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Sunday, February 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

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

Part 1  Part 2 │ Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 10, 2014

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

Part 1  │ Part 2 Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 9, 2014

By the Books: Christiana Z. Peppard's Just Water. Part 1

Part 1 │ Part 2Part 3

I was delighed to hear of the new book by Dr. Christiana Z. Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis.

Given my professional work in a regulatory agency for statewide water resources, I immediately ordered the book and asked Dr. Peppard for an interview, which she graciously agreed to.

What follows is the first of an informative and thought-provoking three-part interview about the book and the many issues involved with clean water. The remainder of the interview will be posted over the next two days.

First, a little about the author of Just Water.

Dr. Peppard is an Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University, where she is also affiliated faculty in American Studies and Environmental Policy. She received her B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University, M.A. in Ethics from Yale Divinity School, and Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from Yale University.

Dr. Peppard and daughter.
Prof. Peppard is a native of the U.S. West (born in California’s Central Valley and raised in Colorado) who now lives in New York City with her spouse and six-year-old daughter. 

She can be found thinking on science, theology, ethics, and of course water on Twitter (@profpeppard).  Her website contains a full biography, information on current activities, and helpful educational resources.

Catholic Ecology: Given that many areas of the globe want for adequate supplies of clean water, what driving forces—globally and/or regionally—most often contribute to these shortages and how are new realities, like climate change or economic instability or new technologies, making bad situations worse?

Dr. Peppard: Fresh water exists at a complicated nexus of hydrology, geography, social and economic patterns, and political realities. While the 21st century is aptly described as a century of fresh water scarcity, it’s most accurate to speak about water crises in the plural than as a singular, uniform phenomenon.

Still, in general, some dynamics hold true. Fresh water scarcity is the result of increased demand for fresh water (for agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses) coupled with unsustainable rates of extraction and consumption of fresh water, especially from nonrenewable groundwater sources such as deep aquifers. These dynamics emerged decisively in the 20th century with the rise of large-scale hydraulic technologies—dams, diversion canals and irrigation, and powerful groundwater pumps.

Where is that water going? Most people can intuit that industrialized nations tend to divert and consume more water per capita than industrializing nations. What many people don’t know is that agriculture is the biggest consumptive use of fresh water worldwide. (We need water to grow crops, and water helps to turn seeds into suppers!) Unfortunately, industrial-style agriculture is not sustainable from a water-use perspective: must agricultural production in the past century has come from tapping into deep, finite groundwater sources. Tapping this water is like mining a valuable resource, because once it’s consumed, the sources do not replenish on any humanly meaningful timescale. Some cities like Beijing and Mexico City, not to mention parts of California’s Central Valley, are quite literally sinking as the groundwater beneath them disappears due to consumptive uses (including agriculture and fossil fuel extraction). The depletion of the Ogalalla Aquifer in the middle of the U.S. or the Edwards Aquifer in Texas offer still more examples. Chapter 5, “The Agriculture/Water Nexus,” explores these topics and their implications in great detail.

But isn’t water renewable? Yes, and no—it depends. Not all uses of water are equally renewable. The key distinction is between “consumptive” and “nonconsumptive” uses. In “consumptive use,” once you withdraw and use the water, you lose it; it doesn’t return to the watershed in any meaningful way. “Non-consumptive” uses allow for most of the water to be returned to the watershed or ecosystem. (Many uses are some combination of both.)

In light of that, real movement on “solving” global water crises will require dedicated attention to where regions get their water; what kind of water it is; and whether the uses to which it is put allow for most of the water to re-enter the watershed. These are systemic and structural, social issues, not just hydrological riddles of problems that can be solved by taking shorter showers.

Still, it’s good to take shorter showers: individuals’ water-use habits matter. Everyone should cultivate water virtue. But domestic uses tend to be non-consumptive and account for less than 10% of global water withdrawals. Thus, while individual conservation can make a difference in maintaining water supply, it is not the answer to world water crises. For that, we need to think about what kinds of water we’re using for what kinds of purposes, on what scale, in what locations, and with what kinds of short- and long-term effects.

