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Saturday, August 24, 2013

An open letter to Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo, with Sunrise Coigney 
at the opening of Marvel's The Avengers
Dear Mr. Ruffalo:

I applaud your advocacy against the growing practice of “fracking.” This invasive technique penetrates deep into shale deposits and injects into the earth millions of gallons of chemically laden water. This shatters rock and releases natural gas. But for all its benefits, fracking has many drawbacks. And yet it has been used with increasing frequency across many portions of the United States and across the globe.

As you note in this Metro opinion piece,   
[t]he cause of groundwater contamination, air pollution and even earthquakes, fracking is also disastrous for the climate because it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. 
For such reasons, I and many others have also raised concerns about fracking. But because of your fame, many hear your voice and not ours. And so your strong words against fracking have offered you and this issue a great deal of attention, from Rolling Stone Magazine, the New York Times, and many other forums.

Of late, you have also received attention for your recent words supporting abortion—and here is where you and I part ways. You see, Mr. Ruffalo, I cannot be concerned about human life in one issue but not another. 

Fracking penetrates the earth and shatters shale with harsh chemicals and in so doing unleashes pollution that harms people—born and unborn. The invasive practice of abortion does similar harm—and much worse. Abortion causes damage in ways that you seem to be ignoring, just as fracking proponents ignore the harms of that practice.

In your statement, you tell a personal story about your mom and her abortion. Let me then speak to you about my mom—and about my grandmother.

In 1927, soon after her first child, my grandmother was living with her in-laws when she became pregnant for a second time. One day, her mother-in-law brought home a small package. She instructed my grandmother to boil its contents and drink the water once it had cooled. This would kill the baby inside her.

My grandmother was scared. She was living in the home of her husband’s parents and was being coerced to abort her child. “My son works too hard already,” said my grandmother's mother-in-law. The legality of abortion was not an issue. Its effects were. And there seemed to be no choice.

Fortunately, my grandmother did not live in a culture that supported the wishes of her mother-in-law over what she knew to be right and just. After great prayer and soul searching, she confronted her husband and her mother-in-law. She demanded that the life within her be allowed to live. Months later, she did have her baby, a girl that would grow up and give birth to me.

As I take care of my mom today as she advances in years, I am saddened at the thought that her grandmother would wish her dead. Similarly, I am saddened that you would be so seemingly carefree about the loss of a sibling. My mom had four miscarriages. Those are four siblings that I will not know in this life but nevertheless count them as brothers and sisters with souls.

Mr. Ruffalo, in the motion picture Marvel's The Avengers you play the character of Dr. Bruce Banner. This damaged soul occasionally morphs into the monster called the Hulk. I would ask you to reflect on this fictional tendency to live as a good man who worries always about releasing a harmful force into the world.

Abortion always kills a baby and harms a woman—always. The worst of abortion's consequences are permanent. That you would encourage this is horrible—more so than any computer generated monster that Hollywood’s wizards can conjure.

In your letter, you write 
I actually trust the women I know. I trust them with their choices, I trust them with their bodies and I trust them with their children. I trust that they are decent enough and wise enough and worthy enough to carry the right of Abortion and not be forced to criminally exercise that Right at the risk of death or jail time. 
Might I ask you to ponder the medical information about the development of human life and be good enough to encourage abortion providers to share this information with the woman who come to them (or are brought to them)? And then, with the fullness of trust in women—which you and I share—allow this information to be part of their choices.

Later you write, 
I invite you to search your soul and ask yourself if you actually stand for what you say you stand for. Thank you for being here today and thank you for standing up for the women in my life. 
Likewise, I invite you to search your soul. I ask you to find within you the concern for human life that you so boldly champion in your fight against fracking. Then consider if you are ignoring this concern with your encouragement of the killing of innocents and the scaring of pregnant woman.

You see Mr. Ruffalo, I, too, am concerned about the woman in your life and the women everywhere—here, now, born, unborn, and for all the generations yet to come, assuming, of course, that thy are allowed the right to life.

May God bless you always.

Bill Patenaude

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Data Series #3: Biodiversity lost

The third in our occasional series on the ecological sciences looks at biodiversity and the extinction of species. What is biodiversity and why is it important? What do the numbers tell us about how much of it we're losing and why?

