Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A climate toolkit for African youth

Allen Ottaro (far right) with colleagues.

Allen Ottaro of Kenya emailed with a happy update. Allen is a good friend and the executive director of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (or “CYNESA”). Until December, he was the national coordinator of MAGiS Kenya. His email was about events that are resulting in a model educational program for Jesuit schools in Africa.

Events began last fall when Allen and colleagues met with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which offered funding for the initiative. The Alliance must have liked the program’s goal, which “is to enhance the knowledge, skills and engagement of young people in Jesuit institutions in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, with respect to climate change, in the context of Catholic Social Teaching and the Ignatian Spirituality.”

Allen says that Jesuit schools were a natural fit given his previous work with the MAGiS program and existing relationships with the order.

Four pilot high schools have been chosen, said Allen. They are St. Aloysius Gonzaga High School in Nairobi, Loyola High School and St. Peter Claver High School in Tanzania, and St. Peter’s Kubatana High School in Zimbabwe. If additional funding can be found, the project could involve more Jesuit schools and youth centers in Central and West Africa.

Last month, Allen and his colleagues at CYNESA participated in special workshops with science teachers from the pilot schools. The gatherings also included Jesuits from the Hekima College School of Theology in Nairobi and representatives of other environmental organizations to speak about climate change in their communities and how it connects to the Catholic faith.

“The goal was to determine the kind of toolkit and resources that would be useful for young people,” Allen said. “Our next step now is to do some kind of basic surveys, to collect information from the students and get a feel of how they experience climate change and what kind of resources they need to run activities.”

The educational program’s first phase is expected to run until November. This will include forums on climate change in the pilot schools. The next phase will involve using the draft toolkit in tandem with environmental clubs in the pilot schools to see where there are gaps before completing a final version.

As things now stand, these are the project’s targeted objectives: 
  • A three-day preparatory workshop for all the key Jesuits and CYNESA team members in lead positions or whose institutions will be involved in the project. The workshop will help participants understand the context of climate change issues in the countries of the pilot schools and how Jesuits (and young people under their care) can offer a faith-based response. 
  • Two climate change youth forums aiming at educating and building the capacity of some 210 young people. 
  • The trained youth will then be offered extensive assistance to integrate the knowledge, skills, and values that will be necessary in climate change initiatives, as well as to reach out to their peers and faith communities. 
“I think it will evolve as we move along and learn new things so I am quite excited,” said Allen. “Although I am a bit nervous about the funding aspect,” he adds, noting upcoming meetings that may open opportunities to continue and expand the program.

Please say a prayer for Allen and his partners! We look forward to more news and updates, and we certainly hope that funding doesn’t hamper this quite important work.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Bishop’s Reflection: A forerunner to a Francis encyclical?

Photo from
His Excellency Bishop Dominique Rey of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France, penned a pastoral letter that could very well be the forerunner of a papal encyclical on ecology.

Have you read it? I was given a copy for an upcoming review of another eco-publication (about a certain pontiff—more on that later). Having read Bishop Rey’s letter, I can’t keep silent. And anyone who reads it won’t either—or at least they shouldn’t.

The 2012 letter Peut-on etre Catho et Ecolo? Lettre sur l' ecologie ("Can One Be Catholic and Green? A Letter on Ecology") was re-published in 2013 by the Acton Institute as Catholicism, Ecology, and the Environment: A Bishop’s Reflection. No matter what title you give it, it lays a formidable and rather complete foundation for the Catholic engagement of ecology.

Let me restate that: The letter lays a formidable and rather complete foundation for the Catholic engagement of ecology. 

(On a personal note, a book that I have been developing on the Catholic perspective of ecology now seems unnecessary. Who needs my take on the subject when it is so very well examined by a successor to the apostles?)

Here are some of the letter’s highlights. (And if you have others after reading it, share them in the comments below.)

On the Christian need to engage ecological issues
We can only regret that Christians do not participate more actively in [ecological] questions by bringing the specific insights of the gospel into the discussion. Christians cannot let themselves be indifferent; confronted with the threat of irreversible deterioration of creation, they will not be able to escape a serious examination of conscience.
The environment is a field to which the social doctrine of the Church, whose first principle is the centrality and the dignity of the human person, has been applied extensively.

 On human life 
One of the causes of the current human ecological disorder is the widespread anti-life mentality that has spawned one of the greatest genocides in all of history. It would be vain to insist on one hand we would for the respect of the environment while on the other hand we would not respect the right to life.

Sin and ecological destruction 
We are faced with a moral crises: that is to say a crisis of human choice and human action. Hence, the root of the problem resides in man’s heart rather than in strictly economic or industrial concerns.
The ecological crisis is born in the heart of man and is only the outside extension of this internal tragedy.