What’s the upshot? Fresh water is complex. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious, but it’s everyone’s obligation to think better about fresh water for the short- and long-term good of societies and ecosystems. It’s not just about individuals: It’s about corporations, governments, communities, and societies striving towards a common good for this most vital of resources.

Catholic Ecology: How does climate change fit into this discussion?

Dr. Peppard: Climate change is another powerful variable. The head of UN-Water has said that “climate change is all about water,” and conservation biologist Travis Huxman (former director of Biosphere II) opines that “water is the hammer with which climate change will hit the earth.” It’s a big deal, and it gets an entire chapter in Just Water (Chapter 7, “Climate Change and Water in the Anthropocene”).

Here’s the basic maxim for water and climate change: wet places will get wetter, and dry places will get drier. The implications for arid regions, especially those that rely on water-intensive agriculture for sustentance and/or economic growth—are dire. In Chapter 7 I draw out six aspects of the climate-water nexus that are absolutely crucial for considering hydrological and social wellbeing in this century—including water conflict, environmental refugees, drought and desertification, energy production, and more.

Catholic Ecology: To what extent can we rely on innovation and technology to help tackle such realities?

Dr. Peppard: That’s an important question. Clearly, technology will be part of long-term solutions to fresh water scarcity. (Already, in light of the extreme drought in California, people are wondering how quickly desalination plants can come on-line.) But note that technology will only be part of the solution. Why is this? For one thing, “technology” is a vast term. What kind of technologies are we talking about, on what kind of scale, and where? For another, technology is only as good as the context within which it is implemented, and the goals towards which it is oriented.

Take desalination. It presents some economic and environmental challenges in the short-term, but those will be overcome when demand is acute enough, and it’s already in use in particularly arid regions around the world. But desalination is not a panacea: It is only as good as the contexts in which it is deployed and the goals towards which it is oriented. The desalination plant at Yuma (in Arizona) is certainly not an icon of success. We cannot, must not, regard technology as salvation.

Technology can help societies to achieve certain objectives, but it does not solve problems of distribution, access, and valuation on its own.

We human beings, endowed with the capacity for rational thought and ethical reflection, have to figure out how to value water in ways that redound to the common good of individuals, communities, and ecosystems in the short and long term. To suggest that technology will solve environmental problems is to avoid our very human responsibility to think ethically and critically about water. So, by all means: innovate, incubate, experiment, and work towards ever better water technologies. But we must remember that while technology is an invaluable aid, it won’t do the hard conceptual work for us.

Catholic Ecology: In your book you discuss how water is a justice issue—especially when gender is considered. Can you tell us a little about that?

Dr. Peppard: From an ethical perspective, justice and access to clean, fresh water are huge issues that people are only beginning to register on a global scale.

The fact is that, globally, the people who generally bear the brunt of fresh water scarcity are people living in situations of poverty and/or subsistence existence. They lack water through no fault of their own, but rather as a result of the location of their birth. This is not something that any of us chooses, but it is something that nonetheless shapes lives and circumscribes the possibilities available to individuals and societies. Especially in areas with insufficient water supply, people’s lives are determined by fresh water’s absence in highly gendered ways.

Women and children are usually tasked with procuring water for domestic uses. When the wells run dry or when streams or other sources are polluted, the task can be time-consuming and physically grueling. The gendered aspect of water procurement—and the fact that women bear many of the burdens associated with water scarcity—is a consistent theme throughout my book, and is the focus of Chapter. 9, “Women, Wells, and Living Water.”

Women do not carry water because they choose to do so, in the sense of ultimate freedom. Women are responsible for water because they are born as females into lower-economic-strata contexts without reliable clean water sources. So it is that women and children living in poverty bear some of the heaviest burdens of fresh water pollution and scarcity. But for so many of us in the U.S. and Europe, this is an “out of sight, out of mind” reality.

