Now though I’m a weekly churchgoing Catholic leftist, I rarely talk about religious matters that don’t concern holidays or tacky religious art because I really don’t want to offend anyone. But this month Pope Francis plans to deliver an encyclical on the environment as well as accepted climate change as a legitimate threat caused by human activity which has riled a lot of people on the American Catholic Right. Now the American Catholic Right believes that “true” Catholics like them should accept everything of Catholic Church says about the things they agree with like the Church’s stance on sex and reproductive issues that most American Catholics tend to either not take seriously or be major hypocrites about (and it doesn’t help that the biggest Catholic voices in this country come from people on the Catholic Right who are mostly concerned about the issues. However, I should tell my readers that the Catholic Right basically consists of the biggest jerks affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church in America who represent little of what the Roman Catholic Church stands for and not at all of what most American Catholics believe in.) However, when it comes to issues the Catholic Church and the American Catholic Right disagree with, then the latter tends to downplay the seriousness of the matters at hand whether they be internet neutrality, universal healthcare, affordable childcare, social welfare for the poor, capital punishment, unionism, penal reform, economic justice, immigration reform, torture, war, gun control, capitalism and consumerism, social justice for minorities, police reform, ending homelessness, and of course, environmental protection. If being a born and raised progressive Catholic ever taught me anything it’s that these conservatives have absolutely no legitimate credence to say who’s a good Catholic and who’s not since they’re no more faithful to church doctrine in their politics than their liberal counterparts (possibly even less). It’s just that American Catholic conservatives tend to call fellow liberals out on this more frequently for not conforming to their own personal vision of Catholicism. But in personal preference, I just try to be as good a Catholic as I can be even if the Church and I might disagree with some issues on sex and reproduction. Besides, I tend to state that the Catholic Church is one of the reasons I’m a true blue liberal today, a fact which I’m proud of. And I will remain a practicing Catholic in my own way whether the Catholic Right likes it or not.
Now the American Catholic Right is filled with climate change deniers like any good contingent of the Republican Party and many of them don’t like how Pope Francis is taking climate change and environmental very seriously. A good example is when Rick Santorum stated that Pope Francis should leave climate change to the scientists since it’s a “controversial theory,” despite that Pope Francis agrees with 97% of climate scientists and Santorum doesn’t. And even if Pope Francis didn’t work as a chemist before entering the priesthood or have any scientific background whatsoever, is he wrong to talk about environmental problems and caring for creation? No way in hell. In fact, I’d think it should be part of his job.
Now Pope Francis’s encyclical is supposed to reflect the moral obligations in protecting the environment, which is something that I totally agree with and applaud him for it. This is especially since for decades, environment protection has been seen as a leftist cause championed by tree hugging hippies, vegetarians, and nature worshippers. Sure the Pope hasn’t seen any TV since the year I was born, but even so, he doesn’t really need much access to the mass media to know the effects of environmental degradation. I mean he’s spent most of his life in South America, which is no stranger to ecological damage in the least. Nevertheless, despite how the United States tends to politicize social justice issues, Pope Francis treats environmental protection as a high moral priority it should be, which should have nothing political or leftist about it. But before he does his encyclical on the 18th, I’d like to go over a few things explaining why protecting the environment should be a moral obligation.
- The earth and all its creatures were created by God who entrusted us with caring for creation. – Pardon me with the religious sentiment here, but we should all recognize that we need to believe that nature is sacred. Besides, the Abrahamic tradition explains it better than almost anything else since it doesn’t involve nature spirits. Even though God certainly didn’t create the earth like in Genesis (at least in the literal sense), even that illustrates the point that humans owe their existence to a living world that we share with all other species great and small. We owe this world a living chance to perpetuate the life-creating processes of natural selection, population dynamics, and exchange cycles. While most of what the first chapters of Genesis shouldn’t be taught in a science classroom (since they were never meant to be literally true to begin with), it at least gets the moral obligation right and attributes the creation to God. God didn’t create this world so humanity can dominate it or exploit its resources for all its worth in order to satisfy one’s greed. He wanted humanity to take responsibility for caring for creation, not exploit it. And I’m sure He didn’t just create plants and animals simply for human consumption or domestication either. Rather He created the Earth to last for countless generations over billions of years as well as sustain life for every living creature. As evolution and biological diversity show us, God didn’t create us separate from nature nor did He create this world just for ourselves since all forms of life are dependent on each other’s survival. Sure it may not involve all the animals existing in harmony but each living thing on earth fulfills an essential purpose as God intended. Thus, as God created the earth so we can live on it, shouldn’t trying to protect our natural environment be our sacred duty? And shouldn’t it be our sacred duty to ensure the survival of all of God’s creatures? But if we continue exploit God’s creation that the earth is no longer fit to sustain life, we don’t just put nature in danger, but also violate our covenant with the Almighty. Seriously, if God went through all the trouble creating the earth over billions of years for everyone’s own benefit, protecting our environment is the least we can do.