Hope in the Eucharist 
In the Eucharist, we find the possibility of a renewed understanding of the created world. The Eucharist allows us to uncover the basis of an integral human ecology; here we find the antidote to radical individualism and collectivism. The Eucharist allows us to find Jesus’ face in every person, most especially the poorest. It also enables us to welcome in creation a gift from God and to thank him continuously for it.
There is of course much more. This includes a recognition of the place of ecology in New Evangelization; an important critique of progressive thought (especially as it is seen through representatives like Jacques Yves Cousteau, who suggested that to save the world we must "eliminate" 350,000 people a day); and a wonderful overview of the place of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as a means to holiness—which is another way of saying a means to tending well the created world that nurtures human life.

The letter is also quite aware that Bl. John Paul II and (especially) Benedict XVI (whom he quotes extensively) has much to teach us about the ecological problems that we face and the divine assistance that we are offered.

If you’re not familiar with Bishop Rey’s pastoral letter on ecology, please do not let these excerpts be your only encounter with it. Read it for yourself. Share it in abundance. Contemplate it and pray over it. It is a wonderful text—and a vital one.

In fact, I’d wager that sometime in the near future you may find that it resonates profoundly with an eco-encyclical administered by the current Bishop of Rome.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Noah and the Pope’s prayers

Vatican City, 31 March 2014 (VIS) – Pope Francis' universal prayer intention for April is: “That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

I just returned from seeing the film Noah. I also just read the news of Pope Francis’s general prayer intentions for April. The protection of creation is a fitting intention for a month when many people around the world celebrate Earth Day.

Given all the controversy among Christians over Noah and its whimsical take on the Book of Genesis, the pope’s eco-intentions will certainly be compared to what many people are complaining about in the film.

Have you seen Noah? I wasn’t going to but given what everyone has been saying about an eco-centric plot I decided to spend an evening at the movies.

There’s much about Noah I’d like to deconstruct, criticize, correct, or praise, but for the purpose of this blog I’ll stick to its faith-based eco-messaging, which is a big part of the film.

(I will, however, point you in the direction of two reviews worth noting: Barbara Nicolosi's piece, which trashes the film (and its rock people) at Patheos, and Steven D. Greydanus’s analysis in Catholic World Report, which looks at Noah’s redeeming qualities.)

God vs. the Creator?

A great deal of criticism has been aimed at the filmmakers’ choice to refer to God solely as “the Creator.” But in a way this choice may make sense. Noah and everyone around him had not been exposed to very much of God’s revelation. They would know nothing of what their descendants knew after the Noahide Covenant and the events recorded subsequent to the Book of Genesis. 

And anyway, everyone knows who the characters are speaking to when they look unapprovingly towards the heavens and plead with “the Creator.” That said, the word is spoken often and at times it does seem forced. Surely some other name—like Lord?—could have also been used.

Still, what I don’t understand is why this really, really bothers so many people. God is the Creator, is He not? And creation, its fall along with that of man's, and our redemption is the lifeblood of the Christian faith, no? So why are we concerned that (for reasons I guess at below) the filmmakers focus on the cosmic implications of the fall by stressing that God is the Creator of heaven and earth?

Who (or what) chooses evil first, man or nature?

The film presents the words of creation in Genesis 1 with stunning, scientifically accurate imagery. Adam and Eve and the happenings in Eden are presented with equally beautiful spiritual imagery.

But in a grand departure from Genesis, in the motion picture it seems as if it is the serpent that makes the first choice for evil, rather than being inherently evil. We see the serpent shed its original skin, give birth to a darker version of itself and slither over to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve follows while Adam tarries to inspect the serpent’s better skin left behind. (In Genesis, Adam is with Eve at the fatal fruit-snatching moment.) This skin, the original given to the creature by God, will become a relic used throughout the film. It becomes a sacramental presence that bestows blessings and birthrights to the sons and daughters of Adam.

All this imagery is rather subtle. But it is there. So what could this departure mean?

Without knowing it, the filmmakers shift the blame of sin from man to creation itself—which comes with odd theological, anthropological, and cosmic consequences, the kinds that Hollywood films can only nod to if they choose to acknowledge them at all.

Is the film anti-human?

I don’t understand why some critics say that this film preaches that man must be eradicated to save the planet. Yes, Russell Crowe’s character believe this—for a time. But besides him, no one else does. Still, Noah is so certain that man is the enemy of God’s work that he is ready to take extreme measures to help God, as if He needs it. In what can easily be described as embracing a culture of death, Noah will do anything to prevent human life from staining the new world, which apparently he thinks is only meant for animals.

But Noah is misreading God—not that you can blame him. The Creator is rather quiet in the film. (Perhaps Morgan Freeman wasn’t available.) Luckily, this misreading gets corrected. In the end Noah realizes what everyone else knew all along. The human race is worth saving. Our nature is fallen, not dead. It can be elevated with help from above.

And so Noah chooses life, and he chooses it again when he’s not sure if he should have done so in the first place.