Answering these and other question is Dr. Peter Raven, an active member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and one of the world's leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. For four decades until 2010, Dr. Raven headed the Missouri Botanical Garden, an institution he nurtured into a world-class center for botanical research and education and horticultural display. Described by Time magazine as a "Hero for the Planet," Dr. Raven champions research around the world to preserve endangered plants and is a leading advocate for conservation and a sustainable environment.
Dr. Peter Raven
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden

In recognition of his work in science and conservation, Dr. Raven is the recipient of numerous prizes. He also served for twelve years as home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and is a member of the academies of science in Argentina, Brazil, China, Denmark, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, the U.K., and several other countries. The author of numerous books and reports, both popular and scientific, Dr. Raven co-wrote "Biology of Plants," an internationally best-selling textbook, now in its sixth edition. He also co-authored "Environment," a leading textbook on the environment.

CE: What exactly is biodiversity and why is it important?

Dr. Raven: Biodiversity is the total diversity of all plants, animals, fungi, of all life forms making up the living systems on Earth. And it’s all the variations within these systems, genetic and otherwise, such as how various environments make similar organisms look different and grow differently.

This diversity is important for several reasons. Fundamentally, we depend entirely on the planet’s living systems for survival. We’re a part of these systems and we cannot exist without them. The better we understand how the systems of life work, the more sustainably we can live. The less we know, the more likely we’re going to continue causing irreparable damage to Earth’s ecosystems.

We should think of all life forms as the endowment of our earth—it’s what we've been given. We have a moral obligation to understand life and manage the systems of life sustainably. In Genesis 2, verse 15, it is written “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” How well are we doing with that mandate to care for the earth, written at a time when the total number of humans on this planet was less than ten percent of what it is now?

Practically speaking, all food comes from plants, directly or indirectly. Ninety percent of our food relies on just over one hundred types of plants. The concern is what happens when we see continued losses of plant species. It’s estimated that one-third of all of the estimated 425,000 kinds of plants could disappear in six or seven decades, which would be about the same percentage of extinction as we estimate for other organisms.

Also, two-thirds of the people in the world depend directly on plants as medicine, many of them in China and India. And about a quarter of our prescription drugs were discovered from plants or are still extracted from them. Of course, we've only looked at a small proportion of the plants.

Tambopata River in the Peruvian Amazon
Photo: Flicker/kingjn
And so the ability to maintain these species is for our benefit—but protecting the various forms of life in the biosphere is something we ought to do just for their beauty and for the joy they bring to our lives. What right do we have to destroy them?

CE: What should people know about the findings of research into biodiversity loss and species extinction?

Dr. Raven: Species are disappearing more rapidly than they have in past 65 million years—and the rate is accelerating. And we’re causing this increase in a number of ways: the destruction of natural habitats; bringing invasive species into ecosystems;  climate change, all caused by a combination of our own population growth and even more rapidly rising consumption levels; and destructive technologies, which drive the overall rate of extinction. In consideration of these factors, a very high rate of extinction is unavoidable. There are three people on earth for every one person who was alive when I was born in the mid-1930s!

CE: How do researchers determine rates of extinction—how do we know species are disappearing so quickly?

First we study the fossil record to determine rates of extinction over very long periods of time, using kinds of organisms that are well represented in the fossil record. We also have some five hundred years of printed books. There is lots we can learn from what’s been written down over those centuries. And then we look around and see which species aren't there anymore. In comparing all this data, we can measure trends and easily conclude the rate of extinction is several orders of magnitude higher than what it has been historically.

CE: It sometimes seems that when asked about ecological problems, people often think first of climate change, running out of fresh water, and water or air pollution as issues of primary concern. Do you believe that issues of biodiversity are given the attention that they are due? Or are they so linked with other issues that any discussion of environmental damage ultimately speaks to losses in biodiversity?

Dr. Raven: Biodiversity and species loss can be difficult to grasp. The concept of so many species, most of which you never see, disappearing, is a kind of abstraction. It’s difficult for people to get excited about something that just doesn't seem to come into focus in their daily lives.

CE: Where has research focused in the past decade and why?

Dr. Raven: There’s a few important areas. One area being researched is in trying to inventory species, to the extent that it can be done. Not counting bacteria, which no one can estimate, there are probably more than twelve million species on Earth—plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms taken together—and not quite two million have even been recognized and named. And so researchers are trying to build up this list, focusing on groups that are obvious—butterflies, mammals, birds, and mosquitoes, which are important to know about since they are so effective at spreading diseases. By studying these relatively well-known groups we can gain a picture of the pattern of distribution of life on earth. And we’re also trying to get sampling of less obvious groups of life, too, to round out the picture. We can do this partly by comparing their patterns of abundance and distribution with those about which we know much more.

