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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

St. Ignatius and the need for Catholic spirituality

Photo: Flicker/ by Lawrence OP
"This disquiet comes from within and not from without … if you do not change the interior man, you will never do good. And you will everywhere be the same, unless you succeed in being humble, obedient, devout, and mortified in your self-love. This is the only change you should seek. I mean that you should try to change the interior man and lead him back like a servant to God."  Excerpt from Ignatius of Loyola’s letter to Bartolomeo Romano.

Today’s Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)—the founder of the Jesuit Order—is a good day to consider what Catholic thought can and must bring to discussions of ecological crises.

I was reminded of this at work yesterday while listening to a webinar on the relation between sustainability and security—how the causes and impacts of ecological ills often result from or lead to social unrest or military actions. It was something of a secular conversation about what the Church calls "human ecology." That is, just as nature has physical laws, it also has laws about being human and living in human communities. What the speakers were saying was that there is a link between these physical laws and their human counterparts—and that is exactly what Benedict XVI is saying in the quote at top.

The speakers raised concerns about how changing environmental and economic realities may cause social disturbances. For instance: As the Arctic melts, who will control new shipping lanes and the resources beneath them? As droughts intensify in economically stressed regions (as they already have), who will control the dwindling sources of water? When worldwide demand for the minerals needed for our electronics results in deadly conditions for miners (as it already has), how long before civil unrest breaks out?

As I listened to the presenters—very intelligent people who hold very impressive positions at very influential organizations—it was clear that while they made some good observations none of them could offer definitive insights about the human person or the common good.

A horrible moment came when someone asked what nations can do to control their populations. The main speaker, an American researcher at a prestigious think tank, said that China’s one-child policy “has worked pretty well.” She quickly admitted that there were some "negative effects" with this policy, but she didn’t sound convinced that they outweighed what she saw as its benefits. 

There was much that I wanted to add. But my responses were rooted in my Catholic faith and, as I was on the state clock, my words would would not have been appreciated.

If I did have the opportunity, I would have echoed the recent words of Ghana’s Peter Cardinal Turkson, who spoke last week about ecology during World Youth Day. It will take an “authentic ‘conversion of heart,’” the cardinal said, to tackle the ecological issues of our age. These words echo those of Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; the latter once noted that to live sustainably, humanity must align our “inner attitudes” with the laws of nature—human and otherwise—which ultimately we can only do with the grace of God.

Here, the spiritual writings and example of St. Ignatius of Loyola have much to teach us. His words in the letter above are worthy of reflection not only in their original sense but also now in the modern context of human over-consumption. Elsewhere, Ignatius pointed to what he called the “discernment of spirits.” The website, a resource by Loyola Press, explains that term this way: 
Discernment of spirits is the interpretation of what St. Ignatius Loyola called the “motions of the soul.” These interior movements consist of thoughts, imaginings, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions. Spiritual discernment of spirits involves becoming sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.
 Elsewhere it adds, 
Ignatius believed that these interior movements were caused by “good spirits” and “evil spirits.” We want to follow the action of a good spirit and reject the action of an evil spirit. Discernment of spirits is a way to understand God’s will or desire for us in our life.
Talk of good and evil spirits may seem foreign to us. Psychology gives us other names for what Ignatius called good and evil spirits. Yet Ignatius’s language is useful because it recognizes the reality of evil. Evil is both greater than we are and part of who we are. Our hearts are divided between good and evil impulses. To call these “spirits” simply recognizes the spiritual dimension of this inner struggle.
After a cursory review of Ignatian spirituality—which I first read about for an early post on Pope Francis—I am certain that such spiritual considerations could have added much to that webinar about sustainability and security. True security comes not from raw human will but from our will aligned with God’s—our nature elevated by His grace.

Consider for a moment the greed and gluttony that fuels so much ecological harm. And then consider what St. Ignatius had to say about his concepts of “spiritual desolation” and “spiritual desolation.”

Again, according to, spiritual desolation is 
an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil. We are assaulted by all sorts of doubts, bombarded by temptations, and mired in self-preoccupations. We are excessively restless and anxious and feel cut off from others. Such feelings, in Ignatius’s words, “move one toward lack of faith and leave one without hope and without love.” 
Contrasting this is spiritual consolation, which is 
an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can. Spiritual consolation encourages and facilitates a deep sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, mercy, and companionship in our life. In consolation, we feel more alive and connected to others.
I am convinced that it will only be such spiritual exercises—and the growth and transformation that they offer—that, with the grace of God, will save us from ourselves. 

