Americans are more conscious than ever of their responsibility to be good stewards of the environment. Years of successful public relations campaigns and the work of tireless activists have ensured that protecting creation is at the forefront of public discourse.
Faith in the Public Arena
Yet, the debates over some of the biggest environmental challenges — climate change, hydraulic fracking, soil and water contamination, air quality, sustainable agriculture, the global competition for scarce natural resources — seem to be dominated by false choices, as though being stewards of the created order and fostering a proper “human ecology” is a zero-sum game.
What is worse are the debates themselves, either dominated by nakedly ideological sound bites that operate as rhetorical tools of special interests, or scientific jargon that is inaccessible to laypersons and leaves people wondering whom and what data to trust.
How should a person of faith approach these important questions as they relate to public policy?
For decades, the church both in the United States and around the world has been deeply considering the challenges facing the created order, and the relevant principles needed to address them.
One resource from the American bishops, though specifically addressing climate change, is particularly valuable as a framework from which to consider many questions of environmental policy.
In “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good” (2001), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not seek to urge a particular policy solution for the problems of climate change, but instead to “call for a different kind of national discussion,” to move past the ineffective environmental debates previously mentioned.
They note that global climate change, like many environmental questions, is not about political platforms or special-interest group pressures. Rather, “it is about the future of God’s creation and the one human family. It is about protecting both the ‘human environment’ and the ‘natural environment.’ It is about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us.”
The bishops state that any response to climate change must be rooted in prudence, which requires us to continue to research and monitor the phenomenon, as well as take steps to mitigate possible negative effects in the future.
Further, in a debate often dominated by special interests, special attention must be given to the impact of environmental problems — and the solutions designed to address them — on the “poor and vulnerable.”
According to the bishops: “Inaction and inadequate or misguided responses to climate change will likely place even greater burdens on already desperately poor peoples. Action to mitigate global warming must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice that does not put the poor at greater risk or place disproportionate or unfair burdens on developing nations.”
Among the different considerations when examining potential policies to address environmental problems, the bishops identify “stewardship and the right to economic initiative and private property”; the needs of “future generations”; “population and authentic development”; and “caring for the poor and issues of equity.”
The common good will be built up or diminished, the bishops contend, by the quality of the public debate.
The debate over climate change, and many other related issues, continues.
Is there a possibility that today’s challenges can be addressed in the rational manner that the bishops propose?
Experience tells us the answer is “yes.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System. It will not receive as much attention as the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, passed the same year, but it is also an extraordinary piece of legislation.
Using almost poetic language, this piece of legislation recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Since its creation, Congress has designated more than 106 million acres of federal public lands as wilderness: 44 million of these acres are in 47 parks and total 53 percent of National Park System lands. Wilderness area, protected from unnecessary development and exploitation, now accounts for 5 percent of the entire landmass of the United States.
The creation of the Wilderness Act represents an inspiring moment in history when the political community acted with foresight and with the recognition that the natural environment is good for its own sake.
If Catholics can add some leaven to the environmental debate with the principles of Catholic social teaching, it is possible that we will again be able to tackle the toughest environmental questions with legislation that truly serves the common good.
Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.