We’re also studying the functioning of ecosystems, in aggregate. Specifically how energy from sun is transferred through algae, plants, and other organisms, and how these systems interact with the water cycle, the cycling of minerals from the non-living world to the living one, and all the ways in which such interactions lead to the smooth function of ecosystems.

There is also a lot of research in the metabolism and genetic characteristics of organisms, to see how they function and how they may be modified for agriculture. Such modifications to the molecular makeup of the organisms can take place in any number of ways, one of which is genetic modification. There is a lot of discussion about this but most scientists are comfortable that genetic modification is not dangerous. In general, climate change and the increased need for food—an estimated one billion people are malnourished now, and our overall population is projected to grow from the current 7.2 billion to 11 billion at the end of the century—will require us to intensify our research into agriculture and improve our agricultural practices greatly.

CE: What can future research help us better understand?

Dr. Raven: In a practical sense we’d like to see as many kinds of organisms as possible be preserved for the future, and to keep as much of their genetic variation as we can as well. That would involve a lot more effort than currently underway. The pressure on the biosphere is enormous already, and then you add our population increase and climate change, it will be increasingly difficult for us to maintain our stock of biodiversity in as complete a state as possibly. In the light of these trends, it is of enormous importance for the preservation of human civilization in the future to save as many organisms as we can, especially those of obvious and particular importance for the functioning of their ecosystems, or for us for special reasons—such as their role in food or medicine, for example.

CE: What steps can governments, civil associations, and individuals take to respond to issues of biodiversity loss?

Dr. Raven: People can learn more about how their actions impact global sustainability. A particularly useful reference for learning is the website of the Global Footprint Network.

We must all think much more internationally than we do now. People can learn continuously, to keep their knowledge up to date, about what is happening to the biosphere and then act on what they come to understand. They can teach their children about biodiversity. Most children are very interested in plants and animals when they are young but they often move on to other considerations as they get older.

Governments can take a wide variety of actions. They can preserve land; develop policies to stop burning inefficient fuels; they can encourage switching to more sustainable methods of food production; they can learn more about organisms in their own borders, and encourage other nations to do the same. They can sponsor many forms of consumption that are less destructive than the ones that are widespread now

The world’s poor will clearly suffer the most because of losses in biodiversity. Their habitats are typically the ones decimated, their agricultural systems deteriorating, the wild plants and animals on which they depend decreases in abundance and all of the conditions of their lives changing for reasons over which they have no control. The situation is plainly morally unacceptable. It’s more than just the effect on indigenous peoples; it’s a matter of the plight of poor people in general that we need to consider.

Especially disadvantaged are often women and children, who in many societies are not brought in to the power structures and given the opportunity to contribute what they could to our overall benefit. When you have more than one hundred million people worldwide at the edge of starvation at any given time, small changes to ecosystems have big impacts. Our consumption levels in the industrialized world, our expectation of an ever-growing prosperity, are increasing based on importing goods from countries less fortunate than ours, and will be even more so in the future if we continue on the present track.This is simply, in a Biblical sense, not taking care to the slightest degree of those less fortunate than ourselves.

CE: What has been your greatest frustration in both researching and teaching this (or related) topics?

Dr. Raven: People are preoccupied by daily life. They don’t take time to reflect on how as a group they impact the larger world. Politicians don’t like to be unpopular, and telling people the truth about their collective effects on the functioning of the earth and what would need to be done, partly by much stronger cooperation between nations than we enjoy now, will always be unpopular. People naturally want more and more for themselves and their families, but when there are so very many of us with such high and ever-increasing demands, it just doesn't work.

One tragic aspect of our lives is that people operate as if their possibilities for consumption are unlimited. This has to change. We need alternate kinds of economies that do not depend on endless growth in a world that cannot support such growth. We need to develop a lot more concern and love for all the people of the earth. Without such changes, there is no hope of solving the enormous problems that we are facing together.

Of course, we will eventually live sustainably, because there is no other option: we can’t go on indefinitely, the way we are. The question is, how much will be left after we consume so much? How much of the world, the joy of the world, has already been decimated and lost permanently? And how much more beautiful, more prosperous, more joyful can it be if we get busy and understand what we’re doing and preserve what we have now to a much greater degree than we might otherwise?

CE: What has been your greatest joy in your work?