How do we, as U.S. citizens sitting atop the global economic structure, grapple with that iniquity? In other words: What does it matter, after all, that people in some regions of the world feel pressure due to water scarcity, while others don’t? It’s destabilizing to think that my access to fresh water is the exception, not the norm, worldwide—just because I happened to be born in a particular place and time, to a middle-class family with a house and reliable municipal infrastructure. And it’s daunting to think about the scale of the problem. But that is no reason to avoid the issue, and my book is one attempt to articulate what’s going on, what’s at stake, and what people can do to improve the situation.

Catholic Ecology: You refer to water as a “Right-to-Life Issue.” What does that mean exactly?

Dr. Peppard: People with economic resources will almost always be able to obtain the clean, fresh water necessary for existence. (As Mark Twain reportedly aphorized, “water flows upwards towards wealth.”) But because fresh water is a fundamental requirement for the continuation of life, and because there’s no substitute for it, we have to think about it differently than other kinds of economic goods. This is why the language of human rights has been applied to water in recent years. Water justice advocates express that access to clean, fresh water is a human right, regardless of ability to pay. This is an important ethical intuition and argument.

Yet as a scarce resource, fresh water is also an increasingly valuable commodity on the global market. Corporations have huge financial interests (and major profit margins) in water privatization schemes and sales of water. I deal with these topics in Chapter 3 of Just Water (“Fresh Water: Human Right or Economic Commodity?”), where I also give a history of bottled water!

So what is the value of water? It’s not merely economic, for one thing. Here, I think it’s remarkable—profound and noteworthy, in fact—that the Catholic Church has gone on record to exhort global leaders, citizens, and Catholics to recognize that “without water, there is no life.” The Church insists that fresh water is a “fundamental human right,” indeed, even “a right-to-life issue” (!) and that, as a result, it must not be considered only as a commodity. Its value transcends market value. This is radical, powerful rhetoric. What would the world look like if we took these exhortations to heart? (Chapter 4, “A Right-to-Life Issue for the Twenty-First Century,” contextualizes and elaborates on these claims.)

Note: Our interview with Just Water author Dr. Christiana Peppard will continue Monday.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What is the UN thinking?

There was big news today about the United Nations' report on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and its handling—and often mishandling—of the matter in areas across the globe.

Had the UN stuck to that subject, it could have done us all a favor. The reality of sexual abuse in any setting is serious—I have seen from loved ones something of the toll it can take. For Catholics the subject is especially upsetting given that members of the Church succumbed to the same ills as we find elsewhere.

But the UN personnel that chastised the Church weren't content with the issue at hand. They had to use the opportunity to preach to the Church about Catholic teachings on abortion and artificial birth control.

The entire matter, including the Church’s official response, is chronicled at Catholic World Report. What I’d add here is this: the United Nations is a rather important entity for the coordination and encouragement of global ecological awareness and responses. For Catholics engaged in environmental protection, today’s attack by the UN over sacred issues of life have damaged the credibility of the international body at a time when partnerships are vital for protecting the planet and its peoples.

That elements within the UN would needlessly damage its relation with the Church is unconscionable. That others would allow this to happen is even more disturbing. But perhaps all this is understandable, given that the Church might be seen by some within the UN as a competitor in doing good—the Church is, after all, a two-millennia-old global entity that also works for peace, justice, and the protection of natural laws.  

The Church has survived every human construct it has encountered and it will outlast the UN. But in this critical time of increasing climate change and biodiversity loss, the UN would do well to build its relationship with Catholics, especially those engaged in the front lines of helping the poor, the displaced, and the planet.

If they did foster this relationship, then those in the UN charged with environmental stewardship might learn this lesson: it is impossible to be pro-abortion and pro-ecology. One either defends and nurtures life or one does not.

