AOI | by Fr. Johannes Jacobse | Oct. 22, 2009
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew lost no time ringing the alarmist bell as he officially opened the symposium, “Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi River” today.
He said that, “we have reached a defining moment in our history … the point where absolute limits to our survival are being reached … instead of living on income, or the available surplus of the earth, we are consuming environmental capital and destroying its resources as if there is no tomorrow.”
Really? No one disputes that we have a responsibility towards the environment and the EP has garnered justifiable praise for leadership in environmental stewardship. Yet His All Holiness increasingly approaches environmental care using the playbook of left-leaning environmental activism. The alarmist tone is one example. So are the ostensible “facts” justifying the alarm:
- We have lost half of the great forests of the world to the demand for timber and for conversion to agriculture, without thinking that these giant wet sponges are responsible for the delivery of much of the fresh water.
- Irrigation for agriculture takes 70% of global demand for water, and – almost unimaginably – some of the world’s greatest rivers are so depleted by the influence of humans that they no longer flow to the sea; and those that do, carry in their waters all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and waste materials they have collected along their course.
- Desertification is increasing on land at the same time that the fish stocks of the oceans are depleted by over exploitation; and those that remain are being poisoned by toxic materials dumped carelessly in their habitat. Instead of living on income, or the available surplus of the earth, we are consuming environmental capital and destroying its sources as if there is no tomorrow.
There is some accuracy to the statements, as far as they go. But do they justify the alarm? For example:
- The total acreage in the U.S. devoted to wildlife areas and state and national parks has increased from eight million in 1920 to seventy-three million in 1974, and all the land used for urban areas, plus roadways still amounts to less than three percent of the land area of the United States. [See Richard Stroup and John Baden, Natural Resources: Bureaucratic Myth and Environmental Management (San Francisco: Pacific Institute, 1983); Charles Baird, Rent Control: The Perennial Folly (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 1980); and Bernard Frieden, The Environmental Protection Hustle (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979).]
- While the overuse of water for irrigation is a problem (and one for which technological answers can be found), we can’t forget that the purpose of the irrigation is to feed people. Irrigation has saved millions from famine, death, and disease. Is it abused? Certainly. Is the sky falling because we irrigate? Absolutely not.
- “Desertification” describes the process by which land becomes increasingly drought-prone. Most experts describe desertification as a very complex process that is poorly understood. Some argue that desertification is actually a function of global cooling since much of earth’s available water remains locked in the ice caps. The Sahara, for example, was grasslands when the earth was warmer and had more water available for rain.
Far-left environmental activism is blind to the economic and social dimensions of environment care. Alarmism, in other words, should have no place in our deliberations about the environment because it makes no account of the economic and social ramifications that environmental policy will have on real people.
Don’t discount the ramifications. Some are deadly. Take the DDT scare of the early 1960s for example. In 1962, Rachel Carlson published “Silent Spring” contending that DDT threatened human civilization. She too rang the alarmist bell and the activists duly took note. The result was that DDT was banned and millions (estimates range from 20 to 50 million) in the Third World died of malaria. Read more here.
The only viable ethic of environmental care recognizes the value of the human person a-priori, and discerns environmental stewardship from this starting point. This has not yet been developed and the Orthodox could offer an important contribution given our developed anthropology.
Unfortunately, the EP has thrown his mitre in with the alarmists. After the address, Senator Paul Sarbanes read a few words from Vice President Al Gore to add the final touch to the presentation. Sarbanes has a very poor record in the defense of human life including a vote to overturn legislation to ban partial-birth abortions. How can an environmental ethic that values human life be constructed when those who are selective in their defense of who lives and who dies are feted as its representatives?
And why does the EP align himself with Gore, the poster boy of environmental alarmism, and still expect that his words be received with care and deliberation?
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