Dr. Raven: People are starting to appreciate the problem more and more.

In the 1950s, very few people were concerned about the need for conserving natural resources or biodiversity. And if you think about it, it’s only been a short time since we had wide open frontiers, when everything seemed endless. Now we’re realizing the importance of individual responsibility. People have been taking action as we know more about species losses and see the results of our lifestyles. At the end, it’s a Biblical lesson—concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, moderation in our own lives, conserving rather than destroying. It’s just that the need for applying such principles has become so much greater.

CE: Lastly, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

Dr. Raven: Scientists and scientific findings should be taken seriously. When it comes to issues like climate change or genetically modified foods, scientists should be allowed to let the data say what it says. They operate according to well established standards that continually examine and verify or disprove their conclusions. When data enters into politics, truth becomes opinion and opinions are often based on wishful thinking or the desire to avoid disagreeable actions or taking difficult steps. If such opinions are given a footing equal to that of tested scientific hypotheses, we putting ourselves in real danger at a time in world history when we simply cannot afford to do so.

People often don’t naturally want to do what they have to when they accept what science is telling us about our lifestyles. People don’t always want to think about the future. But you have to when the science is showing us what will happen if we stay on our present course.

Science doesn't tell you not to jump off thirty-story building. It just says what will happen if you do.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Data Series #2: Global sustainability and "the impact of our choices"

We continue our series of interviews with scientists studying humanity's impact on the planet.

Helping us understand the topic of sustainability is Robert (Bob) Brinkmann, Director of Sustainability Studies at Hofstra University and the Director of Sustainability Research at the National Center for Suburban Studies. He is also a consultant with the United Nations on sustainability issues. 

In addition, Dr. Brinkmann is a professor in Hofstra University's Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability. He chairs the Board of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute and is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies. His new book, Florida Sinkholes: Science and Policy, will be published this year and is available from the University of Press of Florida here. Born in 1961, Dr. Brinkmann is a native of Wisconsin.

Dr. Robert Brinkmann

Catholic Ecology: The word "sustainability" is used more and more frequently among environmentalists and policy makers. What is sustainability?

Dr. Brinkmann: Sustainability is basically using resources today so that they are around for future generations. It is an outgrowth of the conservation movement of the 20th century. However, it encompasses elements of environment, economic development, and social justice. In the past, most conservation professionals were focused on protecting the environment. Now, we are concerned with not only the environment, but also with ensuring that our actions are fair and provide reasonable economic opportunities.

Sustainability grew in reaction to the globalization trends of the 80's and 90's. We saw widespread expansion of economic opportunities during this time. However, we also saw widespread environmental degradation and pollution as well as an expansion of economic disparities.

It is important to note that sustainability science relies on quantitative analysis of success. For many years environmentalists were criticized as "tree huggers" because we were emotionally connected to the environment and didn't have strong science to back up our activism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tree hugger. I'm one. However, our modern sustainability science allows us to measure the impacts of our actions on the planet and model our actions to understand how they will impact us for generations.

CE: It sounds like sustainability is often considered to be a large-scale realitythe choices made by governments and companies and communities. How would the average persona home or small business ownerthink about sustainability in their own lives?

Dr. Brinkmann: There is that old phrase, "think globally, act locally." That is so true today in our smaller and smaller world. We can each make individual choices that allow us to live more simply and in tune with nature. We do not have to buy into the consumerist tendencies in our culture that encourage us to buy more and more. I think it is also important to be a good example for others. We should teach our skills, get involved in our community, write, and help others.

Some simple day-to-day things we can do might include: drive less, plant a garden, reduce the waste you produce, and volunteer to help others. Try to measure the impact you are having in these choices. How much less gas did you consumer over the year? How much food did you produce? How many hours did you volunteer?

As far as small businesses, there are so many options! I think one of the most important things that a business can do is to look at the nature of their business to try to find ways to limit their impact on the environment through all actions. There are many consultants that will help green small businesses. Plus, there are also lots of professional networking organizations that will help. Some communities have green small business certifications as well.

CE: What does the data show about how various nations are factoring sustainability into their policies, laws, and educational systems? And what obstacles are they finding?

Dr. Brinkmann: I've been looking at the range of sustainability practices taking place around the world for a project I am doing with the United Nations and it is really impressive to see how much work there is around the world on sustainability. Overall, most nations are looking at things like life expectancy, improvement of education, and reduction of poverty. They are also making significant strides on things like ensuring biodiversity and building sustainable development policies within national priorities. Indeed, most nations have developed reports outlining their progress.

