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  • Writer's pictureJohn Humphreys

Keeping the Cork Forests Afloat

At EcoPhilly we are working with the Philadelphia Archdiocese to encourage the creation of creation care teams across the area, inspired by the teachings of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’, Care for our Common Home. In this letter, he describes the worsening state of the Earth’s ecosystems, and how the poorest of us will pay the biggest price. When describing the impoverishment of wild places across the planet, especially through destruction of forests, wetlands, coral reefs and grasslands, the Holy Father puts it bluntly: ‘It is not enough to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.’ (Laudato Si, paragraph #33)

But how can we help? Surely, we in the Greater Philadelphia Area aren’t doing anything to exacerbate the problem?

Before we answer that, some vocabulary. ‘Sustainable’ is a word that appears many times in the Pope’s encyclical. Put simply, sustainability means an activity which can be done over and over without damaging the process or the world around it.

So - for fisheries: a sustainable shark fishery is tough to establish because sharks usually come to maturity after many years and often have very few young at a time. Catch more than that very low 'replacement number' and the species is headed for extinction. By contrast, Alaskan salmon support long-term fisheries because the catch rate is lower than their breeding success, which is ensured by rivers being completely unpolluted.

What is true for fish is true for cork – the stuff that keeps wine in bottles and that people put on their floors as a natural, warm product. This ubiquitous material literally grows on trees – cork oaks, that are found in southwestern Europe and northeastern Africa – and is harvested sustainably. The cork is part of the bark that grows on a cork oak; and as long as the harvesting gives the tree enough time to recover, it can be repeated any number of times. In fact, since these trees live for three centuries or more, a cork farmer (and his descendants) will get over 30 crops per tree,

In other words, this is sustainable agriculture because multiple generations have made a good living from making cork by removing that bark that unfailingly grows back.

But if what if people stop buying the cork? There’s little economic incentive for keeping the cork oak forest. The trees will be bulldozed for tower blocks of apartments; this means saying goodbye to the rich ecosystem of oaks, wildflowers and animals on the verge of extinction like the Iberian lynx and imperial eagle.

So, one way you can avoid being part of the problem and, instead, be part of the solution is to choose cork for your floor coverings (freshly prepared or recycled) - oh, and in your wine bottles. Yes, those metal caps make the wine easy to open - although without that lovely pop sound - but small metal objects are not usually recycled. Extracting aluminum from its ore is very energy intensive. Cork uses less energy and helps the environment. Cheers!

The goal of EcoPhilly is for every parish and school in the archdiocese to have a creation care team. The EcoPhilly team will assist interested individuals in tailoring a custom plan, offering suggestions and resources for greening your community’s footprint, and more. Visit

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