And so I hope and pray that certain members of the UN will come to their senses, step off their soap boxes, and build unity rather than erect walls. I am not convinced that this will happen, but one can always hope for the best in people while at the same time preparing for the worst.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Vatican sustainability conference update: A need for moral authority

Many thanks to Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for sharing his thoughts on an upcoming Vatican conference on sustainable lifestyles.

Dr. Ramanathan is co-organizer of "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility,” which will be held at the Vatican May 2nd through the 6th. The event is jointly sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. 

This unique conversation between the natural and social sciences is also being chaired by Archbishop (and noted professor) Roland Minnerath and Dr. Partha Sarathi Dasgupta. Some fifty noted researches in a variety of fields will be presenting. More information, including a listing of participants, is in the conference booklet.

Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan Photo:
Frequently sought after by the media, Dr. Ramanathan has a lengthy and extraordinary biography

His credentials and honors include his role as Distinguished Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego and UNESCO Professor of Climate and Policy at TERI University, Delhi, India. 

He has also received the United Nations 2013 “Champions of the Earth” award for science and innovation. He has made major contributions to the atmospheric sciences, especially in relation to climate change and humanity’s impact on the public health and the environment.

Dr. Ramanathan was one of three co-chairs of the Vatican study Fateof Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene, published in May, 2011.

Catholic Ecology: Given that the intent of the conference is to bring dialogue between the natural and social sciences—especially related to fostering sustainable lifestyles—what critical issues related to planetary ecology would you say must be considered today by the academic, industrial, and governmental sectors?

Dr. Ramanathan: The fundamental question is: How do we change the course of the current unsustainable growth? In particular, the current unsustainable course has been set by developed nations. Who has the moral authority to advise developing nations where the future growth is coming from to chart a different course? I feel Pope Francis is a ray of light for exerting such a moral authority.

Catholic Ecology: To what extent do you see this conference examining and linking both the impact of humanity’s demand for natural resources and the impact of humanity’s post-production and post-consumption levels of pollution?

Dr. Ramanathan: Your have very nicely summarize the aspirations of the organizers’ objectives for this workshop. At least the above are my aspirations.

CE: Benedict XVI famously observed that “our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person.” As an expert on how atmospheric pollution—specifically “brown clouds”—impacts human health and agriculture, what does recent research in air pollution tell us about this link between how we treat the environment and “our duties towards the human person?”

Dr. Ramanathan: About 6.2 million die each year from air pollution indoors and outdoors. This is avoidable for we have technologies to get rid of this pollution. The indoor pollution is from cooking and heating by about 3 billion who are too poor to access fossil fuels. I call them the bottom 3 billion. The top few billion who have almost unlimited access to fossil fuels, for their own welfare, must provide access to renewable fuels to the bottom 3 billion. Please see my article at the PAS web site on “Socially Excluded”.

CE: The conference has as its goal the fostering of dialogue between the natural and social sciences. In my role as a state environmental regulator, it is clear that a lack of scientific understanding about the current state of global ecology—especially related to climate change—often hampers healthy actions by communities and civic leaders. How could the products of this conference filter down to help local leaders better understand the link between the natural sciences and such local issues as whether to relocate infrastructure or even abandon areas that are currently inhabited?

Dr. Ramanathan: Great question. I am hoping the meeting will be followed by Church leaders organizing teleconferences with church members inviting attendees of the workshop to serve as expert advisers. 

CE: You co-chaired the 2011 report Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene. The report brought much attention to the role of faith in the natural sciences. What have your experiences with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences demonstrated to you and your colleagues about the Church’s role in issues of science, ecology, and sustainability?

Dr. Ramanathan: That workshop was a turning point in my approach for mitigating air pollution and climate change. I realized our political leaders need help from religious leaders to exercise moral authority to ask people to protect the air and the water.

CE: How has the words and actions of Pope Francis resonated with the mission and themes of this conference?

Dr. Ramanathan: Please see my response to question #1. The world urgently needs religious leaders with moral authority like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.