 10 to one. However, even with the smaller ratio a vegetarian diet seems to be the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social issue. 26

There were 800 million victims of starvation in 2000, between 840 million and 850 million in 2004 (a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa), and the number of people who die from hunger and malnutrition is still increasing. Many food aid resources were wasted due to inefficiencies, policy obstacles, and poor targeting, but there could have been, in the form of a vegetarian diet, enough food to go around.
As to the present situation, available statistics are anything but reassuring:

bullet3.6 billion people are barely getting enough to eat, with more than 1 billion of them in total abject poverty. 30 In 2002, one quarter of the population of the world lived on less than one dollar a day in appalling misery. 31
bulletOne person dies from hunger and malnutrition every 5 or 6 seconds. 32, 33
bulletSomewhere between 10 and 30 million children die every year of starvation related diseases. 27 Malnutrition is a factor in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths which occur every year. 34
bulletThere seems to be some cause for concern even in the United States: A 1984 report noted that there has been a 50% increase in poverty among children since 1960.

As the population grows, the actual number of poor people is rises as well. 35 The rich must live more simply that the poor may simply live.

On one hand people die of hunger, on the other hand, millions of people in rich countries suffer from overweight and obesity. In 2005, 6 in 10 Americans were over-weight, more than 1 in 4 obese. 36 Basically, Americans are on average eating 200 more calories a day than they were in the 1970s.

bulletCompared with the mid-to-late 1970s, American farms are producing 500 more calories of food a day per American. People are managing to pack away 200 of them . A lot of the rest is being dumped overseas, or wasted, or burned in the cars as ethanol.
bulletAccording to the Journal of Preventive Medicine, the average weight of the Americans increased by 10 pounds during the 1990s, requiring an extra 350 million gallons of jet fuel to fly them around during 2000. That's about 2.4% of the total volume of jet fuel used domestically that year. 37
bulletIt is not surprising that the U.S. is a nation of fat adults: On the average, a child in the U.S. eats 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the time they become high school graduates. 38
bulletOfficial surveys indicate that every year more than 350 billion pounds (160 billion kg) of food is available for human consumption in the United States. Of that total, nearly 100 billion pounds (45 billion kg) - including fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, and grain products - are lost to waste by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. By contrast, the amount of food required to meet the needs of the hungry is only four billion pounds, according to the advocacy group Food Not Bombs. 25

The rich are responsible for most of today's environmental damage - they get richer at the expense of the poor. If the poor are to be fed and housed, and if the global environment is to be saved, the rich must reduce their economic growth. This has been an anathema for traditional economists who have shown singularly little concern for the deterioration of the global environment.
According to the 1972 Report of the Club of Rome, the high rate of consumption and pollution of the rich would be impossible for the whole of the world. This is referred to as the impossibility theorem.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. McDonagh Sean, "To Care for the Earth," Geoffrey Chapman, (1989).
  2. McDonagh Sean, "The Greening of the Church," Geoffrey Chapman, (1990).
  3. Brown Lester R., "State of the World 1996," Norton Co., (1996).
  4. Gable Medard, Evan Frisch, "Doing the Right Thing," University Science, (1991).
  5. Loehle Craig, "On the Shoulders of Giants," George Ronald, (1994).
  6. McDonagh Sean, "Care of the Earth Moves Higher on the Church Agenda," at: http://www.columban.com/
  7. National Priorities Project, "The War in Iraq Costs," at: http://nationalpriorities.org/
  8. Inskeep Steve, "Iraq War Costs," NPR, 2004-DEC-16. Online at: http://www.npr.org/
  9. Howarth Miles, "What is the Unitarian Message?" at: http://www.theopenmind.org.uk/
  10. McDonagh Sean, "Johannesburg 2002," at: http://eapi.admu.edu.ph/
  11. Carnell Brian, "Latest UN Projections: World Population will Reach 9.1 Billion," http://www.overpopulation.com/
  12. McDonagh Sean, "The Cost of Overpopulation," 1994-SEP, at: http://www.npg.org/
  13. "Oxfam Briefing Paper," at: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/
  14.  Ecologist Staff, "A Blueprint for Survival," Penguin, (1973).
  15. Berry Thomas, Thomas Clarke, "Befriending the Earth," Twenty-Third Publications, (1992).
  16.  McDonagh Sean, "The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction," Columba Press, (2004). Overview, at: http://www.christian-ecology.org.uk/
  17. Goldsmith Edward, "Towards an Economic Worldview," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  18. Goldsmith Edward, "The Way," Themis Books, (1996).
  19. Goldsmith Edward, "The Cosmic Covenant," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  20. Morton James Park, "Religion Cleans Up It's Act: The Renewal of Spirituality," at: http://www.lapuismagazine.org/
  21. Goldsmith Edward, "Re-embedding religion in society, the natural world and the cosmos," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  22.  BBC News Online, "At-a-glance Guide. Poor Countries and Trade," 2005-DEC-13.
  23.  New Internationalist 353, "Tricks of the Trade," 2003-JAN/FEB. Online at: http://www.newint.org/
  24. Taylor Alan, "Rot on the Landscape," Sunday Herald, 2005-OCT-30.
  25. Rizvi Haider, "US Food Waste and Hunger Exist Side by Side," Inter Press Service, 2004-SEP-04.
  26. Monbiot George, "Why Vegans Were Right All Along," Guardian Unlimited, 2002-DEC-24.
  27. Elsis Mark, "Zero Population Growth will Occur Somewhere Between 2020 To 2029," at: http://www.overpopulation.net
  28. Kirby Alex, "Can the Planet Feed Us?" BBC News, 2004-NOV-24.
  29. McDonagh Sean, "SOURCE," 2004-SEP-15, at: http://www.wervel.be/
  30. Cartner George, "Flames of Faith," B&C Press, (2003).
  31. "Brittons throw away third of food," BBC News, 2005-APR-14.
  32. Chapple Christopher, "Hinduism, Jainism, and Ecology. at" http://environment.harvard.edu/
  33. Chatwin Bruce, "Songlines," Picador, (1987)
  34. Kirby Alex, "Hungry World 'Must Eat Less Meat'," BBC News, 2004-AUG-16.
  35. "At-a-glance Guide. Poor Countries and Trade," BBC News Online, 2005-DEC-13.
  36. "Overweight Americans More Now Than Ever," CBS News, 2000-DEC-15.
  37. "Overweight Americans Cause Airlines to Burn More Fuel and raise Air Ticket Prices," at:  http://www.newstarget.com/
  38. Mad Dog, "Weighing in on Obesity. The Mad Dog Weekly," http://www.maddogproductions.com/

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-JUL-02
Latest update: 2006-JUL-02
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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