Government policies and laws can do much good when rightly ordered. But there is no guarantee that they will be rightly ordered and even when they are they can only take us so far, and not far enough.

Catholic ecologists cannot shy away from this truth: Our salvation comes only from Christ. The sooner this good news is shared and lived the sooner we can tackle the environmental crises that are here now and that are coming our way.

And so on this feast day, let us pray that the whole world can and will listen to voices like those of St. Ignatius, Cardinal Turkson, Bl. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and especially Christ—for He is the only way, truth, and life that can make our lives sustainable, secure, and eternal.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cardinal Turkson: “Conversion of heart” needed to respect nature

Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson is making news with comments that link ecology and human life. In a talk he gave in Rio de Janeiro to the group Creatio, the cardinal echoed the words of Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, saying that the environmental crises of our age can only be addressed by an "authentic 'conversion of heart.'”

The Catholic News Agency has the full report, some of which is below. Read the cardinal’s words and then consider offering a decade of the Rosary in thanks for his good work and for a global reception of the truth he speaks.

While you’re at it, please share his words abundantly. Everyone needs to encourage the conversion of hearts that will be necessary for saving ecosystems, human lives, and, ultimately, souls.

Here's the opening of the CNA report:
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jul 30, 2013.  
(CNA/EWTN News).- Respect for the environment is a matter of justice, connected to respect for human life and founded upon our relationship with God and his creation, said Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
“The concern for the earth must go in tandem – side-by-side – with concern for human life itself,” he said.
The cardinal, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke last week to a group of pilgrims at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
He delivered the keynote address at a conference hosted by Creatio, a group that seeks to address environmental problems by promoting reconciliation between humans and creation.
“I think it's very providential that we're gathered here in Rio,” he said, noting that the city has hosted prominent United Nations environmental meetings, dealing with sustainability and solidarity with past and future generations.
Cardinal Turkson discussed environmental issues in the context of Catholic social teaching. While it is sometimes said that the Church's social teaching began with Pope Leo XIII, the cardinal rejected this claim, explaining instead that Pope Leo formalized principles that had always been in place.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pope to Brazil's bishops: Protect the Amazon

During the last full day of World Youth Day 2013, Pope Francis gave his most notable mention of the environment thus far not to the millions of young pilgrims but to the local bishops.

Moreover, this environmental mention was not some passing reference about one issue among many. As with his predecessors, Pope Francis hammered home the importance of the Church’s place in ecological protection with this exhortation: how the Brazilian church deals with the Amazon Basin is nothing less than a “litmus test” of its overall effectiveness.

Given that most of the nations that make up the Amazon Basin have a Catholic majority, it seems a fair question: Just what should the Church do that it is not already doing to slow the gluttonous evisceration and social injustices of this globally important ecosystem?

Here are the pontiff’s words within a section of his address called “The Amazon Basin as a litmus test for Church and society in Brazil.”
There is one final point on which I would like to dwell, which I consider relevant for the present and future journey not only of the Brazilian Church but of the whole society, namely, the Amazon Basin. The Church’s presence in the Amazon Basin is not that of someone with bags packed and ready to leave after having exploited everything possible. The Church has been present in the Amazon Basin from the beginning, in her missionaries and religious congregations, and she is still present and critical to the area’s future. I think of the welcome which the Church in the Amazon Basin is offering even today to Haitian immigrants following the terrible earthquake which shook their country.
I would like to invite everyone to reflect on what [Our Lady of ] Aparecida said about the Amazon Basin, its forceful appeal for respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden. In considering the pastoral challenge represented by the Amazon Basin, I have to express my thanks for all that the Church in Brazil is doing: the Episcopal Commission for the Amazon Basin established in 1997 has already proved its effectiveness and many dioceses have responded readily and generously to the appeal for solidarity by sending lay and priestly missionaries. I think Archbishop Jaime Chemelo, a pioneer in this effort, and Cardinal Hummes, the current President of the Commission. But I would add that the Church’s work needs to be further encouraged and launched afresh. There is a need for quality formators, especially professors of theology, for consolidating the results achieved in the area of training a native clergy and providing priests suited to local conditions and committed to consolidating, as it were, the Church’s “Amazonian face”.

Photo: Flicker/Threat to Democracy
The Holy Father was certainly referring to more than just the natural environment. He was also dealing with pressing social and ecclesial realities. But this strong blending of an environmental issue with such others is not surprising given that—as Pope Benedict XVI and Bl. John Paul II have noted—there is a link between the natural world and respect for the human person. 

With this link firmly infused within Catholic thought, the pontiff (a chemist by education) could easily hold aloft the response to the terrible destruction within the Amazon Basin as a litmus test of the will and the ways of the Church of Brazil.

