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Environmental questions we ought to (but rarely) ask

The greatest environmental threats are not in America or Europe but in autocratic states and in faux-democratic countries where privilege and graft are rampant.

Undated photo of Shanghai, China. (Holger Link | Unsplash.com)

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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About Thomas M. Doran 55 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

11 Comments

  1. The whole global warming argument can be utterly derailed with a single question:

    “Why is the supposedly massive consensus of scientists behind the theory of man-made global warming made up totally of meteorologists, when the great majority of energy warming our planet comes from the sun? Shouldn’t solar scientists — heliologists — be onboard as well?”

    The fact is that heliologists tell us that the sun has entered a period of historically low solar activity, which could mean that another little ice age is upon us, similar to the Maunder Minimum that resulted in great suffering in 17th century Europe.

  2. Further aggravating the problem is the fact that numerous members of the “scientific consensus” driving this environmental hysteria have admitted to 1) “cooking the books” and 2) having a predetermined “political” outcome envisioned before embarking on their particular study. Additionally, a “peer review” shouldn’t be a gathering of like-minded individuals singing in the choir. A scientific peer review should be approached from the position of healthy skepticism, in search of the reproducible evidence.

  3. You say… “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.” That does not address the source!

    That may be the nub of water contamination. Our potable water is diminishing. A major example is the Flint Michigan toxic water supply that was caused by human error and Flint residences were asked not to drink or bathe in their domestic water. Earth’s vital resources are being threatened by lack of environmental sensitivity everywhere. Trump through Scott Pruitt as Secretary of the EPA okayed the a miner company drilling in pristine Bristol Bay in Alaska. That salmon sanctuary is the largest in the world and is vital to 14,000 local fishermen for their livelihood. A child is seen in Beijing wearing a facial mask because the air is so contaminated. The ice is melting in the Arctic so much that the Polar Bear can no longer hunt seals by punching trap holes in the ice. The white bear cannot hunt in the water because the seals are too fast. They will starve for sure. Does anybody care. Who needs bears anyway.

    With nearly 8 billion humans on mother earth she is crying out for help. I prefer to opt on the safe side. God gave us a brain to determine which is true and which is false. If we refuse to accept the signals and plow forward it is no doubt that the destiny of the ecological naysayers cannot be good Stewards. Listen to Pope Francis’ recent statement on global warming.

      • Morgan, would it surprise you to learn that with rare exceptions America’s drinking water is cleaner and healthier than it’s been in well over 100 years. That goes for American lakes and rivers too based on water quality data and habitat improvements. Yes, we can do better, and we should, but the sky is not falling. Far greater risks driving a car or riding a bicycle. I don’t live far from Flint and the problem there was easily preventable by asking the right questions ahead of time.

        • Tom, World Atlas states that “In its current state, less than 1% of the Earth’s water is usable”. I knew it was bad, but one percent and that on a beautiful planet covered by 3/4 with water. I live on Florida’s west coast and the devastation caused by the Red Tide was appalling. Hundreds of thousands of fish died and washed upon the pristine beaches. People could not go into the Gulf and the economy took a real hit.

          • That 1% figure is because 99% of the Earth’s water is in the oceans (97%), and hence to salty to use, or locked up in polar glacier ice (2%). Hence only 1% of the surface water is even available for use, so the statistic is true, but not even slightly alarming.

          • That quote from World Atlas in its entirety is: “However, despite the fact that three-quarters of the Earth are made up of water, less than 3% of the water is fresh, non-saline water. Furthermore, of the existing fresh water, not all of it is available for human consumption.
            How Much Freshwater is There on Earth?
            As stated above, about 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater. Of the fresh water available on earth, only 31% is accessible for use. About 69% of the fresh water is in form of ice cap and glacier in places like the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet, further reducing the quantity of the available drinking water. So, if only 31% of the fresh water is available for drinking, this means 31% of 2.5%=0.00775, which equates to less than 1%. Therefore, less than 1% of the earth’s water is drinkable. In some areas, the glacier often melts in summer to provide additional drinking water. However, the amount of water from glacier melt is not sufficient to increase the available fresh water to above 1%.”

            So it’s rather bizarre that you’re moaning “I knew it was bad, but one percent and that on a beautiful planet covered by 3/4 with water.” Pollution has nothing to do with the less-than-1% statistic; pollution or not, the salt water is salt; the ice caps and glaciers are frozen.

            As to the red tide, here’s an article from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/08/news-longest-red-tide-wildlife-deaths-marine-life-toxins/ The gist of it is, they don’t know exactly why red tides happen or whether human activity actually affects it or even whether there are really more of them or they’re simply being noticed and studied more. Happily, someone seems to have come up with a way that treats it.

  4. A classic case of water panic occurred last year. EPA determined that trace quantities of PFOS, a fire retardant used in household products like carpet, had leached into the water supply of Airway Heights, a suburb of Spokane. The usual DEFCON 999 EMERGENCY. All water shut off, people forced to consume bottled water WHICH CONTAINS MORE PFOS THAN THE AIRWAY HEIGHTS WATER. Even aside from the bottled issue, everyone is already exposed to more PFOS than was in the water.

    Net result: lots of expense and trouble. No improvement in anything.

  5. It is also important to weigh the negative impacts of responding to an environmental issue against the impact of not responding. In the case of global warming, rebranded as climate change, it seems likely that the cost, especially to the most marginalized inhabitants of the planet, may be much higher to prevent the change than the cost to adapt to it. And, this is assuming that the worst case environmental predictions are even correct, which is questionable.

    Already, aid is cut off to countries for the production of electric power except by “green” technologies. Unfortunately, that often leaves the poor to cook with primitive wood stoves, and to use fire to see by at night – with direct negative health effects. The green technologies are usually far more expensive than, for example, coal generated electricity. I speak as an engineer who has looked into this in depth.

    The failure of those pressing for “green” energy to even mention trade-offs, or that their recommendations might harm the poorest on earth, strongly suggests that their motivations are other than for the benefit of all mankind.

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