So yes, Noah the character may for a time preach an anti-human ethic of “protecting creation.” But his journey of self-discovery leads him to realize that protecting creation does not mean one has to kill a pregnant woman or her children.

(Similarly, some have criticized the movie for stating that human industry is inherently evil. But any film about a family that denudes a forest to build an ark isn’t saying that man’s use of creation is always bad.)

So what is Noah all about?

Because it’s a Hollywood film, I suppose Noah’s main purpose is profit. But in fairness, the filmmakers seem to want to capture, engage, and retell for the twenty-first century the ancient tale of Noah. And certainly, even non-believers are hard pressed to wash away the lifeblood of revelation. If anything, Noah shows us that Hollywood filmmakers cannot strip inspired texts of all that God chooses to reveal in the first place.

And so for all its odd and unfortunate choices (like those fallen angels that have turned into rocky giants, which offers a rather gnostic twist, come to think of it), Noah is ultimately a film that Christians should not diminish. It tells the tale of how in the beginning God made the world and the human race good and with an inherent order. It tells how the choice of sin deprived mankind and the entire cosmos of a relation with the divine source of life, and how only God Himself can (and will) set us free from the hunter’s snare. Not bad for a night at the magaplex.

Yes, to speak to a modern audience—for which the notion of sin is too often unintelligible—the filmmakers stress a sin that most younger moviegoers will understand: environmental destruction. 

This doesn't mean that other sins aren't present. The films depicts all manner of vice and evil at odds with human dignity. Seeing this, Noah recognizes that he too is infected with the sin of his ancestors.

Ultimately, then, Noah is about sin and salvation. It is about letting God choose our paths if we are to cooperate in the restoration of His creation. It is in part about the same thing the Pope is praying for in April, “that governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

But here’s the catch: In order for this protection and just distribution to take place, we need to heed God’s laws of life—not our own disordered wills. And we need His help to heed those laws. Whether intended or not, this is the unmistakable message of Noah.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Damaging societies," one child at a time

Another research study is showing us what happens when children encounter neurotoxins. Gladly, its findings are making news. This is in large part because it underscores what previous efforts have already demonstrated: a good many chemicals that we produce in our industries and use at home are preventing normal, healthy lives for many of our children.

The paper, “Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity” in the March 2014 edition of The Lancet Neurology is authored by Philippe Grandjean and Philip J Landrigan. Its summary tells us that 
[n]eurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency. Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence. In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. We postulate that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered.
In simple terms, our creativity in cobbling together this or that chemical can come at a price to our children, our societies, and our souls. Science is showing us what the cost can be to our kids when they come in contact with unnatural and toxic substances; our experiences with so many affected children are showing us the price to society; and our decisions to continue on or to slow the use of such chemicals will tell us what sort of people we are.

Indeed, Landrigan and Grandjean signal a problem with how in the past governments allowed and industries produced chemicals that, after a time, were found to be harmful. 
A recurring theme in many cases was that commercial introduction and wide dissemination of the chemicals preceded any systematic effort to assess potential toxicity. Particularly absent were advance efforts to study possible effects on children’s health or the potential of exposures in early life to disrupt early development. Similar challenges have been confronted in other public health disasters, such as those caused by tobacco smoking, alcohol use, and refined foods. These problems have been recently termed industrial epidemic.
The authors recommend the development of an “international clearinghouse on neurotoxicity” to research and make health information available on industrial chemicals. Man-made chemicals can certainly be made and used safely. We just need the right information to do so. But after reading this report on toxicity, one wonders why there isn’t already a global means to easily study and share such information—especially if it means the protection of innocent life.

Moreover, Landrigan and Grandjean warn that the true number of dangerous chemicals is much higher than we might think. And so they are rightly concerned “that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognised toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviours, truncating future achievements, and damaging societies, perhaps most seriously in developing countries.”

I was struck when I read this. Certainly this paper echoes concerns raised by the Church, as we find here by the bishops of the United States. But the author’s language echoes almost verbatim the words of Benedict XVI that are used in the masthead of this blog, that "[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person. ... It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society."

This study will rightly generate a chorus of distress from secular environmental health advocates. Such attention is good and proper, not only for this issue but for the wider ones it points to. After all, the harm done to the born and unborn by man-made neurotoxins is a sort of reflection of other man-made harms to the born and unborn that we as a people countenance. Would that our concerns about neurotoxins illuminate all such threats.

In any event, for now we give many thanks and offer many blessings to Drs. Grandjean and Landrigan for their great work and for the Lancet for publishing it. May this study and the many like them teach us how to appreciate and build a true culture of life.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

For life, fair and sustainable coffee and palm oil

Growing coffee, keeping a few trees. Photo Flicker/colros

Yesterday at work I received a lesson in how our appetites for coffee and palm oil are harming old growth tropical forests. I also learned how things can be done better—and in some places, already are.

The speaker was one of my agency’s newer hires, a young and energetic biologist who had interned for his professors to study coffee plantations in Costa Rica and oil palm farming in Malaysia.