Likewise, the handling of other and related environmental crises are also litmus tests of the will and the ways of local churches across the globe.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Cassini images: Are we insignificant?

Earth seen from Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

While we wait for what will certainly be some important World Youth Day eco-messages from Hurricane Francis (as Alejandro Bermudez at the National Catholic Register so wonderfully called him), we would do well to pull our view back for an historic perspective—one about 900 million miles away.

Recently released images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show Earth and our moon from a never-before-seen vantage: from orbit around Saturn. The photos are stunning and, I think, reassuring. Even if our world looks tiny, the view from the sixth planet has much to say about the dignity of human life and of all life on Earth.

But some commentators have tended toward a different take on all this—a telling one because it can sound dismissive of human existence.

 Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
London’s The Daily Mail headlined their story describing Earth as “[j]ust one small dot.” Michael Zennie, the piece’s author, noted that “Earth appears as an insignificant-looking pale blue dot below Saturn's majestic rings ...”

John Van Randowitz said much the same in his AAP piece from Australian News.

Nick Mediati, at, pondered if this all made you feel “insignificant” (there’s that word again). He adds,
It's simultaneously stunning and a little depressing, actually, to think that you exist on nothing more than a tiny, pale dot. Like ants on the sidewalk, almost.
Certainly there was much awe and joy expressed by these and other journalists, bloggers, scientists and regular folk being interviewed. But the undertone of insignificance by so many should trouble us. 

Image Credit: NASA
It is also odd that these images didn’t have the effect on the human race as did the first images of Earth seen from the moon in the 1960s. Those shots brought much jubilation. Perhaps so few enthusiastically received the images from Cassini (a spacecraft named after Giovanni Domenico Cassini, a Catholic astronomer) because so many of us are losing a sense of wonder and awe at what exists beyond our own worlds.

A lack of appreciation for our place in creation does not occur in the Catholic Mass. Especially when the priest elevates the Eucharist for all to see—and when all believers see it and sing their great Amen—the entire congregation (and everyone in Communion with them, on earth and in heaven) share a brief moment of union with God, with each other, and with the cosmos. This includes Saturn, the entire solar system, and all space, time, and matter that twirl about in God’s great creation like farmers at a mid-summer’s barn dance. Nothing in creation, especially life, is insignificant—no matter the perspective.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, (The Sacrament of Charity), Pope Benedict XVI put it this way: 
Christian people, in giving thanks to God through the Eucharist, should be conscious that they do so in the name of all creation, aspiring to the sanctification of the world and working intensely to that end.
 He adds, 
[t]he liturgy itself teaches us this, when, during the presentation of the gifts, the priest raises to God a prayer of blessing and petition over the bread and wine, "fruit of the earth," "fruit of the vine" and "work of human hands." With these words, the rite not only includes in our offering to God all human efforts and activity, but also leads us to see the world as God's creation, which brings forth everything we need for our sustenance. The world is not something indifferent, raw material to be utilized simply as we see fit. Rather, it is part of God's good plan, in which all of us are called to be sons and daughters in the one Son of God, Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1:4-12)
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
From a Catholic perspective, the images from Cassini do not minimize Earth—or its ecosystems or its inhabitants. They remind us that humanity’s physical home is nothing less than the entire universe itself. 

And so anyone who appreciates what the Eucharist offers all creation will not feel a tad insignificant when viewing Cassini’s pictures. They will feel awe. Indeed, with this view, one will more likely value the goodness of all creation and all life—especially human life (born and unborn) and the ecosystems that support human life.

As Benedict XVI noted in  the conclusion of this section in Sacramentum Caritatis, 
The relationship between the Eucharist and the cosmos helps us to see the unity of God's plan and to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the "new creation" inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam. 
And so next time you receive Communion, think of the images from the Cassini spacecraft and remember that the Person you have just received within you is responsible for creating and holding together the entire universe—and none of it would be the same without you.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rage, division meet Bonaventure and lichen

Photo: Flicker/e_monk
It’s been a grim few days here in the States. 

We’re in the midst of ugly division and protests over the George Zimmerman trial, over laws dealing with immigration, and over America’s surveillance programs, here and abroad.

This morning, after reading too much sad news, I said a little prayer to one of the greatest minds of the Church—one who sought not just knowledge, but also peace and unity. It was a fitting morning to pray for his intercession because it is his feast—St. Bonaventure, that is, whom I consider a patron.

As odd as this may sound, I was also comforted by an image of tiny living things on today’s home page at The image was of lichen and it soothed me a great deal.  

