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Thomas M. Doran: Catholicism And Environmentalism

Thomas M. Doran, The Catholic World Report

Catholics with an interest in the environment should attempt to separate legitimate science from ideological noise and organizational self-interest.

Solar panels are seen on the roof of the Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican in this December 2010 photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
What are Catholics to make of the big environmental questions: climate change, deforestation and habitat loss, water quality and water shortages, the extinction of species, fossil fuels? How compatible is environmental activism with Catholicism? What does it mean to be responsible stewards of creation? These are important questions, made even more timely in anticipation of Pope Francis releasing an encyclical in 2015 on environmental and ecological issues.

Christians believe it is necessary and good to show “respect for the integrity of creation” (CCC, 2415) and to use the Earth’s natural resources prudently, but these beliefs don’t tell us whether specific environmental initiatives are morally compelling.

Environmental activism is often a matter of science and ideology. Not infrequently, when someone disagrees with a tenet fervently held by environmental activists, they are labeled “science deniers”. Ironically, many of those who blithely label opponents “science deniers” do not themselves understand the underlying science.

As an engineer/scientist who has worked in the trenches for over 30 years, taught environmental engineering subjects, and loves to explore history, I have seen my share of bad science and bad data (sadly, guilty myself on occasion). I’ve learned that while we need to rely on data, an honest skepticism of data is an important aspect of the scientific method. On many occasions, scientists—experts—have reached a consensus on something that was subsequently proven to be false. As Matt Ridley wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, “Science is about evidence, not consensus.” I’m with Mr. Ridley. I don’t care about consensus, no matter how passionate or morally indignant. I want to see the data and the evidence.

Objective criteria, clean data

Here’s an example. With hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and advisories warning us that our environment is under assault and deteriorating, how can anyone claim that America’s environment is cleaner than it’s been for over 100 years? I can, and I do, and here’s my evidence based on these criteria: waterborne illnesses, levels of pollutants in water and air, habitats, technological innovation, and sensory evidence.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, and even into the 1920s, typhoid epidemics annually sickened thousands in American cities. Waterborne illnesses have been practically eradicated in the United States, to such an extent that most Americans take safe water for granted. Now that we can detect and measure pollutants in parts per billion, or even parts per trillion, many think that we are releasing more pollutants. On the contrary, the quality of treated wastewater and storm water discharged to rivers, lakes and streams has been steadily improving, as measured by significantly lower levels of pollutants. Some wastewater treatment plants discharge water of higher quality than their receiving streams.

As to air quality, there are more efficient combustion processes, fewer polluting products of combustion, and better air pollution abatement technology. Then, there are habitats for fish and wildlife. A 2010 Detroit News article reported: “From bald eagles to lake sturgeon, native wildlife is making a dramatic return in what might be considered the unlikeliest of places—the waters and shores of the Detroit River…After decades of struggling to overcome the Detroit River’s polluted past, a variety of fish and bird species have re-established themselves in the watershed. The budding osprey population is joined by increasing numbers of walleye, lake sturgeon and whitefish as well as bird species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.” We’re talking about Detroit, at one time the manufacturing capital of the world, and still a gritty manufacturing center. This is happening all over the country.

In a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, “The Scarcity Fallacy”, Matt Ridley identifies many instances when ecologists predicted the world’s resources would run out, though technological innovation has since broken through these limits again and again. Against the evidence of history, many believe that if we can’t solve a problem today, then it will still be a problem next year and next decade. Dire predictions are often based on this misconception.

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