What are Catholics to make of the big environmental questions: climate change, deforestation and habitat loss, water quality and water shortages, the extinction of species, fossil fuels? How compatible is environmental activism with Catholicism? What does it mean to be responsible stewards of creation? These are important questions, made even more timely in anticipation of Pope Francis releasing an encyclical in 2015 on environmental and ecological issues.
Christians believe it is necessary and good to show “respect for the integrity of creation” (CCC, 2415) and to use the Earth’s natural resources prudently, but these beliefs don’t tell us whether specific environmental initiatives are morally compelling.
Environmental activism is often a matter of science and ideology. Not infrequently, when someone disagrees with a tenet fervently held by environmental activists, they are labeled “science deniers”. Ironically, many of those who blithely label opponents “science deniers” do not themselves understand the underlying science.
As an engineer/scientist who has worked in the trenches for over 30 years, taught environmental engineering subjects, and loves to explore history, I have seen my share of bad science and bad data (sadly, guilty myself on occasion). I’ve learned that while we need to rely on data, an honest skepticism of data is an important aspect of the scientific method. On many occasions, scientists—experts—have reached a consensus on something that was subsequently proven to be false. As Matt Ridley wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Science is about evidence, not consensus.” I’m with Mr. Ridley. I don’t care about consensus, no matter how passionate or morally indignant. I want to see the data and the evidence.
Objective criteria, clean data
Here’s an example. With hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and advisories warning us that our environment is under assault and deteriorating, how can anyone claim that America’s environment is cleaner than it’s been for over 100 years? I can, and I do, and here’s my evidence based on these criteria: waterborne illnesses, levels of pollutants in water and air, habitats, technological innovation, and sensory evidence.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, and even into the 1920s, typhoid epidemics annually sickened thousands in American cities. Waterborne illnesses have been practically eradicated in the United States, to such an extent that most Americans take safe water for granted. Now that we can detect and measure pollutants in parts per billion, or even parts per trillion, many think that we are releasing more pollutants. On the contrary, the quality of treated wastewater and storm water discharged to rivers, lakes and streams has been steadily improving, as measured by significantly lower levels of pollutants. Some wastewater treatment plants discharge water of higher quality than their receiving streams.
As to air quality, there are more efficient combustion processes, fewer polluting products of combustion, and better air pollution abatement technology. Then, there are habitats for fish and wildlife. A 2010 Detroit News article reported: “From bald eagles to lake sturgeon, native wildlife is making a dramatic return in what might be considered the unlikeliest of places—the waters and shores of the Detroit River…After decades of struggling to overcome the Detroit River’s polluted past, a variety of fish and bird species have re-established themselves in the watershed. The budding osprey population is joined by increasing numbers of walleye, lake sturgeon and whitefish as well as bird species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.” We’re talking about Detroit, at one time the manufacturing capital of the world, and still a gritty manufacturing center. This is happening all over the country.
In a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, “The Scarcity Fallacy”, Matt Ridley identifies many instances when ecologists predicted the world’s resources would run out, though technological innovation has since broken through these limits again and again. Against the evidence of history, many believe that if we can’t solve a problem today, then it will still be a problem next year and next decade. Dire predictions are often based on this misconception.
Fact: we have the technology to go from toilet to tap, if the psychological barrier can be surmounted. Oil and gas reserves that were supposed to have already run out are now projected to last far into the future due to fracking and shale oil technology innovations. Trenchless technologies now allow us to repair and replace infrastructure with minimal disruption of the surface environment. There is also abundant sensory evidence that the environment has been steadily improving. Some can remember the days when oil sheens covered rivers and lakes, when coal-fired home furnaces produced black palls over our cities, when industrial and municipal wastes were dumped on empty sites or in unsecure pits. These environmental scars have been virtually eradicated in America. Many of these improvements came about because of the efforts of dedicated environmentalists.
The reason these science-based assessments are important is that a good environmental end may not be morally compelling when evaluated in relation to other—conflicting—good ends: thousands of jobs; products to keep us well-nourished, healthy, and safe; property rights; or even another good but conflicting environmental end, such as zero water discharge versus lowest carbon footprint.
Rejecting ideology, finding balance
The ideology of many in the environmental movement also bears examining. There is a quasi-religious and especially virulent element in the environmental movement for whom, as the Journal puts it, “climate change has become a totemic cultural issue, like abortion and gay marriage…What matters is that they are on the right side of the cultural and political symbolism.”
Without weighing in on the complex issue of climate change, I am suggesting that environmentalism has become a moral lodestone to many, one in which facts, data, evidence are of secondary concern. Among these vocal activists, you will find the themes that man—exerting an unsustainable carbon footprint—is a threat rather than a transcendent creature; that man should have no more legal or ethical standing (and maybe less) than any other animal; that messy free markets are environmental threats; that states or intergovernmental organizations with people who know better ought to be establishing economic, environmental, and energy policy; in short, a materialistic interpretation of the relationship between man and the planet. And lest we think that these themes are limited to the radical fringe, some of these tenets are seeping into mainstream environmentalism.
Given a free hand, these movement activists’ energy and industrial policies could return us to the days of freezing in the winter, roasting in the summer, and perishing from lack of food and the pharmaceuticals that keep diseases at bay. More importantly, the Catholic concept of man undergoes violent deconstruction with this ideology, or quasi-religion. Man’s work and dignity should not be subordinated to the natural world, which is far different from saying man should be able to rape the world to satisfy his appetites. The right balance is achieved when man is properly formed in relation to virtue and reason so that he behaves responsibly in relation to the environment. Sadly, the materialistic dogma that many of these activists espouse views virtue, and even reason, as mere human or societal constructs.
It’s important to recall that Catholics have done groundbreaking work in the sciences. In a recent Magnificat article, “The Church and the Beginning of It All”, Anthony Esolen writes about the Jesuit priest, George Lemaitre, who first espoused the Big Bang Theory (convincing Einstein), and the monk, Gregor Mendel, who is considered the father of the science of genetics. I worked with a faithful Catholic engineer with a balanced environmental perspective who is more knowledgeable than anyone in the world on the subject of automotive water/wastewater treatment. Many Catholics may be unaware of the number of highly esteemed Catholic scientists. Serious and committed Catholics, far from being anti-science, embrace honest and ethical scientific inquiry, while recognizing that the competency of science does not extend to the ultimate philosophical questions.
Certainly, there are environmental issues of concern today, even in a cleaner America: invasive species, occasional outbreaks of pathogens and toxic algae in water supplies, spills, failing and leaking infrastructure. But considering our track record in the past century, these threats are solvable, or at least manageable.
Catholics with an interest in the environment should attempt to separate legitimate science from ideological noise and organizational self-interest; not an easy task these days, and recognize that the environmental scare of the month may not be morally compelling, but this rational approach to the environment should be governed by an awareness that though man was given dominion over the Earth—women and men are more than just intelligent animals—we are also expected to be good stewards of this world and its resources.
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