Photo: Flicker/ Hapaway
Since I was a boy, a red-tipped type of lichen has been fond of the stockade fence in my backyard. I still find myself peering at it while it sits quietly, doing nothing but being humble in a spectacular sort of way. Today I grew more appreciative of lichen when I learned (again, thanks to Bing) that it is a unity of a fungus and an alga. Two different living entities coming together for a common purpose—a common life.

You can read more about what lichen is here. What is important for this moment is that it offers this age of division lessons about nurturing each other. As humans express their tensions with decreasing dialogue and increasing fury—tools of our ancient enemy, of course—these simple forms of life—so subtle, so easily unnoticed—show us profound truths, ones we had better learn, embrace, and live if we are to avoid terrible trials.

St. Bonaventure 
Photo: Flicket/by Lawrence OP
Providentially, there is something in all this talk of lichen that goes to the teachings of St. Bonaventure. He knew that one way to know God—to know truth—is to contemplate nature. After all, God is the author of our lives and all that we creatures see, touch, and live amongst. To read His signs in nature is to follow a sort of trail to Him.

In his great Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (“Journey of the Mind to God”), Bonaventure wrote:
Now at the Creation, man was made fit for the repose of contemplation, and therefore God placed him in a paradise of delight [Gen., 2, 16]. But turning himself away from the true light to mutable goods, he was bent over by his own sin, and the whole human race by original sin, which doubly infected human nature, ignorance infecting man's mind and concupiscence his flesh. Hence man, blinded and bent, sits in the shadows and does not see the light of heaven unless grace with justice succor him from concupiscence, and knowledge with wisdom against ignorance. All of which is done through Jesus Christ, Who of God is made unto us wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption [I Cor., 1, 30]  (Itinerarium 7)
And then,
There shine forth, however, the Creator's supreme power and wisdom and benevolence in created things …(Itinerarium 10)
And later,
From these visible things, therefore, one mounts to considering the power and wisdom and goodness of God as being, living, and understanding; purely spiritual and incorruptible and immutable ... (Itinerarium 13)
Photo: Flicker/ Heidi Schuyt
In other words, our lost communion with God in Eden echoes in all things. 

Even lichen—this simple and lovely duet of life—shows off God’s supreme power and wisdom. Its existence on wet wooden posts, rocks, and trees can (if we pay attention) teach us about cooperation and humility and much else. 

All we need do is ponder whatever nature has to show us as we journey toward the peaceful unity that God wishes for us all.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Data Series No. 1: On pharmaceuticals and personal care products

Many of my colleagues have lots of information to share—as do the researchers that I work with when writing this blog (or elsewhere) about the Catholic perspective of ecology. It makes sense, then, to bring a little of what they know to you.

And so today, on the Feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, patron of the environment, we begin what I hope to be a series of occasional interviews with those in the know. 

I hope these posts help us better appreciate the work that's being done to understand how man’s actions are impacting ecosystems—and what we can do to make things better.

The inaugural interview is with one of my fellow engineers at the Department of Environmental Management. Sam Kaplan recently published a summary of what science is showing us about the impact on ecosystems of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. It’s a fascinating topic that, as Sam notes, has a great deal more to tell us—especially about human health impacts. But for now, we’ll let Sam tell you the state of the science at present.

Catholic Ecology: Tell us a little about you—your background and what led you to write your paper on pharmaceutical and personal care products.

Sam Kaplan: I've worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as an engineer since 2004 and before that I was a homeland security consultant at the Rhode Island Department of Health. During graduate studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I wrote a journal article manuscript entitled "Review: Pharmacological Pollution in Water." I had heard about pharamcological pollution for the first time when I was at the Department of Health. A coworker who was very forward thinking circulated a news story about fish that had visible mutations which were attributed to the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products ("PPCPs") in the water.

My article summarizes research highlights on all aspects of the topic from approximately 1999 (when research in this field took off due to improved laboratory methods) to 2010. Before I tell you more, I would like to thank the researchers whose work I cited. It is very challenging to do original research about PPCPs because they typically occur in the environmental at the nanogram per liter (ng/L) level. 28 ng/L is one drop of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. Measuring these small doses requires very meticulous sampling and lab work.

Where was the paper published and what reactions have you received?

The paper was published in March of 2013 in "Critical Review in Environmental Science and Technology.” I have not had anyone I did not previously know contact me about the article, but I did find out from Google Scholar that some researchers in China cited my work to provide context for their research, which measured PPCPs in riverbed sediments in China.

What are some of the main themes that you found about the research related to disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products?