The biggest obstacle, especially for the poorer nations, is funding. For example, how does one move toward green energy in some nations when they do not have funds to invest in an updated grid system or the solar or wind farms that will supply the energy. We certainly face these issues in the United States, so you can imagine how difficult it is in the developing world.

CE: Are there any common themes among the nations?

Dr. Brinkmann: Besides the ones mentioned above, most nations are heavily focused on building green energy and a sustainable and healthy water supply. Most of the nations are also looking toward the focus on sustainability as a form of economic development. We've done this here in the United States to a certain extent by investing in solar and wind farms. Many are also concerned with ensuring that all of their citizens are engaged with sustainable development to ensure that it is fair and equitable.

CE: What are some of the striking differences?

Dr. Brinkmann: I think that the most striking difference is actually in the U.S. We are one of the few nations of the world that doesn't have a strong sustainability program. We have it somewhat fragmented in the different cabinet offices of the United States, but we really don't have strong national goals like other nations. I'm not saying we don't have individual goals in things like green energy, but we don't approach sustainability comprehensively. As a result, the best approaches to sustainability planning and management are at the local or national level. That is why we see that individual cities or states are very focused on things like setting goals for greenhouse gas reduction or improving access to healthy food.

CE: Does the data show if cultural world views impact a nation's engagement on sustainability?

Dr. Brinkmann: Absolutely. There are a few nations of the world that are not fully engaged with the modern sustainability movement because they see it as a new form of capitalist oppression. However, by far, most nations are involved with sustainability in some way and many have developed their own unique approaches. There are two great examples. Bhutan, for instance, has developed a sustainability index called the Gross National Happiness Index. The indicators that focus more on social justice and quality of life. The Canadian approach to measuring sustainability includes a range of standard indicators associated with environment, equity, and environmental protection. But it also includes things like access to live entertainment and national parks as well as reduction of diseases associated with the West, like diabetes. Many nations have developed individualized sustainability indicators and plans that fit their needs and that reflect their culture.

CE: China and India are getting a lot of attention as fast-growing nations seeking to employ millions by adopting Western industrial economies. This is causing significant environmental issues. What has your work shown about sustainability thought in those nations?

Dr. Brinkmann: Both of these nations are rapidly developing and are confronting the issues of development faced in the 1950's and 1960's in the United States. I do research in China and I have found that China is getting very serious about sustainable development. One of the challenges that China faces, however, is that they do not have a strong history of non-profit activity or social activism. We know that in the U.S., these are major drivers of environmental policy. In China, most of the environmental policy is coming directly from the government that also encourages economic development. It will be interesting to see how the environmental institutions evolve in this unique setting.

CE: What was the biggest surprise found in your research?

Dr. Brinkmann: I was surprised by how many sustainability projects are taking place all over the world. We often think that we are leading the way on a number of things in the United States. In this case, we are following the rest of the world. We do some amazing things, but we do not have a comprehensive sustainability vision at the national level. We are much more fragmented in our approach.

CE: If you had to give an award to the nation with the best sustainable practices, which would it be?

Dr. Brinkmann: I would actually give it to New York City. While not a nation, I think that your readers would get a better understanding about the way that sustainability is actualized by taking a look at New York's sustainability plan here. It is highly quantitative and addresses the major themes of sustainability. Think what we could do if we had a national conversation about this!

CE: What else would you like to add?

Dr. Brinkmann: I think that some in the United States do not like the concept of sustainability because they look at it as a big government thing. I suppose in some way it is. We have big problems like climate change that are huge that must be managed by large organizations. Governments are the only way we know how to do this quickly. Governments are also key to funding the type of research that needs to go forward to understand how to deal with complex global problems. Plus many of the issues with sustainability are already managed by the government: agricultural policy, transportation policy, energy policy. 

I think a better way of thinking about sustainability for those who are nervous about more government is to think about how we can change our government to do better. Do governments really need to build more roads or do we need to build more sustainable transportation options? Do we need to subsidize big agricultural companies or do we need to subsidize the small farmer? Do we need to subsidize dirty energy or subsidize green energy? It is not about building more government. Instead it is getting our governments to refocus resources on the issues that will allow us to have a more sustainable future.

