These days, if you’re an environmentalist or a progressive, you are supposed to support any and all environmental initiatives. If you’re a libertarian or conservative, you are supposed to be skeptical of environmental initiatives, especially those of the multi-national variety. As in many policy areas these days, there is very little listening to differing environmental perspectives.
As Catholics, which of these camps should we support? Scriptural and theological perspectives must be considered, but God created us with brains so we can think and reason, so why not put our minds to bear on this complex subject? If rational analysis doesn’t give us all the answers, it can aid in our decision-making.
We can start by recognizing the difference between consensus and reproducible evidence. While scientific conclusions warrant careful attention, if they can’t be reproduced they are worthless. Throughout history, many things that were accepted in the scientific community were later proved to be incorrect or incomplete. This means that we should be wary of adopting new perspectives based on a single study, even if the conclusions of the study are “virtuous”. “Can the evidence be independently reproduced?” is an essential question. This goes for universities and environmental advocacy organizations as well as corporations and conservative think tanks.
Context is essential if we want to understand what information means. Today’s technology allows us to detect chemicals at increasingly lower amounts. In the 1970s, we identified pollutants in parts per million—that’s one tiny grain of sand in a 1 by 1 by 1-foot sandhill. Today, we can identify many chemicals in parts per trillion—one grain in a 100 by 100 by 100-foot sandhill. Some chemicals can even by detected in parts per quadrillion, an even bigger sandhill.
So, when someone proclaims: “There are toxic chemicals in our water”, they should also identify the amount that was measured in relation to known levels of concern, the difference between something we should keep an eye on and something we should take immediate action to remedy. Without asking such questions, everything is a crisis, and when everything is a crisis, it’s hard to focus on what’s most important.
Does the producer of a study or conclusion have a financial interest in an outcome, whether it’s environmental grant funding, or a product being manufactured? Do they have an ideological stake in the outcome? There are few today who don’t have a financial or ideological stake of some kind in environmental outcomes. Such an interest doesn’t mean work products are unreliable, but self-interested parties ought to prompt us to investigate whether results and conclusions can be independently reproduced. For balance, we might review the conclusions of self-interested parties on both sides of an issue.
If the issue under investigation is one where the probability of a damaging outcome is very low, but the damage would be devastating if it occurred, then prudence may call for taking action or added precautions, like the situation with an oil pipeline on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan. Some argue that even if the probability of catastrophic human-caused climate change is low, we should act because the impact might be devastating. In such cases, people of goodwill might reach different conclusions, but low probability/high impact should be considered. In low probability/high impact cases, environmental advocates should define the situation honestly (based on reproducible evidence), not inflate probabilities of disaster to affect public opinion.
There’s room for environmental improvement everywhere in the world, but the greatest environmental threats are not in America or Europe but in autocratic states like Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and in faux-democratic countries where privilege and graft are rampant. Our spiritual and political leaders do us a disservice by sidelining this reality, even for what they believe are good reasons. In 2018, bang for the environmental buck in Europe is peanuts compared to environmental funds effectively spent (not just allocated and transferred to Swiss bank accounts) in Pakistan or Venezuela. If we really wanted to improve the environment, we would offer these countries funding on the condition that financially transparent entities perform and manage the work.
Virtuous feelings notwithstanding, one is not a faithful steward of God’s creation if we are supporting programs based on questionable evidence or motives when these funds could be applied to far more worthy environmental initiatives. Nor are we doing our best for the environment by harping on the splinter in Spain’s eye while ignoring the timber in China’s or India’s eye.
In short, being Catholic and green isn’t black and white.
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