PPCPs get into surface water and ground water from via sewage, farms, landfills, and toilet flushing of unused medications. There are some better alternatives to toilet flushing. The best thing to do is to return unused medication to your pharmacy, if they accept it for proper disposal. But most pharmacies don't accept unused medications for liability reasons. Another alternative is to bring medications to collection locations on drug take-back days run by the US Drug Enforcement Agency with the help of law enforcement agencies. Another alternative is to put unused medication in a resealable bag with coffee grounds or kitty litter and place it in the trash. The resealable bag prevents drugs for leaching into groundwater at the landfill, and the coffee grounds or kitty litter makes the drugs less likely to fall into the wrong hands. 

However, if your doctor specifically instructs you to flush the medication, you should take his or her advice because some highly toxic, alergenic, addictive, or controlled substances present a human health hazard that outweighs the environmental consequences. I would add that all of this advice and everything else in this interview is based on my own research, and I am speaking for myself, not my employer.

What is the research not clear about and what do we need to learn? Is any of that research taking place?

The big unanswered question is what, if any, impacts the presence of PPCPs in drinking water is having on human health. As of the time the article was published, there is little evidence to indicate human health impacts, so there should be no cause for alarm. At the same time, I would add that we really don't know what the human health impacts are because any exposure from drinking water would happen at very, very low levels over a lifetime, and conventional risk assessment models for other areas of toxicology focus on short-term acute exposure to high levels of one drug that measure visible effects in the patient. So risk assessment models will have to be developed that are just the opposite: lifetime exposure to many substances with effects that are subtle, hard to measure, and hard to separate out from other stressors.

Research into the human health effects of PPCPs is a subset of research into human health effects of endocrine-disrupting compound (EDCs), natural and synthetic substances which mimic human and animal hormones. About a month ago, I received a call for papers about human health impacts of EDCs and PPCPs, so that's where the focus is now.

What facts surprised you the most as you were assembling this research summary?

In contrast with human heath effects, which, as I noted, are in the process of being researched, there is evidence to indicate a variety of sub-lethal effects on freshwater and marine aquatic life at different levels of the food chain. Let me give two examples which I cited in my article:

  • Saaristo et al. (2010) found that just 41 ng/L of a hormone changed the courtship and parenting behavior of the sand goby fish. These are sublethal impacts, but impacts that could have a detrimental effect on offspring and population. Please keep in mind that 41 ng/L is one and a half drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, so some of these PPCPs are extremely potent to animals who are continuously exposed.
  • Ericson et. al. (2010) performed lab studies on Baltic Sea blue mussels. They exposed these organisms to different levels of three common pharmaceutical PPCPs and evaluated the organisms' responses. They found that the animals physiology was affected in certain portions of the experiment with effects that included muscle weakness, and bioconcentration of these substances in the mussel's tissues at over 100 times ambient levels. Now this may sound like typical experiment, but one surprise finding was that one of the pharmaceutical PPCPs (propranolol, an anti-hypertensive) was found in the mussels gathered from the Baltic Sea for use in the experiment before the experiment even began.

What important facts should people know about how chemicals are impacting local ecologies and human health?

As I said, the human health impacts are unknown, however, there is a lot of evidence to indicate the presence of PPCPs in a wide range of saltwater and freshwater species at many different levels of the foodchain, with sublethal effects quantified is some of those cases. To give a few more examples, Wilson et. al. (2003) found significant differences between algea communities upstream and downstream of a wastewater treatment plant which may be attributable to the presence of PPCPs. Fair et. al. (2009) found one particular PPCP, triclosan, an antimicrobial disinfectant, in the blood plasma of 7 of 26 dolphins evaluated in a catch and release study in coastal regions of South Carolina and Florida. If you include all the species that are or could be affected, over the life cycle of each organisms, over many generations, the impacts could be quite significant, and yet it would be hard to tease out those effects from other environmental stressors, making a definitive evaluation even more difficult. This argument was the thesis of a landmark article by Daughon and Ternes in 1999, and the research I cited provided further evidence of the veracity of that thesis.

The bottom line is that we need to think about ways to reduce our discharge of PPCPs to the environment, but we also have to balance that against the beneficial effect that many of these PPCPs have on human health, and recognize that improving human health is also an important societal goal.

What's the good news, if any, that the research is showing us? 

