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Catholic Social Doctrine: Custody of the Environment

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
May 31st, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Though addressing environmental issues is a responsibility that cannot be shirked, it presents a complex problem that requires an interdisciplinary approach, one which invokes sciences of all kinds, industries of all kinds, government, and ecological groups.  Decisions must sometimes be made when the data are not clear, when there is a state of uncertainty as to the data's interpretation. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In some of our prior articles, including "The Theology of Ecology," "Morality, Science and Technology," and "A Moral Ecology," we reflected upon the Scriptural view of nature and the problems that occur when man exploits nature, when, heedless of moral norms, he puts nature to the rack or through the grist mill. 

Though the Church is not opposed to science and technology, it is opposed to what we might call scientism or technologism, i.e., the use of science and technology unbounded by the moral law and heedless of nature as a whole or human nature in particular.

As the world continues its economic development, care for the environment presents itself as a challenge for all humankind.  Our earthly environment "is a matter of a common and universal duty," it is one that truly involves the common good of humanity. 

No human being and no institution is free to disregard the moral use of nature and its resources.  In the words of John Paul II quoted by the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, it is our common obligation to prevent "anyone from using 'with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate--animals, plants, the natural elements--simply as one wishes, according to one's own economic needs.'" 

There are other human goods than economic exploitation of resources.

Whether we like it or not, the problem of the environment presents itself as an international problem requiring international solutions.  What good is it for the United States to place strict emission standards on its own manufacturing plants to our own economic disadvantage while China's plants belch out foul poisons into earth's atmosphere?  What good is it for us to restrict the harvest of our forests, while we watch the Amazon's forests denuded?

One must also not forget that the use of the world and its resources today affects the life of those who come after us.  If we are irresponsible now, "after-comers" will not be able to "guess the beauty been."

Since the problems regarding the environment are global, they require global solutions.

As the Compendium notes:

"Responsibility for the environment, the common heritage of mankind, extends not only to present needs but also to those of the future.  'We have inherited from past generations, and we have benefited from the work of our contemporaries: for this reason we have obligations towards all, and we cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us, to enlarge the human family.'  This is a responsibility that present generations have towards those of the future, a responsibility that also concerns individual States and the international community." (Compendium, No. 467) (quoting Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 266)

It would seem that the problem can only be handled through some sort of juridical or legal construct, while it cannot be limited to that.  Perhaps as important as relying upon juridical means is the need to inculcate a "sense of responsibility as well as an effective change of mentality and lifestyle" that is more in keeping with environmental or ecological sensitivity.  (Compendium, No. 468)

Market forces are in a considerable degree inadequate to handle the problem because they tend to have short-term and not long-term perspectives, and costs associated with environmental effects may not be internalized in that they can be passed down to future generations or absorbed by others.  For this reason economic interests may be opposed to environmental interests.  They live in tension.

"An economy respectful of the environment will not have the maximization of profits as its only objective, because environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits."  (Compendium, No. 470)

"The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.  Every country, in particular developed countries, must be aware of the urgent obligation to reconsider the way that natural goods are being used. Seeking innovative ways to reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption of goods should be effectively encouraged."  (Compendium, No. 470)

While the juridical construct does not necessarily require a global juridical institution--a global EPA in fact sounds positively frightening--it does require, at minimum, some sort of global or international cooperation and recognition of the problem and its commonality.

"It is important that the international community draw up uniform rules that will allow States to exercise more effective control over the various activities that have negative effects on the environment and to protect ecosystems by preventing the risk of accidents."  (Compendium, No. 468).

At the very minimum, the various states should actively endeavor within their own territories "to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by carefully monitoring, among other things, the impact of new technological or scientific advances . . . [and] insuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes."  (Compendium, No. 468) (quoting JPII, Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace)

Though addressing environmental issues is a responsibility that cannot be shirked, it presents a complex problem that requires an interdisciplinary approach, one which invokes sciences of all kinds, industries of all kinds, government, and ecological groups.  Decisions must sometimes be made when the data are not clear, when there is a state of uncertainty as to the data's interpretation. 

An example that may be cited is whether there is global warming, and, if so, whether it is natural or man-made, and, if man-made, how much of it is attributable to controllable human causes.  Sometimes the scientific data and the interpretation of that data are complicated by hidden agendas, by irresponsible propaganda, by self-interest and self-regard. 

Histrionics sometimes hides scientific facts.

In the light of uncertainty or probabilities, a "precautionary principle" may be adopted as a guide to practical, yet prudent, action:

"The authorities called to make decisions concerning health and environmental risks sometimes find themselves facing a situation in which available scientific data are contradictory or quantitatively scarce. It may then be appropriate to base evaluations on the "precautionary principle", which does not mean applying rules but certain guidelines aimed at managing the situation of uncertainty.  This shows the need for making temporary decisions that may be modified on the basis of new facts that eventually become known."

"Such decisions must be proportional with respect to provisions already taken for other risks. Prudent policies, based on the precautionary principle require that decisions be based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives, including the decision not to intervene. This precautionary approach is connected with the need to encourage every effort for acquiring more thorough knowledge, in the full awareness that science is not able to come to quick conclusions about the absence of risk. The circumstances of uncertainty and provisional solutions make it particularly important that the decision-making process be transparent." (Compendium, No. 469)

The problem requires rational solutions, solutions based upon dispassionate assessment of the environmental problem, of its causes, of possible cures.  It must take into consideration a variety of factors, including: nature itself, the kind of resource involved (whether renewable or non-renewable), economic and market factors, industrial interests, cultural idiosyncrasies, the just imposition of costs associated with environmental restrictions, the divergence between rich nations and the poor, with the urgency of developing the wealth of the latter, alternatives that may be available, the current state of science or technology.

There simply is no one right answer to this very complex problem.  But that does not excuse us from not trying.  It may be a situation where angels fear to tread, but then we shouldn't rush in as fools.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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