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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jackson steps down: Keeping things clean can be a dirty job

Jackson (right) at Harlem's Riverside Valley Community Garden. April 22, 2010.
Photo: Flicker/

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency today announced her resignation. There has been much speculation as to why.

Lisa Perez Jackson, who is Catholic, has a long history in the field of environmental protection and public health. She is known for her passion for protecting children’s health and greening urban communities.

A chemical engineer and the first African American to take the reigns at EPA, Jackson stressed environmental justice and the inclusion of women, minorities, and the poor. She was also a voice of reason that sought not to vilify the private sector—even if critics claim otherwise. Rather, as we hear in her speech at the opening of the USRio+2.0 Conference at the Stanford Knight Management Center in February 2012, Jackson sought to include industry leaders in finding ways to attain a clean environment and a healthy economy. Mrs. Jackson is given great credit for her work on improving automobile fuel efficiency as well as taking seriously the impact of greenhouse gases on current and future generations.

As a Catholic ecologist, I am interested if Mrs. Jackson holds a whole-life ethic. But I do not know her views on abortion. Multiple inquiries today have left me with no information to report—which is odd. I tend to think that if Jackson were pro-abortion I’d find evidence of it. Given her support of curbing mercury emissions and other issues that directly support the health of children and the unborn, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is a closet pro-lifer in the Democratic political machine, which of late frowns on such views.  

Mrs. Jackson has supported the involvement of faith communities in ecological and public health issues, as we see in her speech at the “Faith Council” meeting during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which was also covered by the Catholic News Agency.

For its part, the secular media today has provided predictable coverage. We read of concerns over a “stealth” email account that Mrs. Jackson used in her official capacity (was there a federal probe on the way?), conflicts with business lobbies, energy producers, and anti-environmental Republicans, as well as frustration with President Obama’s sometimes lukewarm environmental engagement (as reported bythe New York Times!).

The most insightful piece I’ve found comes from an interview of Mrs. Jackson by a student at her sons’ Catholic high school in Washington D.C. It’s good reading, but here’s the highlight to share with you:
[Question:] Gonzaga [College High School] has been dotted with recycling bins across the campus. Are there any other ways we can make are campus more environmentally friendly?
[Jackson:] It shouldn’t come from me to say do this or that. It would be better if there [was] an interest among the students and the faculty to put together a club to decide how to do that. On the school level, I have seen some really amazing things. There is a kid who won our Presidential Award last year; he developed a process to turn used frying oil into bio fuels and they sold it.  In Philly, students went to auto shops and built hybrid cars.
For Gonzaga, going “green” is absolutely consistent with a Catholic education because of my strong belief that we have a moral obligation to take care of the planet.
Moral obligation? Amen to that! (And Amen to the student interviewer who concludes the interview with his observations on the importance of Mrs. Jackson’s statement of faith.)

I do not know everything about Mrs. Jackson—if there is more that I should know, please share for the benefit of us all—but from this quote and all else I’ve read and heard of her, the loss of Lisa Jackson at EPA is sad news.

Did President Obama keep EPA at arm's length? 
Photo: Flicker/by Barack Obama
Any government official who allows her faith to authentically guide her actions should be applauded and supported. From my own professional experience, I know many of my colleagues at the EPA are eager to support local communities and industries in making sound decisions—ecologically and economically. I can only assume that while this has always been so, recent support for a helpful, inclusive government agency has come from the top—from Mrs. Jackson’s sense of a moral obligation to seek the good.

Sadly, the rough-and-tumble world of environmental protection has taken its toll. As the news reports above show, being the environment’s voice is quite often unappreciated, especially in a time of economic difficulty.

Whatever the reasons for her departure, it seems to me that EPA and the nation are worse off for it.

May God bless Lisa Jackson in her future work. May her efforts be successful in bringing the fullness of truth and life into communities and cultures that so desperately need it.

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