Research by Dr. Christian Daughton of the US Environmental Protection Agency (2003) indicated that there may be some innovative nonregulatory responses that drug companies can take to voluntarily to reduce the environmental impacts of PPCPs. This falls under the banner of "green chemistry" and includes the development of drugs that are better absorbed by the body, and the use doses of medication that are customized to a drug consumer's physiology, preventing the use of doses that are higher than necessary. In this work, Daughton also suggested things that drug companies and pharmacies could do to make it less likely that drugs would go unused only to be flushed down the toilet later. This includes allowing prescriptions to be filled in lower amounts, like getting 10 pills instead of 30, and developing more exact drug expiration dates. I reached out to Dr. Daughton several times when doing my research and he was very helpful, so I would like to thank him. He put me in touch with people at US EPA in Washington who provided me with information about regulatory developments (which, for the sake of brevity I won't get into) and one person at US EPA even reviewed the entire manuscript on behalf of US EPA.

What else would you like to add?

I want to thank my advisor, Professor John Bergendahl of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He was my instructor for the independant study in which I wrote the article manuscript. Studying this topic was my idea but writing the article was his idea. A good teacher encourages their students to aim high and then go for it, and then supports them in that goal, and that's what he did.

What needs to be done to prevent any harm being caused by pharmaceuticals and personal care products?

At the consumer level, proper drug disposal is part of the solution. It would be great if the drug companies would get on board and start to adopt some of Dr. Daugton's suggestions for green pharmacy on a wide scale, with high visibility. Green pharmacy would also be a great thing for scientists and chemistry and biology students to research and explore. It would change the world and I also think it would be a great business opportunity, and it would be a chance for corporations to be models for responsible environmental stewardship. This problem cannot be solved by regulation alone, and we need all sectors—corporations, health care, education, and government to contribute to a solution.

Lastly, I would like to thank you, Bill, for the opportunity to share my findings with your readers. Your enthusiasm for environmental protection is making Rhode Island a better place.

[Note: I did not pay Sam for the kind words, but I am thankful that he took the time to share his findings with us.]

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Light of Faith: Truth for the natural order

[Faith] illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation. [Lumen FideiSection 34]
What a day in Rome. Pope Francis and Benedict XVI come together to consecrate the Vatican to St. Michael while it is announced that Bl. John Paul II and Bl. John XXIII are on the road to sainthood.

Then there is Lumen Fidei, the much anticipated encyclical on faith. This letter to the Church—begun by Benedict XVI and completed by Pope Francis—is a lofty, profound, tender, and much-needed statement on Christianity and the nature of the Church.

Early impressions are in, such as this one by David Cloutier and this one by James V. Schall S.J., as worldwide discussions are underway among clergy, academics, and the lay faithful. And so the Church grows as these 18,000 or so words begin nurturing and challenging the People of God.

I especially appreciate the lines above. They speak well to Catholics engaged in scientific matters. But then, Lumen Fidei in its entirety is a love letter to the Church filled with passages worth interiorizing, pondering, and—especially—sharing.

I was happy to see a direct acknowledgement of how faith can impact our understanding of the natural environment. In a document that maintains a broad view of earthly affairs without delving into the details of this or that particular issue, words about ecology show how deeply rooted the topic is within the minds of the pontiff and the pope emeritus.

In speaking of the incarnational nature of Christianity—of maintaining the goodness of creation—Pope Francis weaves the natural environment with Christianity’s view of humanity. The pairing is striking, especially since the section ends with a sorely needed quality in today’s divisive world: forgiveness. In speaking of forgiveness, the document calls to mind earlier discussions by John Paul II and Benedict XVI on “human ecology.” Also noteworthy is the opening of the section: an apologetic reminder of what Christianity has brought to human cultures.
How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity. In the second century the pagan Celsus reproached Christians for an idea that he considered foolishness and delusion: namely, that God created the world for man, setting human beings at the pinnacle of the entire cosmos. "Why claim that [grass] grows for the benefit of man, rather thanfor that of the most savage of the brute beasts?" "If we look down to Earth from the heights of heaven, would there really be any difference between our activities and those of the ants and bees?" At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him.
Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment. Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. From a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity. [Sections 54, 55]
There is another section—well, there are many sections, but this one especially—that I suggest goes to the heart of our world’s ecological crises, which are really crises of faith. I offer this as an example of how an authentic Catholic engagement of ecology must never forget the roots of faith: 
There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives.
Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. [Section 4]
And certainly, rightly guided journeys are vital if we are to steward well the natural world.

There will be much written and said in the days and years ahead about Lumen Fidei and its place in the life of the Church. If you haven’t, add it to your reading list—it won’t take long and it makes for a stirring mini-retreat.

