Sunday, May 1, 2016

Laudato Si: Sunday Reflection #37... Ten important questions

Weed to Lee, strawberry to me?
Have you ever had someone else make a decision on your behalf without consulting you first? It happens occasionally at our house. About ten Aprils back, my husband decided to hoe the garden as a surprise for me. Unfortunately, those pesky weeds he was getting rid of were the strawberry plants that I had spent a day carefully moving to their new spot the previous autumn. Needless to say, it wasn't a happy moment for either of us, and definitely not for the strawberries!

No mistaking this straw berry patch
with all that straw!
That example is small potatoes in comparison to some of the stuff that goes on in our world. This week's section of Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home is called Dialogue and Transparency in Decision-making, paragraphs 182-188 (which can be accessed by clicking here and scrolling down).

Pope Francis and his encyclical writing team begin paragraph 182 by noting that "An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views." But when there is corruption in any process, transparency and dialogue are the first thing to go. My husband is not corrupt, he just forgot the dialogue part!

Paragraph 183 underlines the importance of environmental impact assessments at this juncture in our planet's existence. We simply cannot afford to allow businesses, politics, policies, plans or proposals to do as they please with our planet and its resources as they have in the past. Rampant development without serious environmental, social, physical, and humanitarian oversight has led us to our present state. Pope Francis tells us
Environmental impact assessment... should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent, and free of all economic or political pressure. It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people's physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety.
He also points out the importance of consensus among stakeholders including the local population in honest and truthful conversation about "projects and their different risks and possibilities."

How do you go about making difficult decisions? I remember that when I had a difficult choice to make as a young adult, my parents encouraged me to sit down and make a list of pros and cons for each of my different options. It's a strategy I employ to this day, and have passed on to my own children for its wisdom -- and I'm not surprised to see that Laudato Si quotes the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church when it encourages a similar process in paragraph 184:
... decisions must be made "based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives" [Compendium, 469]. This is especially the case when a project may lead to a greater use of natural resources, higher levels of emission or discharge, an increase of refuse, or significant changes to the landscape, the habitats of protected species or public spaces.
We've seen many examples of projects that have been disastrous simply because the impact of their effects were unforeseen. The video below tells of 25 of the worst, all of them heartbreaking. These moodlings about Laudato Si have made me aware of a lot of things I definitely wouldn't go looking for...

The Pope also comments that "The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information" (paragraph 184). But our internet age has made it a little harder to hide catastrophes like the ones in the video above. Social media seems to bring everything into the light, including things we wish we'd never see... but we need to see them, and to respond with action wherever we can. So there you have it -- something good about our digital age.

I like paragraph 185, which offers questions that should be asked of every project that affects our web of life:

When preparing a new project:

1. How will it contribute to genuine, integral development?
2. What will it accomplish?
3. Why?
4. Where?
5. When?
6. How?
7. For whom?
8. What are the risks?
9. What are the costs? 
10. Who will pay those costs and how?

The remainder of the paragraph explains that, depending on the situation, some of these questions might be given higher priority -- in some situations, for example, the importance of potable water as an indispensable resource and fundamental right would override any other environmental assessment.

In paragraph 186, the Pope defends "those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited." He explains that it should be up to the corporations or developers to prove that their activity will not harm the environment and those who live there. But such proof needs to come from unbiased researchers who are independent of any business interest. This brings to mind the doctors who were silenced when they tried to make public the high rates of cancer found in people living in the vicinity of the Oilsands. Honesty and transparency are difficult for big business, but critical for life.

The Pope is clear in paragraph 187 that we shouldn't oppose innovation which improves life, but reminds us that profit can't be the sole criterion for that improvement. New ideas, inventions and discoveries can be added into the conversation, hopefully leading to better outcomes for any given project -- but always, always with an eye to building consensus among all those who are affected by it. Consensus can be a tricky thing, and when it comes to the common good, compromise is often required. But that's better than the alternative -- having something imposed from on high, with no chance to work out a solution that appeases most of those involved.

I would add one further thing to the conversation -- so often, we think that innovation is always positive -- but just because we might be able to do something more conveniently doesn't necessarily mean it's better. We need to take into account the full impact of the change we are making -- including the impact we are having on those members of creation that we might not notice. Sure, we can get rid of insect pests by spraying, but if we go back to those ten important questions and look at who is paying the costs, it's often the voiceless.

The challenge for this week? Let's post these ten questions in a place where we can see them and ponder them in relation to news stories, things happening locally, and occurrences in our own lives. Then perhaps we can see and suggest improvements to the powers that be as they work toward improving the health of creation...

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


(A prayer for our earth and all quotations from Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home © Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Next up: The market ain't magic

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