I also want to stress that it's not all about government. It is about changing our lifestyle from the hyper consumer world we live in into a more intentional thoughtful life that examines our role in the world and the impacts of our choices.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Stealing places, ecosystems, and humanity

Jack (Tom Cruise), a human survivor of an alien invasion, watches Earth's oceans taken for energy. "Oblivion" (Universal Pictures, 2013)

Science fiction is keen on plots with aliens attacking Earth and taking its resources. In the recent film "Oblivion," for instance, Tom Cruise plays a character that learns the hard way what happens when Earth is invaded, leveled, and stripped of its oceans for someone else’s consumption. Tragically, this sort of thing has happened and is happening now—not by extraterrestrial monsters but by human cultures inserting themselves into other human cultures. The stronger invade the weaker, desecrate their land, and kill them off.

As my European heritage has benefited from the conquest of the indigenous people of North America, I suppose my credibility goes only so far in bringing up this topic. Still, after blogging on the words of Pope Francis to the bishops of Brazil to protect the Amazon Basin, a regular contributor at the Facebook page Catholic Social Thought, Politics, and the Public Square chastised me for not mentioning the matter of indigenous peoples. He was right to do so because the issue must be faced and addressed.

While it is little reported, there have been of late continued and heightened conquests of native people in South and Central America, much as there was in the North in the past few centuries. To satiate the desires of consumers like you, me, and many millions more, governments, industries, and illegal loggers are taking what little land is left from native peoples. 

A recent report by Salil Shetty of Amnesty International tells the story better than I can: 
The Indigenous Peoples of Brazil have been waiting a quarter of a century to get their land back. That was when Brazil’s federal authorities made a promise to protect and restore the land used by the country's Indigenous communities. 
Instead, those 25 years have taken a horrible toll – both on the communities and on the land. In Mato Grosso do Sul, what were hectares of forest with incredible diversity are now fields of sugar cane and soy beans. There are fields upon fields of these crops as far as the eye can see, broken intermittently by a small patch of forest. 
Here corporate players call the shots. Indigenous Peoples are left to live on the margins - literally.  I visited a small community called the Guarani-Kaiowá, who live between the barbed wire fence that surrounds a cane field and a major road. 
Their leaders welcomed me, but their words of anger, frustration and grief were drowned out by the nearly continuous roar of trucks travelling at high speed along the road.
Their tales of suffering are alarming, yet sadly not unusual. Just this year, a small boy in the community was struck by a car as he walked along the road, hand-in-hand with his grandmother—the fifth family member she had lost.
Indigenous leaders in July 2012 plead to stop
the construction of the Belo Monte dam. 
Photo: Flicker/ International Rivers 
Attacks on members of Indigenous communities are routine in Brazil. Community leaders are often targeted, members disappear and activists are particularly at risk, but virtually none of the perpetrators are brought to justice.
These land grabs aren't only for agriculture. Powerful economic forces also want these places for hydropower. Global Voice reports a few weeks ago that 
[t]he fight continues between the Brazilian government pushing to bring another hydroelectric dam to the Tapajós river basin in the Brazilian Amazon and the indigenous Munduruku people who live there. In the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Pará, where many indigenous people live, there are 11 hydroelectric plants in different stages of construction and licensing, including the controversial Belo Monte dam. Other areas in the region are undergoing environmental surveys to plan future development. The dams are being built to feed much-needed power to the country as it undergoes tremendous economic growth.
While there is sometimes good newslike yesterday's judicial suspension to prevent the eviction of indigenous peoples for the construction of the Belo Monte damn, or the recent efforts by Brazil's army to halt illegal loggingthe suffering continues as the rest of us go about our business of consuming. It would seem that a great many of us have become something like those nightmarish Hollywood extraterrestrials that invade Earth and drain it of its air, water, minerals, and humanity.

Photo: Flicker/ International Rivers
Of course, such ends are what the pontiffs have been warning of—even if few listen, or when those who do listen then demand more than words, as if pontiffs have worldly armies at their commands. Pontiffs, as bishops, have the role to teach and exhort the faithful. Then the faithful, with God’s grace, must go and love the world to new life.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI quotes from his 2008 Message for World Peace Day and teaches us that 
[o]n this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself—God's gift to his children—and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.” Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment. It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.
Are these mere academic words? Hardly. They are a rallying cry for the greater good of all mankind. They are a remedy to thwart an evil that increasingly strips the planet of its eco-systems as it strips human beings of their homes, their dignity, and their lives.

In acknowledging and confronting this evil, the Church has a significant role to play.

