The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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November 2, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

Be both skeptical
and optimistic

Stewardship of environment
requires us to get good information,
act accordingly

By Bishop Robert Banks

The care and protection of the environment is now a basic part of the Church's teaching on social justice.

When our Bishops' Conference put out a card that carried seven basic statements to summarize the principle points of the Church's teaching on social justice, the seventh point was Care for God's Creation. It said, "We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan; it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God's creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored."

Our responsibility for the environment is also stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation" (n. 2415).

We do have responsibility

While there should be no doubt about our moral responsibility to protect the environment and to care for creation, there can be differences of opinion about the basis of this responsibility. For some, the basic motivation is the survival of humanity, and that means we have to be good stewards of the creation God has given us. For others, there is an awesome appreciation of planet Earth itself that requires an almost reverent care for the planet and everything on it, even apart from its being a home for humanity. And that only hints at the variety of ways in which people base their ecology.

There also is great variety in the levels of enthusiasm that people carry into this ecological campaign. There are the terrorists who burn down newly built mansions that they apparently feel consume too much of the earth's resources. And there are those corporations that have to be sued into keeping our atmosphere and our waters clean. It seems to me that most people now, activists and corporations, are genuinely concerned about protecting the environment, but there can still be serious disagreements about how to do it and to what extent. We see that in the current discussion about the clean-up of the Fox River.

Personally, I am naturally in full agreement with the Church's teaching on the care for the Creation entrusted to us, but I do question some of the rhetoric that some environmentalists might use in advancing their cause. For instance, I do not have a great fear about what will happen to planet Earth. If it has been able to survive the incredibly difficult process by which it came into existence these past several billion years, then I think it will be able to survive whatever we do to it. However, I am not so sure that we or succeeding generations will survive happily if we pollute and destroy our environment.

Ask for proof

I have also questioned, but without any proof, some of the figures that have been used to promote certain environmental causes. The level of my questioning has increased since I began reading a new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, published by Cambridge University Press.

According to the reviews and the book itself, the author, Bjorn Lomborg, is an environmentalist and a former member of Greenpeace, but he became skeptical of the figures being used by some environmentalists to advance their cause. He concludes, after a thorough statistical investigation, that many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of the scientific evidence. He is still an environmentalist, but he stresses the need for clear-headed prioritization of resources to tackle real, not imagined problems.

Beware the 'Litany'

Lomborg, as an introduction, focuses on what he calls the "Litany," or repeated assertions that our environment is deteriorating.

"We are all familiar with the Litany: the environment is in poor shape here on Earth. Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and the water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet's species are becoming extinct in vast numbers -- we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing and the coral reefs are dying...." (p.4).

In response to the Litany, Lomborg cites many trends that are very positive and then goes on to show how some environmental organizations support the Litany by using the wrong statistics. For instance, he points out that Worldwatch Institute has stated that "the world's forest estate has declined significantly in both area and quality in recent decades," but UN figures show that global forest cover has increased.

Back in the 1980s, acid rain was the big problem. A book published in 1989 declared that "An acid plague is sweeping the earth ... one third of the German forests have been attacked, so the trees are either dead or dying ... Acid rain has become one of the most serious threats to life here on earth." But in 1996, a UN report concluded, "Only in a few cases has air pollution been identified as a cause of forest damage."

This is degradation

For some people, economic development involves necessarily the degradation of the environment. Lomborg cites studies which show that, in the early stages of development, there is increased pollution of the air (e.g. Beijing, Mexico City, New Delhi), but when income and prosperity increase, pollution can decrease, as has been seen in our cities and those of Europe.

Lomborg is not the last word in the discussion about the environment. But I like two ideas he raised in his approach:

• First, check the figures;

• Second, be an optimist about the world's condition.

To quote Lomborg, "Thus, this is the very message of the book: children born today -- in both the industrialized world and developing countries -- will live longer and be healthier, they will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities -- without the global environment being destroyed. And that is a beautiful world" (p.352).

Let's pray for that -- and for the peace that will make it possible.

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