Javascript Redirect

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cracking open the depths

The price for cheap natural gas is, in part, the slow destruction of the lives of many throughout the United States, including those who feed their families with salaries from an employer that may not seek the best in human nature.

In places like Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, people are allowing companies to drill under them, inject water mixed with proprietary chemicals—which means that no one really knows what’s in it—and capture the released gases.

This process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits is known as “fracking.” And, as the name itself sounds, it is not a pleasant process. Search YouTube for fracking and see what you find.

Because government laws and regulations are not yet able to adequately protect landowners and the wider public (which will be the subject of another post), the companies seeking natural gas have wide latitude to go about their business.

For now, let’s focus on how the Church has trumped the state in the matter of fracking. On Wednesday, June 27th, the Diocesan Social Action Office of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, and the Officeof Social Action for the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, sponsored a unique forum on fracking—and it was an event that other Catholic institutions should abundantly replicate. Indeed, this gathering did what Catholics do in such times of crisiswhat we've been doing for 2,000 years: incorporate faith, reason, and a call for a virtuous life.

Speaking at the conference was Mr. Peter MacKenzie of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Dr. John F. Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, and Dr. Jame Schaefer, an associate professor of theology at Marquette University and author of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts.

I spoke with the event’s diocesan coordinators and Dr. Schaefer on the morning after. While much of the forum will eventually be available in some form of video and in news reports, there are a few key areas that need addressing on this page.

First, it cannot be stressed enough that this event serves as an example and a reminder of what it means to be Catholic: to foster dialogue, to build up virtue, and to help those who cannot help themselves. 

It must also be noted that the issue of environmental ethics is one that needs more attention—which is why Dr. Schaefer’s work and her book are so valuable in times when companies put profit over people. 

Lastly, Catholics must be aware of how our understanding of sin and virtue really do have meaning—especially when our technologies multiply the good and ill that come from our actions.

In speaking with Dr. Schaefer, I was struck with her genuine concern for a people she referred to as “oppressed”—and rightly so. The stories shared at this forum were from ordinary folks who had their drinking water contaminated and their dreams dashed because of an immoral response by energy companies to a demand by many of us for cheap supplies of natural gas.

The oppression comes from choices made by having few apparent options, especially in a time of need. In the case of fracking, that means being offered a contract and promises of money during a time of economic recession so that strangers can burrow deep below your home for buried treasure—and they promise to not make a mess. Or there’s the family that shared their story at the diocesan forum: They did not succumb to the promises of fracking. They would not lease their land for the taking of buried treasure. But their neighbors did. And now their groundwater—which does not abide by property or zoning boundaries—is contaminated. And so the dream of a family’s small farm in Ohio is now poisoned.

Because of stories like this, Dr. Schaefer and diocesan social action offices in Ohio are helping to spread the news about fracking and what it means to sign leases to allow it to occur on your property, as well as the impacts all this can have as energy companies prowl across the shale deposits of America to seek the treasure that they then sell to people like you and me. The goal is to prevent others from suffering the same ills from fracking as those suffering now. But there's another side to this coin.

Dr. Schaefer recounts that at the forum, after Mr. MacKenzie of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association gave his talk on the safety of fracking, she rightly responded that it was morally and ethically necessary for such companies to not wait for regulations, but to proactively mitigate the release of pollutants and to prevent the damage done to peoples’ lives—and to do this now. These words of Dr. Schaefer brought the loudest applause of the evening—and it resulted in something else: The oil and gas association representative had no verbal comment to this statement, or to the reaction from the now emboldened crowd.

Such a response in this sort of situation tells me that something important was going on. Like water forced deep underground to open shale and unlock ancient natural gases, truth, spoken clearly and heard, has a way of penetrating our deepest selves—our souls—and unlocking something of who we truly are as human beings. And so I wonder just how comfortable that energy company representative was when faced with the suffering spoken of at that forum. I would imagine it wasn't easy.