- Environmental problems hurt human health. – Despite how conservatives think that protecting the environment hurts human interests, the health of the natural environment is certainly linked to humanity’s quality of life. Like with every creature on earth, clean air and water are essential for human health as well as well as farms with uncontaminated arable land. Exposure to toxic pollutants can cause serious health problems, birth defects, disease, or early death. This is especially the case with blue collar industrial workers who are most likely to develop or die from serious work-related illnesses. Land contamination can lead to dead crops as well as starvation and famine as well as make an entire area uninhabitable, resulting in mass migrations. Unsustainable agricultural practices can lead to loss of fertile land while use of agricultural chemicals can lead to loss of key pollinators such as honeybees (which is happening now as we speak). Water shortages can lead to dehydration and drought, which can also result in starvation. As theology, philosophy, and science tell us, humans weren’t created as separate from nature and are just as dependent to the same optimal conditions on earth as any living organism. The reason why the environmental movement took rise in the 1960s which led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency had little to do with a few nature loving hippies and more to do with the fact this nation’s environmental problems were affecting people. The same goes for whenever the EPA designates a specific area as a Superfund site. So thus, anything that could make animals sick or kill plants, could make us sick and kill us as well.
- Environmental degradation hurts the poor.-The poor will not always be the biggest offenders in environmental degradation, but they will suffer the consequences more than anyone else. Since environmental conditions determine land value, poor people tend to reside in some of the most polluted and contaminated areas, especially in industrialized cities. High poverty areas are more prone to have toxic industries successfully move in since the residents because the residents don’t have the power and influence to defend themselves, while more wealthier and influential communities would answer with mass protests and lawsuits over the mantra, “Not In My Back Yard” when it comes to high polluting industry. In the US this is why many urban landfills, toxic waste dumps, and industrial facilities tend to be placed near minority or economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Because poor people are most likely to live in proximity to environmental wastelands, they are most likely to suffer from environmental degradation more than anyone else. Not to mention, they are most likely to work in jobs, which put them at high risk for pollutant exposure or danger. Sometimes this results in environmental blackmail in which poor people are forced to choose between their dirty and dangerous jobs and their environmental standards. Their neighborhoods are also least likely to be environmentally maintained as well. Because they lack the necessary resources, they are less likely to do anything about it either ending up trapped or displaced with nowhere else to go, especially in an event of a natural or environmental disaster. And in environmental disasters, their neck of the woods is less likely to receive an adequate response. In developing countries, they are the least likely to afford food as food prices soar. Not to mention, environmental problems also widen the gap between rich and poor. So as the rich get richer from their polluting industries, the poor get poorer as their neighborhoods are turned into toxic wastelands, local job opportunities disappear resulting in long commutes to other low wage jobs, and local crime and civil unrest ensue. And if they live in the US, they are most likely to be uninsured and least likely to be treated for environmental illnesses that could take their lives. I’m sure Pope Francis will touch on this point in his encyclical.
- Environmental degradation harms the food supply.-Living near small rural farms, I can guess that if environmental degradation can affect the quality of our health, then it can also affect the quality of our food. Rachel Carson often talked about how agricultural pesticides and other chemicals harmed wildlife and humans alike, which is endemic among the large industrial farm complexes throughout the United States and the world. And it’s unfortunate that many of them tend to set agricultural industry standards that result in a lot of environmental and financial harm among smaller farms trying to compete. California’s agricultural industry is one of the main reasons why the western United States is currently dealing with water shortages and drought. But this has more to do with the fact that Southern California’s agricultural economy has more to do with manmade improvements built during the early 20th century that created its lush artificial environment than its natural desert environment. When the Spanish landed in what is now San Francisco, they saw absolutely no trees which makes the notion of California’s agricultural industry a very stupid idea. Now I know industrial agriculture isn’t the most environmentally sustainable practice or the most profitable. However, GMOs, Monsanto, monoculture hybridized seeds, fertilizer runoff, and livestock factory farming aside, despite the ecological and social damage they do (of which there’s a long list), they aren’t the biggest problems in the agricultural world. That, my friend, is the exploitative nature of big agribusiness itself where the agricultural industrial complexes make the rules and are the biggest bullies while small farmers are the biggest victims, especially in Latin America, India, and much of the developing world. Now I’m very aware that a lot of farmers in the US tend to have trouble paying their debts that Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young got together in the 1980s and organized an annual benefit concert for the farmers in danger of losing their homesteads. Nevertheless, despite contaminating the land with some of the worst chemicals known to man, most American farmers depend on optimal conditions while raising their crops and livestock that millions of people depend on to survive. But since farmers have trouble paying their bills, they’re a particular vulnerable lot. So it’s no surprise why these people would be willing to allow energy companies extract resources from their land, thinking it would help them economically as well as create jobs in the area. Most of the time these practices aren’t safe or sustainable and tend to create lasting environmental damage. It’s possible that they could contaminate water crops and livestock depend on as well as pollute the sky leading to acid rain. And then there’s climate change which not only is detrimental to agricultural production, but can also lead to natural disasters from flooding, drought, or infestation, which leads to starvation. Loss of arable land and water can create food shortages which will lead to food prices soaring. And it doesn’t help that we have a thing like bottled water either. If we want to protect our environment and combat hunger, then industrial agriculture must be more sustainable (like not farming in Southern California).