And if you have a moment, spend a few minutes with this video. It’s a beautiful narration of an 1893 essay by the Croation scientist Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). Apparently Tesla’s father, a Serbian Orthodox priest, had some influence on his son. The words you will hear, and the images of the filmmakers, resonate with many themes from Lumen Fidei. They especially call to mind the quote that opens this posting. Whether or not the filmakers or Tesla realized it, what is said in this video speaks to the innate human yearning for nature’s truths and how, like it or not, these truths build up humanity only when illuminated with the light of faith.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy birthday, America—the beautiful

St. Ann Parish in Kosciusko, TX
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

My deacon preached well this morning about the founding of the United States of America—an event rooted in a Christian worldview, as evidenced by the words above from the Declaration of Independence. One wonders if, given the rise of secularism, this founding document will soon be outlawed in public schools.

America along with much of the West is accelerating the speed with which it forgets—or actively casts aside—its Christian worldview. The resulting damage will be (and already is) profound. Within the rubble will be a good many people, families, cultures, and ecosystems.

In reflecting on the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy by allied forces, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an essay that opens thus ... 
On the 6th of June, 1944, when the landing of the allied troops in German-occupied rance commenced, a signal of hope was given to people throughout the world, and also to many in Germany itself, of imminent peace and freedom in Europe.  What had happened?  A criminal and his party faithful had succeeded in usurping the power of the German state.
In consequence of such party rule, law and injustice became intertwined, and often indistinguishable. The legal system itself, which continued, in some respects, still to function in an everyday context, had, at the same time, become a force destructive of law and right. This rule of lies served a system of fear, in which no one could trust another, since each person had somehow to shield himself behind a mask of lies, which, on the one hand, functioned as self defense, while, in equal measure, it served to consolidate the power of evil.  And so it was that the whole world had to intervene to force open this ring of crime, so that freedom, law and justice might be restored.
We give thanks at this hour that this deliverance, in fact, took place. And not just those nations that suffered occupation by German troops, and were thus delivered over to Nazi terror, give thanks. We Germans, too, give thanks that by this action, freedom, law and justice would be restored to us.  If nowhere else in history, here clearly is a case where, in the form of the Allied invasion, a justum bellum worked, ultimately, for the benefit of the very country against which it was waged.
To Europe was given, after 1945, a period of peace of such duration as our continent had never seen in its entire history.  To no small degree, this was the accomplishment of the first generation of post-war politicians -- Churchill, Adenauer, Schuman, De Gasperi - whom we have to thank at this hour: We are to give thanks that it was not punishment that was fixed upon, nor again revenge and the humiliation of the defeated, but rather that all should be accorded their rights.
Let us say it openly: These politicians took their moral ideas of state and right, peace and responsibility, from their Christian faith, a faith that had undergone the tests of the Enlightenment, and in opposing the perversion of justice and morality of the party-states, had emerged re-purified. They did not want to found a state upon religious faith, but rather a state informed by moral reason, yet it was their faith that helped them to raise up again a reason once distorted by, and held in thrall to ideological tyranny.
Ratzinger (and, as pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI) spoke and wrote often about the West’s Christian roots and the consequences of claiming independence from them. 

Among these consequences will be an undoing of cultural norms (as we’re seeing with marriage) and the continued erosion of the natural environment. After all, why should one heed one set of natural laws and not others?

There is a link, as Pope Benedict noted, between our duties to the human person and the environment. There is also, then, a link between the degradation of both.

And so on this Fourth of July here in the United States of America, let us pray that we do not forget the divinely ordained laws that assure life, human dignity, and societal stability. Nor can we forget the Author of these laws. 

So if you have a moment, pray the prayer for the nation written by Archbishop John Carroll in 1791. His words remain ever relevant. My pastor led us in this prayer after morning Mass today. It was a powerful moment. These few words especially struck me ...
We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
 May God continue to shed His grace on Americathe beautiful!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How to communicate climate change? With hope.

"The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life." Pope Benedict XVI. Spe Salvi §2

Last week I took part in three days of training on public policy and the science of climate change. NOAA’s Coastal Services Center brought the workshop to Rhode Island with the help of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Reserve, which is a partnership between NOAA, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and my agency.

About three dozen state and local officials took part in a whirlwind of presentations and activities on climate and coastal sciences, policy, and example practices of climate change adaptation. The trainers were wonderful and the networking among the local participants will be invaluable.

Day three of the event focused on communicating climate change. The trainers did an evenhanded job of managing ideological presuppositions among the group, especially when it came to issues of communicating with those who do not “believe” in climate-change science.

To make their points and to generate discussion the trainers used a number of videos—either professional public service announcements for widespread use or those made with less funding for smaller audiences.