Now, I may have a degree in theology, but I am not a pastor. I am an environmental regulator. And so I should write more on the nuances of government regulation and the problems that result from current fracking methods—about which I will eventually post. But my training in theology and by virtue of my Baptism, I cannot help but focus for a moment on the issue of the human beings that work for companies that sometimes do bad things. Because sometimes companies can do very good things—and do so out of sincere love of neighbor.

The other day at work I helped provide a workshop for my fellow wastewater engineers and scientists on climate change. The presenters were experts in their fields and the maps of projected sea-level rise in the Ocean State were hard to ignore. My fellow regulators—who were getting much of this information for the first time—were stunned. The workshop facilitator then asked, what’s next? Part of the answer was to help educate the design community—the engineering and contract operations firms that propose, design, and manage many of the state’s wastewater treatment and stormwater facilities in Rhode Island.

Later, one of my office’s chiefs shared with me this story that the day's climate change workshop brought to mind: When he was a young man, at his first job, working for a private engineering firm in the 1970s that did water supply drilling, his industry came face-to-face with two new realities: groundwater contamination at Love Canal and breakthroughs in water-testing technologies. While there were no government regulations at the time—no demands from Big Brother to dictate how such water-supply companies went about their business—he said that the firm’s managers felt a “moral responsibility” to factor this new information into their clients’ designs, even if there was a cost to the company. And so for no other reason than to protect strangers—to love thy neighbor—the company self-regulated and self-sacrificed itself.

Could this not occur today among companies that engage in any aspect of fracking?

Here, we must listen to Dr. Schaefer, who reminds all men and women of good will that the Catholic virtues—especially the Cardinal virtues of prudence, moderation, and justice—must, as always, be factors of our age. As she writes about, virtuous individuals and virtuous communities must become a greater part of the fabric of  twenty-first century America. Our use of energy and all resources must be tempered and efficient. And we must actively educate our neighbors about the dangers of fracking as we actively demand  companies to act responsibly—that they love thy neighbor—and do so immediately. But we must also love the people that are causing the harms from fracking.

Will this be easy? No. Is it wishful thinking? Not for people of faith. Which is why for Catholics, prayer and the Church's prophetic voice must both be in play—in this issue as elsewhere. Indeed, as technology increases our ability to crack open the depths of the earth, so Catholics must help each other search the depths of who we really are, what we really need, and how we should go about treating, and loving, our neighbor. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Joint Declaration on Life

Having coordinated these past few months, a group of Christians from the Evangelical and Catholic tradition have developed the following Joint Declaration on LifeOur goal is to build a bridge between those who seek to defend human life and those who seek to protect creation. The document is being sent to many for signing, and soon a website will be developed for wider distribution. But for now, read through the text and, if you're interested in  signing it, email your name and affiliation to, or just include that information in the comment section below.

“I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings . . ." (Genesis 9:15)

We, the undersigned, Christians of both the Evangelical and Roman Catholic traditions, share this mission: building unity among those who defend the dignity of the human person and those who promote the health of the natural environment. 

We establish our mission on biblical principles, we build on the wisdom and insights of ancient and contemporary Christian leaders, we see the increasing impact of ecological degradation on human life, and we invite dialogue with all women and men of good will who desire to protect the integrity of life and to steward the vital resources which sustain all life.

We are convinced of, and so we declare to others, the great links between human life and God’s creation. We also understand that these links do not imply equivalencies between particular moral concerns and issues. We therefore do not demand equalities among the myriad matters of life where none exist. Rather, we seek to call attention to, and benefit from, naturally occurring relationships between human life—from conception until natural death—and the ecological systems that sustain and foster it.