The upshot is that coffee can be grown in forest shaded areas—and thus have a smaller or negligible impact on tropical ecosystems. But coffee growers often prefer forest unfriendly open-field cultivation because they can fit more plants in the same area. And with coffee buyers squeezing growers on price, there is pressure to yield as much product as possible from any given property. In fact, as prices get more competitive some farmers are forced to cut down more forests simply to maintain their family’s income.

What is it that pushes prices so low? In large part, it's the desire of coffee consumers to pay as little as possible for their morning java.

Palm oil fruits at harvest. Flicker/Ahmad Fuad Morad
Another lesson learned: Palm oil growers in places like Malaysia are often much less forest friendly. To grow oil palms—a global commodity for use in a great many processed foods—farmers destroy very large areas of very old, thriving tropical forests. This devastates habitats for indigenous peoples and all sorts of life, including the orangutan. Even small buffers for streams become scare, which worsens aquatic impacts from the excessive fertilizers applied to grow oil palm trees. 

As always when conversing about such topics, the numbers get staggering and the wish list for making everything better gets long. And while food conglomerates in Southeast Asia are doing research in sustainable practices for growing oil palm trees, there needs to be more research and lots more action.

Real changes in how we supply palm oil and coffee will, it seems, come when consumers demand it—when they/we are willing to pay a few cents more for whatever it is they/we are buying. But not every consumer can afford a higher food bill, which makes such conversations more tricky.

In this regard, kudos to Kellogs for forcing growers to care for forests and other natural habitats by complying with sustainable standards by 2015. And a tip-of-the-hat to Catholic Online for sharing the news. (It’s always nice when you see a Catholic voice in a listing of secular news outlets. As I’ve noted elsewhere, adding our voice to such "secular" issues is a means toward New Evangelization.)

A once thriving forest now nurses oil palms. Flicker/angela7dreams
Of course, Kellogs is just one company among many. More needs to be done. And here is where you and I come into play. As Benedict XVI put it,
[t]he way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”… Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. [Caritas in Veritate, §51, quoting Bl. John Paul II’s Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 13, and his encyclical Centesimus Annus, 36.] Emphasis original. 
Benedict XVI has elsewhere said much more. So has Paul VI, John Paul II, Francis, and many bishops. You get the idea. 
Coffee. Flicker/wenzday01

The big question thus becomes, what will you and I do to adopt new lifestyles? And what lifestyles should we adopt to better support local farmers (and their families) while helping to protect the thriving ecosystems that have global impacts for life? 

To start, we can learn a little more about Fair Trade practices and buy Fair Trade certified products—especially our coffee and, when possible, anything that contains palm oil. And we must demand that the companies that process food do likewise. We must ask for better, sustainable choices from our supermarkets and the companies they buy from. And we can accept that, for those that can afford it, some of what we do demand will cost us, too. (Yes, we will pay a bit more for environmentally friendly food products.) 

I’ll be focusing more on all this the future. But for now, importantly, we can also pray for the people who grow our foods, those close by and those far away. Pray for conversion of business practices and purchases. Pray for the growth of the Gospel of Life in industries like food production and commodity farming. Pray for virtues to control our appetites, and the grace to build this virtue within us. 

Ultimately, we must pray for life—because when we do so, we’re praying for the dignity of every human person as well as for the planet that keeps us all healthy—assuming that we, for our part, live in ways that keep it healthy, too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 2014: When the heavens meet earth

As we prepare for Lent we might reflect on the place of creation throughout salvation history. We do so because the dialogue between heaven and earth culminated in Jesus Christ—true God, true man, the Word of God made present now for the ages in the Eucharist.

I’ve posted below three related reflections. The first is part of a powerful Lenten homily, the second is an appropriate passage of Isaiah to guide our thoughts, and the third is a video from an artist who has captured (perhaps without knowing it) some of what we encounter in the homily and in Isaiah.

We begin with a particularly moving homily by Pope Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday, 2012. Here’s a portion:
Firstly, ashes are one of the material signs that bring the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we receive the grace of Christ which comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but are nevertheless linked to prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. In fact, before the distribution of ashes on the heads of each one of us — which we will soon do — they are blessed according to two possible formulas: in the first, they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the act of the imposition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Gen 3:19).
Thus the sign of the Ashes recalls the great fresco of creation which tells us that the human being is a singular unity of matter and of the Divine breath, using the image of dust moulded by God and given life by the breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.
In Genesis, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Whereas before the fall the soil was a totally good element, irrigated by spring water (cf. Gen 2:6) and through God’s work was capable of producing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9).
After the fall and the divine curse it was to produce only “thorns and thistles”, and only in exchange for the “toil” and the “sweat of your face” would it bear fruit (cf. Gen 3:17-19). The dust of the earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but becomes a sign of an inexorable destiny of death: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
I end the quotation at that iconic Ash Wednesday phrase, but the homily does not end with death. How could it? The genius of Benedict XVI is in how he brings the scriptures into focus by reminding us of its promise of eternal life. Like few others, he teaches by calling our attention to what we should see so clearly. 