- Environmental degradation makes people more vulnerable to natural disasters.-Now despite how some of the most powerful Americans are climate change deniers with big bank accounts, it’s real, it’s manmade, it’s happening, and it’s a problem we need to be aware of. Sure it may not seem like the earth’s warming up, but even a small rise in average global temperatures can create a very significant impact on global climates. But even if climate change was just a hoax (which it’s not), we can’t ignore that humans can contribute to climate change within their surroundings. In fact, it’s already happened in history. Unsustainable agricultural practices led to catastrophic dust storms in the American heartland during the 1930s, which led to mass hunger, respiratory illness, and migration. And the only way it died down was implementing better farming methods like contour farming as well as leaving grass and foliage between the fields to prevent soil erosion. I’m sure climate change can be a factor in plenty of natural disasters in recent years. Oh, wait, it already has as Al Gore lists a variety of examples in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Nevertheless, while natural disasters are part of the natural order of things, climate change can make them even more catastrophic which can consist of severe heat waves, droughts, destructive hurricanes and severe storms, devastating wildfires, intense downpours and flooding, polar vortex blizzards and snowstorms, supertornadoes, and more. And these disasters tend to occur more frequently, which results in all kinds of hell breaking loose such as disease outbreaks, violence, displacement, starvation, widespread destruction, and other terrible calamities. Extreme weather conditions can make life hell for farmers who invest so much in their crops and livestock as well as depend on a stable environment to support their way of life. One major natural disaster could ruin everything, especially for subsistence farmers in Third World countries.
- Environmental disasters lead to more widespread and long lasting damage than natural disasters.-While more frequent and severe natural disasters can be a symptom of climate change, extreme weather doesn’t produce the worst disasters out there. This brings me to environmental disasters which are certainly manmade as well as have widespread and long-lasting ecological consequences, especially if the cause was human error. This was the case with Chernobyl, a disaster that released 400 times more radioactive material than the US bombing of Hiroshima as well as significantly contaminated 100,000 square kilometers of land with the worst hit regions among Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. And the only reason why people outside the Soviet Union knew about it at the time was because a major release radioactive material was detected in Sweden. Now some environmental disasters can just be fallouts from any natural catastrophe such as the tsunami induced nuclear meltdown at Fukashima. But most of these are usually the result of Murphy’s Law that if anything can go wrong, it will. Not to mention, some of these can also result in the long term effects of pollution such as smog attacks. And these environmental disasters could range from invasive species, loss of biodiversity, industrial accidents, nuclear meltdowns, pollution, and what not. However the case may be, these can cause more damage than your typical natural disasters and are very difficult to clean up, if they could. Not to mention, environmentally-related illnesses are much harder to detect and treat as well as can be much more serious and fatal. Industrial accidents could make a whole town sick, poison the water supply, and then some. They’re a main reason why government needs to step in when it comes to environmental protection. Whenever a polluting industry comes into town, a whole community’s life can be held a risk and once something goes wrong, it can be a catastrophe.