1.                          Biblical Principles:  “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live….” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The Christian proclamation is rooted in the choice between life and death. Indeed, throughout Christian Scripture, the incarnational message of salvation inextricably links the redemption of humanity and the renewal of God’s creation, most particularly in:
                                                                 i.      the Genesis creation accounts;
                                                               ii.      the deliverance from Egypt, through the giving of the law;
                                                             iii.      the Psalms praising the Creator and His Creation;
                                                             iv.      the utterances of the Prophets of Israel and their fulfillment in the Gospel proclamation of the Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ;
                                                               v.      the Pauline tradition of “all creation” groaning in anticipation of the New Heavens and the New Earth, which is promised to us in the Prophets, the New Testament, and especially in the Book of Revelation.
2.                          Christian Thought: In the early fifth century, St. Augustine reflected on the revelation that the entire created order is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He observes:
such is the force and power of completeness and unity, that many things, all good in themselves, are only found satisfying when they come together and fit into one universal whole. The universal, the universe, of course takes its name from unity.
In the thirteenth century, St. Bonaventure uses St. Paul to teach that all creatures share in signifying “the invisible attributes of God, partly because God is the origin, exemplar, and the end of every creature.” In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
[o]ur duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. 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.
                        Noted evangelist Billy Graham commended in 1983:
The growing possibility of destroying ourselves and the world with our own neglect and excess is tragic and very real.  I find myself becoming more and more an advocate of the true ecologist where their recommendations are realistic.  Many of these people have done us an essential service in helping us preserve and protect our green zones and our cities, our waters and our air…
And in 1984, theologian Francis Schaeffer stated that humanity’s actions:
have a direct impact on the  natural realm.  That relationship is also moral. Why?  Because its involves a moral choice that impacts the environment and people … A truly Biblical Christianity has a real answer to the environmental crisis. It offers a balanced and healthy attitude to nature, arising from the truth of its creation by God; and it offers hope of substantial healing in nature of some of the results of the Fall, arising from the truth of the redemption in Christ. 
3.                          Impacts on Life and God’s Creation: Modern science is increasingly documenting the damage done by environmental toxins to human life from the moment of conception—and even before conception—throughout all stages of development and growth. The Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine (Volume 78, Issue 1, January/February 2011) finds that “research initiatives have delineated the exquisite vulnerability of fetuses, infants, and children to toxic hazards in the environment.” The Mount Sinai Hospital Children’s Environmental Health Center states that “[s]cientific evidence is strong and continuing to build that hazardous exposures in the modern environment are important causes” of diseases such as:
                                                                 i.      Asthma;
                                                               ii.      Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
                                                             iii.      Autism;
                                                             iv.      Dyslexia;
                                                               v.      Childhood leukemia;
                                                             vi.      Brain cancer;
                                                           vii.      Childhood obesity; and
                                                         viii.      Type 2 diabetes
Other health concerns related to environmental toxins are the early onset of puberty and Parkinson’s Disease found in younger ages. Furthermore, while mercury is an often-cited toxin that damages human growth, other “[t]oxic chemicals in the environment—lead, pesticides,toxic air pollutants, phthalates, and bisphenol A—are important causes of disease in children, and they are found in our homes, at our schools, in the air we breathe, and in the products we use every day.” Lastly, recent studies from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are showing that the rates of childhood autism have increased and that the incidents of childhood cancers continue to rise. In demonstrating the violence done to human life—born and unborn—by poisons released into our air, water, and food supply, such studies provide empirical evidence of the link between human life and ecological health.
4.                          An understanding of differences: As Christians, we understand that humanity lives in a fallen state of sin. This results in division where God intends unity of will and purpose. Such division, existing everywhere, tragically is found among those who seek to live and preach the Gospel’s message of life. Thus, some concentrate on the great good of protecting human life from the moment of conception to a natural death. Others focus on ecologies, biodiversity, and non-human species. Over time, mistrust and discord have risen among particular groups, especially as political ideologies have claimed one cause or another in their individual quests to define and defend what is good. Such divisions must be overcome, especially among Christians, who proclaim that the human person is made in the image of the One, Triune God.
5.                          An invitation to dialogue: We then invite all men and women of good will to dialogue. We propose that there are common missions and common ground between those who labor to maintain healthy ecosystems and those who battle the cultural acceptance of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, infanticide, and euthanasia. We implore those who defend human dignity and those who defend the created order to see the unity and interconnectedness of all life. We understand that abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia, intrinsically involve the willful termination of a human life, whereas the loss of life caused by environmental toxins is often unintended. Nevertheless, the damage done to the human person by toxins is real, debilitating, often deadly, and it is always the result of human choices. Thus, we see the issues of human dignity and ecological integrity as linked by our choices for either a blessing or a curse—for life or for death.
6.                          Our joint declaration: So that together we may all choose well—and encourage others to do so—we urge understanding and the building of bonds between those who, in their own way and through their own calling by God, seek to champion and defend the great, glorious, and mysterious gift of life—human life, born and unborn, and life throughout all creation, here and now, and for the ages and generations to come, until the end of time.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