The Prophet Isaiah accentuates the Hebrew Scripture's use of creation imagery. Here he does so to portray the reach of God into the worldly realm. This is one of my favorite passages in all scripture.

         For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 
         nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD. 
         For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 
         so are my ways higher than your ways, 
         my thoughts higher than your thoughts. 

         Yet just as from the heavens 
         the rain and snow come down 
         And do not return there 
         till they have watered the earth, 
         making it fertile and fruitful, 
         Giving seed to the one who sows 
         and bread to the one who eats, 

          So shall my word be 
          that goes forth from my mouth; 
          It shall not return to me empty, 
          but shall do what pleases me, 
          achieving the end for which I sent it. (Is. 55:8-11)

And lastly, I end with this video from Nicolaus Wegner, an artist in Wyoming. As St. Bonaventure and so many other saints and Christian mystics tell us, we can more easily ponder the creator by standing in awe of creation. This video excels at doing just that: allowing nature’s majesty—its laws, its beauty, its power—to remind us that there are realities greater than us. As the anceint writers of scripture knew, taking time to see what's going on overhead is a good way to consider how our ways are not God's ways. And that should remind us that it really is best to repent and live His Gospel, which guides us from death into life.

May God bless and protect you all this Lent. 


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Will a Francis eco-encyclical be the right's Humane Vitae?

Photo of Pope Francis: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)

I’m not one to encourage political divisions within the Church. But I can’t ignore them.

Like it or not, there are so-called conservatives and liberals within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and they bring with them preconceived, divisive worldviews that complicate all forms of ecclesial life.

Given the usual place of ecology within these ideological realities, I’ve been thinking about the future response to a Pope Francis environmental encyclical.

Naturally, there will be joy among most of our liberal brothers and sisters and there will be despair (mingled with fury?) among many who are conservative. 

Put another way, a Pope Francis eco-encyclical will likely be the Humane Vitae for the right.

Paul VI issued his prophetic encyclical on human life in 1968. He did so against the advice and hopes of many. Given a great number of errant voices seeking magisterial approval for artificial contraception and other ills, Paul VI demonstrated courage and trust in Christ by making clear the teachings of the Church. A good many on the left were outraged by this—and still are.

But Paul VI was correct in his warnings about disconnecting the conjugal act from procreation. Pope Francis will be too in stating ecclesial concerns regarding planetary and local ecosystems that nurture and protect human life once it is conceived.

Chances are, however, the left will not be entirely happy with Francis's take on environmental protection. As he has done to date, Francis will most certainly connect ecology with human life issues and he will link human choices with the grace of God. But the condemnation in an eco-encyclical of issues like contraception and abortion will likely not soothe the fury of some on the right who may get particularly heated if Francis mentions climate change or biodiversity—which, of course, he probably will given that these are two of the most pressing eco issues of our age.

All this might only widen the divides between brothers and sisters that come from too many of us viewing things through red or blue colored glasses rather than seeing with the eyes of faith.

Thus we have a task before us—and by “we” I mean those of us who get the Catholic, whole-life perspective of ecology, the one that Bl. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis sum up in the term “human ecology.”

It’s up to us to double our efforts to teach—with love—the Church’s concerns about ecological issues as well as the hard science behind them. Following the wishes of Christ, we must work towards unity within the Church, which is why we must prepare the way for a Francis eco-encyclical.

The last thing the Church and the world needs is for human life to suffer similar ills as those brought about by a refusal to accept the truth of Humane Vitae.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 3

Part 1  Part 2 │ Part 3

On the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and in recognition of World Day of the Sick—keeping in mind the importance of clean water for human life and healthwe conclude our three-part interview with Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, author of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis

Catholic Ecology: Political leaders may not be well versed in the natural sciences, which can prevent them from appreciating issues like watershed approaches to water supply or the impacts of new ways to drill for natural gas. How can the education of civic and state leaders improve their decision-making capacity when it comes to protecting natural resources like water?

Dr. Peppard: Education is vital! Throughout Just Water, I stress that water is not always a self-evident, eternally renewing resource that bends easily to political and economic wishes.  I wrote Chapter 2, "A Primer on the Global Fresh Water Crisis," precisely as a way to communicate essential, foundational, and timely information to folks who are not well versed in hydrology. My public media work (with videos and articles on TED-Ed,, the History Channel, and others) also strives to portray these complex realities in accessible ways.

In fact, new media offers amazing opportunities for communication and learning. As more resources become available, responsibility rests with educators (to create the materials) but also with the publicincluding politicians and business people and other decision-makers, whose choices bear long-term impacts for local and regional areas. 