One that I liked most was the least controversial. It nicely demonstrates the relationship between trends and variations. That is, for the purposes of climate discussions, how weather and climate differ. This is an important distinction because too often people experience a snowy winter and determine that climate change isn’t really a reality. Watch how the video explains all this with a readily accessible metaphor.

A second video, a British public service ad that also includes a dog, won much less support. Most of us thought it a bit manipulative. One participant said that it was “tricky” and advised against such emotional techniques. My counterpart in the state’s drinking water section and I both found the drowning dog a bit much. And we are not alone in our assessment. In looking for the video, I discovered that it has stirred up a cottage industry of spoofs that lampoon the video's "scary climate monster" imagery. But watch the original and then I'll make a final point (oh, and this video is part of a series, so feel free to stop it at the ending tag line or else it will jump to the next one.):

While I wouldn’t endorse this ad, I understand the creators’ frustration. Like so many of us, the makers of this video wanted to capture the attention of those who think it wise to help future generations (all of them) enjoy the planet. I also found the ending helpful because it offered hope: In the face of major global crises, there are small things that you and I can do, like use less electricity. Offering the individual homeowner (and children) hope—steps that we can take and so that we can exhibit some control—was a topic that we returned to often in our discussions on climate communication.

A much better video was this one from Climate Wisconsin. Its creator is spoken word artist Elijah Furquan. He and the team that assembled the visuals have created a very real, incarnational look at how a warming climate impacts every day people—in this case the urban poor and elderly. Great, great job.

The final video falls somewhere between the one with a drowning puppy and the one by Climate Wisconsin. This one dramatizes a 2011 Washington Post commentary by Bill McKibben of

The trainers surprised us with the video after they had us read the commentary quietly to ourselves. After reading it, most of us agreed that the piece, as text, seemed “snarky,” as one of my colleagues put it. But I understood McKibben’s frustration. Indeed, I might have written a piece like that myself.

But was it effective? According to this assembly of folks from state and local governments, the answer was mixed and leaned toward no. The takeaway became the delivery and not the content. And as my friend Bill Jacobs pointed out, there are some factual issues in the piece. For my part, I very much appreciate McKibben’s desire to show trends—to connect the dots of climate change and in doing so make a substantial case. But McKibben mocks the “mantra” that no single weather event can prove that the climate is changing. And yet that is actually the case: The climatologists and meteorologists I deal with typically stop short of saying that this or that storm occurred because of climate change. And as noted before, I am not especially keen on using tragedies to influence policy debates.

But many of these stylistic concerns largely evaporate when you listen to McKibben’s piece narrated to targeted images framed with a dramatic score. You should read the piece first and then watch the video and see (and hear) the difference:

Your thoughts? Effective? Manipulative? Both?

Communicating the realities of climate change science requires a great deal of thought about the audience, the message, and about our own levels of frustration. Certainly, science is giving us profoundly dismal news. (If the updates received at last week’s training were correct, the actual trends in sea-level rise are moving past previous upper-end projections.)

And yet, communicating dismal news requires hope.

While a recent PEW study indicates that worldwide many of us are putting climate change on the top of issues of concern, there are still a great many others who do not or cannot accept what is already occurring. Many may be frightened into into a fatalistic mentality that all is lost, so they'd rather not deal with the subject at all.

This is where people of faith—of hope—have a place. As Pope Benedict instructs us in Spe Salvi:
As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.
And what is true in the spiritual realm is also true in the material. In our dialogue within secular realms, we may not be able to use the specifically Christian terms we wish, but we must bring hope. (I was biting my tongue at various points in the training because the answers I wanted to offer were answers rooted in the Gospel. And so I used terms like “common good,” “natural law,” and “what it means to be human.” I believe these terms made my points well enough for the setting.)

There is much work ahead for Catholic ecologists. We must enter this conversation on climate change and authentically, charitably, and unabashedly offer the truth, the life, and the way.

Sure, being effective may mean offering daring, dramatic words and images—much like the Climate Wisconsin video. After all, Our Lord often shocked and startled his listeners with dramatic images and unexpected conclusions, but He did this so that His message resonated with the soul.

And thus the point: The most important question is not the communication techniques that we should or should not use. Rather, the question is what motivates us. Are we seeking to communicate our message of hope out of love and concern, or are we seeking to manipulate with dire predictions for the sake of wielding power to control other people’s choices?

Again, here is where Catholic sensibilities can make a world of difference. By reminding our colleagues that the true basis for sounding the climate alarm is hope, we make difficult conversations more effective because we can ground them in eternal truth and sacrificial love.