St. Giles: A seventh-century Catholic ecologist

I posted a few months ago about a keynote speaker at an interfaith conference on climate change. In his talk, he violently misrepresented the Church’s ancient views on, and work with, ecology.

While I know the error of such statements, it’s always good to learn more about how Catholics throughout the ages have embraced an ethic of what we today call environmentalism. And so I was delighted to hear a paper from Monica Ehrlich, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Virginia, who introduced me to a little-known seventh-century environmental activist: St. Giles.

Ms. Ehrlich’s paper was given in May at the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Her excellent research and presentation piqued my interest so much that I asked to interview her, which she graciously found the time to do.

And so, we meet St. Giles (c. 650 – c. 710). The story goes that Giles was an Athenian-born Christian who settled in southern France. He would become something of an exemplar for many in the medieval world, mostly for his critique of aristocratic land use, hunting, and feudal cultures of consumption. This critique elevated agriculture over hunting as well as simple living over the banquet/feasting culture. While the word “environmentalist” or the modern concept of what that word means were not in existence in the seventh century, or the medieval world, St. Giles was very much concerned with how human consumption and particular worldviews can do violence to nature.

By building off existing studies of the subjugation of the “other” (such as male domination of female, rich over poor) what we know of St. Giles points to his concern that the land can also be seen as an “other” of man, one that is subjugated and not seen as a gift from God to be shared with our neighbors, but as property which can be used, owned, and left as an inheritance. Giles saw the land with an environmental ethic. This allowed him to use it to, for instance, build hospitals for the poor rather than advance his own material wealth. (Here, we find echoes of St. Basil, who did very much the same thing in fourth-century Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey.)

Indeed, we learn from Ms. Ehrlich that Giles’ view of the land and creation was connected to the Beatitudes—to humility and care for those with less, to sharing rather than hoarding for personal gain. We can also learn something about Giles in his choice of a home—a hut built in prime royal hunting grounds. Giles also built a hut for a beloved deer, one he had a rather strong bond with and sought to protect from hunters.

Given severe laws about the protection of the king’s hunting lands (although there were often exemptions for religious uses) Giles construction of these huts was rather subversive. Moreover, his protection of a prize deer—which he would defend with his own body and life—is a particularly intriguing element of who he was and what he prioritized.

For instance, in some hagiography, Giles would be traveling with kings and be offered a feast and sumptuous bedding. But he would refuse both. Such lifestyles did not fit his eco-ethic of simplicity—an ethic that was common among hermits/monastic lifestyles across the centuries until the modern day—as we can find in, for instance, the Rule of St. Benedict.

We also know that Giles was a vegetarian. He would eat only what fruits and vegetation he could find. This in itself is a sort of critique of the prevalent banquet and hunting culture of his age. Indeed, Giles’ vegetarian lifestyle seems to be built literally from Genesis 1:28-29, which reveals that God gave humanity only vegetation and seed-bearing fruits to eat; the use of animals as food consumption is not in the blueprint of Genesis.

The bottom line of all this is that at the core of St. Giles’ love of the land and of creatures—and of his critique of the gluttony of the wealthy—is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church. Giles understood (perhaps rather elaborately) what it meant to be a protector of the natural world and, thus, how we humans must be related to it. This is not to say that all Catholic ecologists need to live like St. Giles—I certainly won't be building a hut on state property for a deer, at least I don't think I will. And I don't think I'll be a vegetarian any time soon.

But what we can acknowledge from Giles is the strong attraction across the Church's ages to what we today call ecology, an  attraction to know, live by, and protect the natural order, all of which is rooted in the eternal revelation of the Triune God.