But, frankly, one of the real difficulties in ensuring an appropriate stance towards water is that politicians and business people are not usually oriented towards long-term outcomes. They focus on re-election, or profit/growth. They don't focus on the integrated functioning of watersheds in the long term. This short-term attentionthe focus on election cycles and fiscal quartersis deleterious, risky, and pernicious to the protection of our most vital resources, like fresh water, upon which the possibility of all life depends.

Is there a way to enforce long-term thinking about environmental goods in political or economic contexts? Not yet. But we have to try. There's no human existence without waternor societal, economic, or civilizational. It under-girds everything and therefore its preservation and thoughtful use deserve our utmost attention. It is a public good par excellence.

What can people do right now? First and foremost, it's time for water sources and infrastructure (especially water supply and sanitation) to become highly visible. We need massive investments in, and maintenance of, water/sanitation systems. We also need innovation in the realms of gray-water (reuse) and incentive structures to eliminate wasteful domestic uses (lawns in California and Arizona, for example). Investing money, time, and energy in renewing our aging water/sanitation infrastructure is vital and is a contribution that politicians can make, starting now. We as citizens can advocate for this kind of pragmatic action. I recommend the book Blue Revolution, by Cynthia Barnett, as a great resource for becoming aware of infrastructure, policy, and the future of water.

If you want more information, there's a list of further resources for the educated non-specialist in the back of Just Water. I'll also shamelessly plug my TED-Ed videos, which are aimed at high-school students as well as life-long learners: what you need to know about global fresh water in four-minute, animated videos! [See here and here for examples.]

For younger students, StudentsRebuild (a project of the Bezos Family Foundation) has been doing a "Water Challenge" for middle schoolers all year, with great resources for that age bracket. 

Water for People, a Denver-based non-profit, has a stupendous approach for water-system empowerment and ways for interested adults to get involved. I recommend all of these entities as sites of learning and engagement.

As an educator, I want to help people to find reputable resources for thinking better about water, while encouraging all of us to enter the conversation with our unique biographies of experience and knowledge. As a scholar, I want to explore and strive to articulate crucial insights that emerge at the intersections of hydrology, ecology, theology, and ethics. If my work contributes to an improved level of public discourse about fresh water-both within educational institutions and outside of them-then I will be thrilled. Water is not self-evident and deserves our critical, ongoing attention.

Catholic Ecology: What are your greatest concerns and greatest hopes in the area of global and regional water policies?

Dr. Peppard: My greatest concern is that the short-term logic of fiscal and election cycles may prevent societies from enacting healthy, sustainable, long-term water policies that benefit individuals, communities, and ecosystems now and in the future. Water is a short-term need and in many places it's an immediate crisis. And as we grapple with these discrete and urgent situations, we also have to consider long-term policies that respect the primacy of waters for all forms of life, industry, agriculture, economy, and civilization. 

I also worry that water's "value" will come to be seen as solely an economic category. Surely, economic valuation is a fabulous and important tool in our global economy. But markets should not be ultimate arbiters of value, especially for something like fresh water. 

Environmentally, socially, theologically, and philosophically, it's clear that the value of water transcends market value or price (see Chapter 3!). I'm a pragmatist who supports innovation, and I believe that entrepreneurship and economic exchange have their place in environmental policy. But it's immoral for pursuit of profit to be the only motivating force, or the dominant conversation partner, for the value of something as essential and complicated as fresh water. This is where theology, philosophy and ethicsas well lived experiencehave major contributions to make. Those insights may well be the wisdom that preserves the possibility of existence on every level of scale, from the local to the planetary, in an era of fresh water scarcity.

To that end, in Just Water I depict how water is (in philosophical terms) sui generis and sine qua non; translated into economic terms, this means that it is non-substitutable and a baseline for all forms of existence.

Moreover, in many ways, fresh water is a classic market failure. These core insights, in conversation with the historical emergence of hydraulic and economic paradigms out of the American West, are the subject of my next book-tentatively titled "Valuing Water in the Anthropocene."
One of my greatest hopes is that "fresh water policy" will eventually become nearly synonymous with "fresh water ethics." This will require, specifically, that special attention to be paid to long-term flourishing and integrity of water sources as well as the demands of justice for the most vulnerable (usually women and children in subsistence economies). And it requires a large-scale increase in familiarity with water supply, policy, and infrastructure.

Another hopeborn out of my vocation as an educator and scholaris that Just Water can be an accessible, encouraging introduction to some of these vital issues, in a way that empowers people. It's important to empower people, not exhaust them! This is particularly delicate because when it comes to global water scarcity, the danger of burnout is very real: as the BBC quipped in 2005, "If you want to exhaust mental meltdown, the statistics of the worsening global fresh water crisis are a surefire winner"!

But I hope there is some kind of succorperhaps an ironic comfort that provides a base for actionin the indisputable fact that no one person, no single approach, is going to solve the fresh water crisis. It's a collective task-a problem of we, not just me. And everyone starts from exactly where we are at a given moment. My hope is that learning about water and the common good can be empoweringa way of discerning how to be better neighbors and citizens in this complicated, pluralistic, globalizing world.  