Pope Francis in Rio for World Youth Day. 
Photo: Flicker/BostonCatholic
Certainly,the Church is already present in the Amazon, as we have seen in the lives of people like Sister Dorothy Stang, who was shot to death for defending the ecosystems and people of the Amazon, as well as Cláudio Cardinal Hummes, O.F.M., whom the pope mentioned in his talk last month to Brazil's bishops. The Church is providing aid, oversight, and works of mercy, even if this comes at great risk. 

But increasing this presence is what Pope Francis meant when he urge the bishops of Brazil to protect the Amazon. He wasn't just speaking of forests. He also meant the indigenous peoples who call those forests home.

I'll be posting more on this in the weeks and months (and years?) to come. But for moment, on this Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—when we celebrate the divine love for creation and for us, its human creatures—let us pray in a special way that the Triune God may bless the indigenous peoples of Brazil and in so many other places. May He protect them and keep them safe from those of us who consume far too much. And may He inspire and strengthen all people with His grace so that we may not only consume less, but also offer the world more of His truth, justice, mercy, and, of course, sacrificial love.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, pray for us.
Saint Katherine Drexel, pray for us.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
Health of the sick, pray for us.
Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us.

All you holy men and women, pray for us.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

10 ways Catholics can protect the environment

I’ve written often about the Catholic spiritual influence on ecology, but how can Catholics put the spiritual into practice?

This post provides a partial answer. Your ideas will build on what's here and I’ll add similar lists as more ideas come my way.

For now, here are “10 Ways Catholics Can Protect the Environment”

10: Get a home energy audit—and do what they suggest

A theme in many of these suggestions is that being good to the environment can also save money. Most local utilities offer free or low-cost energy audits. They may even offer financial assistance to help install efficient boilers, water heaters, and lighting, as well as better insulation. Local and state governments may also offer tax benefits for this work. Such assistance is often provided for homes and larger structures such as schools, churches, and parish centers. Private companies offer the same services, often as part of a home improvement project. Just make sure that they are reputable (insured, bonded, etc) and not selling you anything that you don’t need.

You should also explore how you can benefit from renewable energy—either produced at your home (or parish) form solar panels or wind turbines, or from green energy bought by your electrical utility. No matter how you go about using less fossil fuel-based energy or more renewable energy, and no matter how small you start, making your home more efficient is fun and satisfying. You'll not only save on utility bills but you’ll also help reduce various forms of pollution and demand fewer resources. The US Department of Energy offers helpful information about all this on their website and in this video.

9: Go natural outside

Whether you own your own home or can provide input to an apartment complex or condo association, using organic gardening products and methods keep you from adding toxins to the natural environmentand to your family’s bodies. Many products that feed gardens and kill weeds and pests come with harmful side effects to people, pets, and innocent creatures that actually benefit yards and ecosystems. And they don't just stay outside. You can bring residual toxins into your home on your shoes when you walk outside and then come inside. One large problem is recent news about how certain pesticides are killing honey bees, which farmers rely on to produce the food we all eat. Pesticides from farms and yards can end up in water supplies, and this has tragic effects on the born and unborn. The “Organic Gardening” magazine website has lots of information (unfortunately along with pop-up ads for its magazine) but there are many other sites and resources, too. You may want to call your local master gardener association (here is a list for the United States) or look for talks or classes on organic gardening. Once you switch you’ll be glad you did—and so will the people, pets, and many of the critters around you.

8. Compost, compost, compost

My grandmother raised a family during the Great Depression and she taught me the benefits of composting kitchen and yard wastes. Composting not only helps your local landfill by reducing what you toss out, you’ll be creating a free source of high quality, nutrient loaded soil amendment. And as always, there is plenty of information online to help.

7.  Reduce or get rid of your lawn

The American penchant for big, green lawns come with big impacts on the green in our wallets. Lawns also demand much from our local water utilities. Cutting all that grass usually means gas-powered engines that in total emit lots of air pollution. So consider reducing the size of your lawn by adding large areas of border, mounded, and raised bed gardens. You might even convert your entire lawn into a vegetable garden, turning your yard into a flowery, food-producing conversation piece for the neighborhood. (Sadly, some local ordinances prohibit this. If so, that's something else you can do: seek to change such rules.) And don’t forget to add a statue of St. Francis—or the reasons that Catholics have them.  More on yard gardens here from someone who does it, and the reasons why. (This video has bonus footage on using rain barrels!) The helpful Front Yard Farmer website is here.