- Environmental degradation hurts the economy.-Conservatives love to discredit environmentalists by talking about how environmentalism hurts the economy and costs jobs. However, we have to understand that so many people depend on a clean environment for their livelihoods such as small businesses, farmers, service workers, fishermen, and people involved with the tourist industry. Environmental problems tend to hurt them in the process. Nevertheless, it’s very common for industries to ignore the long term consequences for short term profit with Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax being a perfect example of the harmful environmental effects of corporate greed. Sure the Once-ler got rich and created jobs, but he basically destroyed an entire ecosystem in the process by chopping down the Truffula trees for Thneeds. But the Once-ler still kept making money, right? Actually because the Once-ler didn’t practice sustainable lumber methods, he runs out of Truffula trees to cut down and sees his business empire crumble, his family headed for the hills, his company broke as well as his factory and city abandoned that he’s soon alone in a polluted wasteland regretting what he’s done. Not a happy story, but while the profits and jobs may be fleeting, the environmental damage remains and those who remain will have to put up with it in generations to come. And that’s not all. For instance, environmentally related illnesses can cause more employee absenteeism while disasters can result in property and infrastructure damage and mass migration. But both can lead to lost productivity and economic devastation. Not to mention, environmental disasters cost a fortune to clean up and it’s no surprise why companies don’t like paying for environmental damage (which is why so the cleanup bills for Exxon Valdez are paid by US taxpayers). A community does not have to sacrifice a pristine environment to benefit economically. An industry doesn’t cease to be profitable if it practices sustainable methods and observes EPA regulations.
- Environmental degradation leads to displacement and homelessness.-When a land ceases become habitable and economically viable, people will leave, sometimes in droves. However, there are times in environmental devastation when evacuation wasn’t an option like in the event of a nuclear meltdown, industrial accident, land and water contamination, and other disasters. For instance, irresponsible waste disposal practices caused widespread contamination at Love Canal, New York that everyone had to leave the town over 800 families in all. And it was one of hundreds of such incidences, some of which will never be known. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl also resulted in mass evacuation that consisted of over 53,000 people, many of who were probably exposed to radiation and probably died of the effects. But when environmental problems cause displacement, there will always be those who have nowhere else to go possibly due to lack of relatives or wealth. And as a result, these displaced will either stay where they are regardless of what happens (which will make them poorer and sicker) or become homeless nomads wondering from place to place. Some might find a place to settle down but many will not which will result in many being either homeless or migrant workers. This is what happened to the Joads in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath who didn’t have the EPA to reimburse them for the Dust Bowl. And many people who suffer from environmental displacement around the world won’t have that kind of reimbursement either and will have very difficult time starting a new life.
- Environmental degradation can lead to war, civil unrest, and societal breakdown.-Social relations are a complex subject but there’s a reason why Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with a UN panel on climate change. But the notion of climate change and the potential for conflict is a key concern in the developing world of political instability and the works. Environmental problems by themselves may rarely, if ever be the sole cause of violence. But natural resources and environmental factors are linked to violent conflicts and in a lot of ways obscured by more visible issues like ethnic tension and power politics. And this link doubles the risk of a conflict relapse in the first 5 years. Persistent poverty and weak resource management can also exacerbate security threats, especially in regions of political instability. Many of the conflicts in the Middle East are perfect examples of this since much of the areas are desert which make perfect areas for people scrambling over the few resources they have. Since 1990, exploitation of natural resources is said to fuel at least 18 conflicts. There are even theories that environmental factors like deforestation and unsustainable farming practices brought down great civilizations and empires. Environmental migrants and refugees may not always be welcome by their new neighbors either and are more susceptible for being victims of crime, especially if they don’t abide by any of the local customs.
- The Earth is our only home.-Sure there may be intelligent life on other planets, but we haven’t contacted them yet. As far as we know, the nearest sight of intelligent life could be light years away. And I don’t think NASA necessarily has the funds to develop that technology but I don’t think it will be accessible for everyone. Of course, we could try terraforming Mars but I’m not sure how that will go. So let’s just say we need to protect the environment because earth is the only home we got and if it becomes uninhabitable, then we’re all doomed.