The task is ongoing: I too am constantly learning, discerning, analyzing, revising, re-framing. Dealing with water scarcity and water ethics is not like solving a straightforward algorithm. It's what sociologists refer to as a "wicked problem"an issue with many inputs, implications, and unintended consequences. That can be daunting; but it can also be a pragmatic invitation to jump in wherever your abilities and insights may be useful.

Fresh water scarcity, like water itself, is always in motion. That means we have to learn to think fluidly-to learn, revise, and adjust course when something is not working. Humility and persistence are both vital. Ethics needs to be the frame that guides water and economic policynot the reverse.

Catholic Ecology: Is there anything we haven't covered that you would like to add?

Dr. Peppard: The opportunity to consider and respond to your questions has been wonderful! I hope that readers of your blog will continue to have conversations about the intersections of theology, ethics, water, and the common good. You can find me on Twitter (@profpeppard) or through my website. I welcome inquires about resources or ongoing conversations from your readers!

Catholic Ecology: With many thanks to you, Dr. Peppard, and with assurances of the prayers of many for your continued work seeking the just use of water.

Monday, February 10, 2014

By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 2

Part 1  │ Part 2 Part 3

On the Feast of St. Scholastica, we continue our interview with Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University, about her new book Just Water

Part 1 of the interview can be found here. The last installation will be posted tomorrow—the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Catholic Ecology: Shortages of clean water are often portrayed as realities only in developing countries. Does your book look at water supply and source protection issues in places like the United States or Europe?

Dr. Peppard: Yes! While people living in subsistence situations feel the effects of water scarcity first, it is also the case that water sources are being polluted and tapped unsustainably in parts of the world where we take water for granted. Usually, in the U.S., we are not aware of our water sources. But every now and then, events like the West Virginia chemical spill present terrifying evidence of just how vital and susceptible fresh water is—not just for people in developing nations, but for everyone, worldwide.

Ignorance of fresh water sources has been a marker of luxury: many people in the U.S. and Europe know little about our watersheds and water/sanitation infrastructure—since tap water is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week. However, in some (mostly arid, Western) regions of the U.S., residents are more familiar with water scarcity and source protection, precisely because water scarcity and disputes have been going on longer there. I recommend William DeBuys’ book, A Great Aridness (Oxford University Press, 2010), for a fuller treatment of water in the contemporary and future west.

Catholic Ecology: Fossil fuel extraction technologies, especially fracking, are often major water users. Given all the demands on water, is this a wise use of water, or a waste?

Photo by Daniel Foster
Dr. Peppard: A major issue facing industrialized nations is water use by the energy sector. Many fossil fuel-extraction technologies are extremely water-intensive. Take hydraulic fracturing, that much-hyped and much-criticized technology for extracting shale oil or natural gas. (Chapter 8, “Water from Rock,” grapples with fracking in great detail.)

From a water use perspective, each well drilled for hydraulic fracturing consumes Olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of water in order to force shale oil and natural gas out of pockets of rock and sediment. The water that comes out (“flowback” and “produced water”) is heavily contaminated with chemicals (used to loosen the sediments, thereby releasing the gas).
Flowback and produced water cannot be reclaimed.

Is water-intensive fossil fuel extraction a good use of finite, scarce water supply? Western advocates argue, emphatically, no—as a consumptive use (because it produces contaminated water) the water can’t re-enter the watershed or ecosystem. Communities across the world are worried about potential pollution from fracking wells. Currently there is a ridiculous lack of information about what kinds of chemicals are in those fracking solutions and what the toxicological, public health, and environmental consequences may be. The situation is one of contrived ignorance, because the U.S. federal government currently protects fracking solutions as “trade secrets.” This is ridiculous and has to change, as I argue in Chapter 8.

But it’s not just tree-hugging environmentalists who are concerned about fracking—far from it. Several European nations have banned fracking outright due to uncertainty about its effects on water supply. And in Germany, the centuries-old beer-brewers’ association issued a formal complaint against fracking!—on the grounds that potential contamination of groundwater sources could imperil their 500-year-old purity codes for beer-brewing. This is a real concern for a country that sees massive annual revenues from Oktoberfest and beer tourism!

Catholic Ecology: Your work bridges a number of disciplines, such as science, theology, and environmental policy. Have you seen examples of dialogue between faith and reason in how local, national, or international governments develop or implement sound water use policies? Similarly, where have people of faith—especially the Catholic Church—been most helpful in issues of water supply and source protection?

Dr. Peppard: Such partnerships will be among the most interesting aspects of water management and ethics in the coming century.

On a global level, since 2003 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has issued a very straightforward, clear letter to the triennial World Water Forum. These letters (which I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 4) portray water as a gift from God, a human right, and a right-to-life issue. And, in keeping with decades of Catholic social teaching, they express concern about the commodification of fresh water and identify access to clean, fresh water and sanitation as key factors in integral development.