6. Eat Local

While most of us can’t raise all our food on our front yards, we can support local farmers. It makes sense to do so because the most nutritious fruits and vegetables are the freshest—and that means local. Family farmers (especially the organic ones) bring more to a community besides fresh food—they very often provide educational and recreational activities as well. And they’re just pleasant to drive by. Local farms don’t need huge quantities of gasoline to ship their produce from their fields to your fridge. And that helps reduce air pollution, most notably carbon emissions. Moreover, local farms are more dependable in case of labor strikes or other stoppages of interstate traffic. So find out where your local farms are. Ask your supermarket to carry local fruits, vegetables, and dairy items. And find out what may be restricting local farms from thriving financially. Local tax structures or sprawling suburbs often put unnecessary pressures on farms. Help identify and change any anti-farming cultures in your community, because everyone benefits from loving and supporting your neighboring farmers.

5. Abstain from meat on Friday’s—and as often as you can

The Catholic practice to abstain from meat one day a week has a secular counterpart: Meatless Mondays. But I’ll stick with Fridays—and with other forms of Friday abstinence to remain mindful of what Christ did for us. The penitential practice of abstaining from meat one day a week also comes with significant environmental benefits. Modern forms of factory meat production are often dirty and they require huge amounts of grain and water, which could otherwise feed and hydrate people, or perhaps not even be needed at all. The less meat we demand, the less slaughter house pollution we contribute and the less natural landscapes we convert into pasture. 

Taking this up a notch, I respect my vegetarian friends (who do not eat meat) and those that are vegans (who do not eat any animal product, including eggs and dairy products). A local Catholic priest here in the Diocese of Providence quietly goes about his vegan lifestyle. But when asked about it, he provides powerful words and witness as to why he won’t eat “anything with a face.” While many of us will cut back on our meat intake, we may not completely remove it from our diets. If so, then we should at least buy our meat at local family farms (if available) or markets that buy from environmentally friendly meat suppliers.

4. Drive less and in a more efficient vehicle

For many of us, our commuting needs are not easily attenuated. But when we can drive less—when we walk or bike, or use mass transit, or carpool—we not only save on gas; we also reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and that brings environmental and health benefits. And when you do drive, make sure your car is tuned up and that your tires are inflated properly. This helps use less gas. When buying a new car, consider a high-efficiency one or a hybrid.

3. Take the St. Francis Pledge

Much of the above (and below) is wrapped up in the St. Francis Pledge. It’s a wonderful way to reflect on the impacts of our lifestyles, especially as they relate to the issue of climate change. Dioceses, parishes, and individual can take the pledge and encourage others to do so. The pledge comes from our friends at the Catholic Climate Covenant and it asks us to do the following: Pray and reflect on the duty to care for God’s Creation and protect the poor and vulnerable. Learn about and educate others on the causes and moral dimensions of climate change. Assess how we-as individuals and in our families, parishes and other affiliations-contribute to climate change by our own energy use, consumption, waste, etc. Act to change our choices and behaviors to reduce the ways we contribute to climate change. And Advocate for Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable. Take the pledge here.

2. Get the parish and diocese on board

Everything in this post can be done on parish levels—and diocesan, too. You’ll need a committed group of parishioners to tackle the nuances of implanting much of all this. But the benefits of becoming an environmentally friendly parish and diocese are significant. There are certainly good reasons to use less energy or other resources, or to have a parish garden that can help feed the poor. Becoming a green parish will foster a healthier, more educated family of faith. You can also get some local attention—and that can help in this age of New Evangelization. 

1. Pray

The fruits of our labor will set, grow, and multiply only with the grace of God. The environmental issues of our age are immense. Our individual reductions of raw resources and the wastes that we produce will make a difference on a local level. But to make sizable changes to the demands on our planet—on what we take from it and how we may degrade or wipe out its ecosystems—then we need help. Global ecological crises are global symptoms of human sin. And to tackle sin we will need prayer and sacramental grace. And so Catholic ecologists must pray for the conversions of heart needed by mankind; we must offer Masses for the intention of a more temperate society; we must spend time before the Blessed Sacrament seeking divine assistance to build a world that seeks first the kingdom of God rather than one that demands gluttonous amounts of the things of earth. In other words, if we authentically work for the good of the planet, we'll find ourselves also helping to save souls. 

Okay, those are some of my thoughts. There's lots more to add. But what are yours? What should we add to this list?