- Environmental degradation does no favors for future generations.-Since earth is our only home, we have an obligation to protect the environment so that future generations may continue to live. Sure preserving the environment will not make you as rich as a big oil executive and may not create a lot of jobs. But, a lot of environmental degradation creates long term consequences which future generations have to live with whether it be a polluted river, a sky filled with smog, or contaminated land. It’s not right for one generation to leave their children a barren wasteland after they milked the land for all its worth especially if the area is uninhabitable or prone to harm them. Unsustainable extraction and use of our natural resources can set up future generations for ruin or a possible post apocalyptic future. Besides, if we’re willing to squander our children’s future for some short term profit, what does it say about us? Besides, think of the example we’re setting such as pursuing short term economic gains without any care for the long term environmental consequences. If we have to explain why letting polluting industry in our neighborhoods would help the economy despite what it did, I don’t think future generations would understand. Because if you can’t farm the land, drink the water, or breathe air, will economic benefit matter? Of course not for they’ll have bigger things to worry about. As US President Theodore Roosevelt said, “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
- Environmental degradation ruins creation’s natural beauty.-While nature is supposed to support life and provide resources for all the earth’s creatures, countless generations have enjoyed the natural beauty that wilderness had to offer. And there are many sacred traditions who view their lands as sacred to their culture such as the Native Americans. So much so in America that the National Park Service was set up to preserve natural areas that would’ve otherwise been lost to industrial development. The loss of Hetch Hetchy to a dam development was a result of this, to John Muir’s dismay as he called it “God’s Golden Temple.” And recently, an Apache holy site in the American Southwest was sold to a British Australian mining company. Not to mention, a lot of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia are being destroyed by the coal mining companies’ use of mountaintop removal, which pisses off many people in that state with more than its fair share of environmental problems. Sometime they could also lose their beauty as people use the site for tourist traps. As protected wilderness areas, these national parks can be enjoyed by everyone. However, this doesn’t save them from possible environmental threats such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and other problems. Nevertheless, many of these areas are still seen as part of the American heritage and most believe they should have government protection so future generations can enjoy them as their parents have admired for their beauty and magnificence. If they are lost, then they’re lost forever. You can restoring a forest but it will never be the same, especially if some of the original species become extinct. Sure economic libertarians tend think that whatever’s useful and profitable is beneficial to society, but that mindset tends to lead to a lot of destruction of so many natural wonders as well as places of cultural and historic significance.
- Those who deny the significance of environmental issues usually do so out of political or financial self-interest.– Let’s face it, most people who don’t see environmental issues as a major problem has more to do with political or financial self-interest. And when it comes to the companies of these free market worshiping libertarian conservatives, they’re more likely to be responsible for environmental disasters as well as not take any responsibility for them. Now the Koch brothers are a perfect example of these climate denying Rich Uncle Pennybags types because they own large multinational corporations that contribute a lot of pollution. And these selfish bastards will call their army of lawyers so they won’t pay for the damages. They also are lobbying for governments to loosen their environmental regulations so they can get away with polluting more as well as go to great lengths to justify their actions. It also doesn’t help that many of them have operations in foreign and poorer countries, which cause even more devastation on communities. Take Shell’s business in Nigeria for instance. In the US, these rich guys’ influence is so powerful that so many Americans deny climate change, especially on the American Right and on the extremist Fox News Channel, a news network that makes pay per view porn look like something off of PBS. And it’s because Congress is so jammed packed with Republican climate change denying nuts that any meaningful environmental protection can’t be passed at the federal level. Denial and refusing to take responsibility on environmental problems is a problem that needs to be eliminated by any means necessary. Sure we should leave the science to the scientists, but whenever there’s a consensus of scientists who state that there’s an environmental crisis, we should take it very seriously. Unfortunately, scientists don’t run governments nor do they have loads of cash to contribute, which explains a lot about American politics on the matter. This isn’t just a liberal issue or even a political issue. It’s a moral issue and one that affects people’s lives in very big ways. The fact environmental issues have been politicized and seen controversial over the years has to end. Because if both political factions can’t come to a consensus that environmental problems matter and need action, nothing will ever be solved. I know ratting on the rich may not be a cool thing to do in the United States but we need to understand that the heads of polluting industries like the Koch brothers are part of the problem, especially since the Citizens United ruling in 2009.
- We have no concept of the strength of Mother Nature.-Sure nature can be quite resilient if need be but ecosystems can be fragile things at the same time. Sometimes when you remove or introduce one species, you can basically wreck the whole system and possibly change the landscape. Take the wolves out of Yellowstone National Park and the elk population will be sick and all the flora will be consumed. Bring the wolves back and the park will be restored again to its former beauty since wolves tend to prey the sick, weak, very young, or very old. Sure predators may eat other animals, but they’re essential to ecosystems as well as benefit people in some cases. Playing with nature has unintended consequences, many of which aren’t beneficial either to humans or other living things. For instance, all those dam projects during the 1930s might’ve brought a lot of electricity, water, and prosperity to millions. But it also hurt entire ecosystems, dried up rivers, and created water shortages. Now combined with climate change, these projects are now coming to bite the American West in the ass.
Many good points. Very scary too. I am glad that Pope Francis is going to address this issue. It is a moral issue. You are right about the poor suffering the brunt of pollution too. It may affect the poor sooner than the rich too but eventually there will be no way for anyone to avoid the consequences of our poor decisions.