These teachings are powerful and, hopefully, can inform policymakers’ awareness of ethical aspects of fresh water supply and access. It’s a pretty basic and powerful insight: human flourishing is not best measured by economic indicators alone.

One of the most interesting and hope-giving actors in international, transboundary water management is Prof. Aaron Wolf, a professor and chair of the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. Dr. Wolf’s work in conflict management incorporates multiple stakeholders and complex (beyond economic) value-paradigms for water, publishing peer-reviewed articles at the intersection of water conflict and spirituality in the Journal of Water Policy.

Friends of the Earth Middle East is another exemplar. This regional non-profit organization is spearheading a Jordan River rehabilitation and cooperation project that involves multiple stakeholders, including religious communities from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam within the geographic area of the Jordan River (encompassed by Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. They’ve recently released a stupendous toolkit (of articles and other resources) for religious congregations, on the topic of the Jordan River. I recommend it highly

Chapter 6 of Just Water, “The Jordan River,” depicts some of these projects, while parsing an odd dilemma. How is it possible that the symbolically powerful Jordan River can exist in such a paltry, degraded hydrological state? I argue that this is a topic—and a place!—where religious people and congregations, as well as institutional entities like the Catholic Church, have a substantial role to play in environmental rehabilitation and protection. Shouldn’t it be significant for people of Christian faith that the Jordan—that is, the river in which Jesus was baptized, and his ministry began!—is dammed, diverted, and flows only as pea-green sludge in several places?

This is an environmental problem. It is an ethical problem. I think it’s also a religious and theological problem.

A final way that we are seeing interactions between theology and water policy is through religious communities’ resistance to invasive technologies and support of environmentally sustainable practices. For example, several orders of nuns in the United States and elsewhere, such as the Sisters of Bon Secours, have made water a central charism in their theological and ethical work. Likewise, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference continues to do stupendous work in thinking through the important relationships between Catholic faith and the health of land and water.

Various dioceses and bishops’ conferences in the U.S. and worldwide have begun to issue occasional letters or formal documents that emphasize how water is a gift that is central to human and ecosystemic existence. Examples include documents by the Appalachian Bishops as well as Bishops from the Philippines, as well as the Columbia River Pastoral letter (written by the Bishops of the northwestern part of the U.S. and Canada about matters of shared concern on the Columbia River). In late summer 2013, several religious orders in Kentucky—including the Trappists of Gethsemani—opposed the possibility of a natural gas transportation pipeline that would run through their properties.

Catholic Ecology: At work, I often refer to the sound planning, building, and maintenance of water infrastructure as “Civilization 101.” Given the growing demands on governments, how can people with a background in science or faith (or both) stress to decision makers the importance of clean water as a fundamental need for the common good? What guiding principles do you suggest in your book?

Dr. Peppard: I quite agree. Without water, there is no possibility of civilization! The guiding principles of my book that could be infused into “Civilization 101” can be summed up as follows:
  • Fresh water is sui generis (unique, non-substitutable) and sine qua non (a baseline for all kinds of existence, from individuals to societies to ecosystems and economies).
  • These features are universally true but manifest differently in various places. Context matters: Seattle is not the Sahara. So there is no one-size-fits-all solution to fresh water scarcity.
  • Technology is an important tool but not a panacea. It must be deployed within a long-term ethical, economic, and policy framework that puts human and ecosystem flourishing at the center of value.
  • People living in poverty, especially women and children, deserve special attention because they are the first to suffer when water systems fail or water becomes scarce.
  • Corporations must be accountable for safety and must prove that their chemicals and processes are not toxic to humans or other forms of downstream life. This is, in other words, the precautionary principle. Moreover, any potential downstream costs must be internalized, despite the economic temptation to externalize costs. (The case of West Virginia is a good example of the flaws of our current approach, which seems to privilege the trade secrets and income of a corporation above the downstream health and water access of residents.)
  • For all of these insights, there is robust resonance with principles of Catholic Social Teaching (chapter 4, “A Right-to-Life-Issue for the Twenty-First Century”), which I deploy in a central way in the book. It will come as a surprise to most North American Catholics that in terms of thinking about the ethics of fresh water, the Catholic Church is way ahead of most municipalities in the U.S.! So, I suggest in the book that there can be a fruitful dialogue between precepts of the tradition and contemporary water realities. Do I think that the Catholic Church has all the answers? No. It’s not a water management entity! But I do think that the principles resonate with some deep concerns about fresh water scarcity and ethics—especially questions of value and human life—in the 21st century. There is wisdom here, and we need to pay attention to it, because water is and will continue to be a fundamental right-to-life issue—indeed, the right-to-life issue par excellence for global humanity.

Catholic Ecology: Our interview with Just Water author Dr. Christiana Peppard will conclude tomorrow. Part 1 can be found here.