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October 14, 2019 (The Catholic Thing) — We begin today — the delightfully incoherent “Columbus/Indigenous Peoples' Day” in the United States — with several questions. Where has environmental harm to rivers, air, and soil been most reversed? And where is it now most difficult for factories to pollute streams, for farms to allow fertilizer and pesticide runoff to poison local flora and fauna, and for both companies and individuals to put soot and other unhealthy particulates into the air? And where, too, are the strongest advocates for taking care of both the 7 billion people on the planet, and the global ecosystem on which we all depend?

Many people won't like the answer: it is in the rich, developed, capitalist countries of the world. They aren't perfect, because perfection in these matters is not possible. An intelligent environmentalism always looks at tradeoffs: What development will produce jobs for people; where do we locate heavy industries, necessary for our prosperity, so that they have the least harmful effects? And most important of all: How much do we spend now on installing relatively undeveloped renewable sources of energy, when investing in promising research will, in the longer run, give us far better overall outcomes?

Now, another question: Where do the most prominent people in the Church at the moment think the problem is greatest and calls for “ecological conversion”? That's easy. In the rich, developed, capitalist countries of the world. This despite the fact that the churches there already have extensive networks of environmental activism involving people who — mostly — mean well.

So who needs an “ecological conversion”? That's a major theme of the current Amazon Synod and among the well-intentioned people, but they don't give the impression of understanding many key details, to say nothing of the big picture, though they talk about how “everything is connected to everything else.”

A banal example: In Rome, where I am temporarily residing and this synod is taking place, simple garbage collection is a painful process. There are three categories of garbage: organic waste, aluminum and other solids, plastic and glass. As to the last category, as my charming Roman landlord explained to me, you have to separate the two different substances — put glass in the glass slot and the plastic in the plastic slot when you go down to the large collection bins on the street.

Oh, I almost forgot: and you also put clean paper in a basket that is emptied yet elsewhere.

Now, what happens after that would be a comedy of errors if it weren't such a disaster. The municipal government in Rome is inefficient and corrupt. It struggles simply to pick up the garbage, and the streets in these still warm October days smell. Even when the garbage is picked up, the city often has nowhere to put it because all the collection centers are overloaded.

Some municipalities in Italy send their garbage to Austria, where German efficiency turns it into energy. Italians are relatively easygoing, but several of them have told me in recent years, with no little exasperation, that they're fed up with their governments. If the Austrians can use current technologies to good ends, why can't we?

The answer is that not every place is Austria. Most are somewhere nearer to Italy. Even the best laid plans, eco-sensitive though they may be, have to be carried out in concrete ways. And governments, even in our developed countries, consist of politicians, people of no greater virtue than anyone else, who have to cater to popular whims to be re-elected, and are often corrupted by lobbyists and intoxicated by power.

Men have long hoped for a reign of philosopher-kings with real backbone, but be careful what you wish for. Human history shows that virtuous regimes don't long survive and neither do tyrannies, even if they're run by idealists. It is the part of the wise person — including the wise churchman — to understand the reality of the political beast and to not expect the average government to be much good for anything.

There's been a lot of talk about “ecological conversion” in the synod, relatively little talk — so far as an observer can tell — of real environmental questions. Church figures try to pour the issues into familiar religious categories: we must change our lives, live more simply, use less.

That's wise, for religious purposes. But from Plato down to the present, intelligent people have understood that asking the mass of people to live in a Spartan manner is a non-starter. It may not even be environmentally sound.

There has been discussion, for example, of a large hydroelectric plant that the Brazilian government built in the Amazon, which diverted the waters of a river and displaced indigenous communities. In addition, the Brazilian government broke various promises to those communities, after assuring them that their interests would be respected. No doubt that happened, since governments in every country have a tendency to lie to get what they want.

In almost every circumstance, I would put myself on the side of the small communities and of local control, especially in our time of imperious progressive regimes. But in this instance I'm not so sure. Deceit and brusque treatment of a people's legitimate interests are wrong. There are inescapable tradeoffs, however, in questions of environment and development.

Cities need electricity — and even the defenders of the indigenous communities openly admit that many from those communities move to the big cities to seek a “better life.” Overall something like 80 percent of “indigenous peoples” now live in cities. At this very moment, indigenous groups in Ecuador, part of which lies in Amazonia, are involved in protests against the government for allowing gasoline prices to rise. It's unlikely that their voices — or other indigenous voices that don't fit the stereotype — will play much of a role in the synod.

In a country like Brazil, where population is growing, clean hydroelectric power is one of the best options available. The alternatives are even worse. You could switch to coal or oil, or natural gas-powered plants, but you would have to extract those from the earth (extraction is a dirty word at the synod) and would save the waters of the Amazon at the cost of more CO2 in the atmosphere.

Of course, it's necessary to take into consideration the condition of the whole Amazon region in these decisions, since the Amazon could potentially have a large impact on global conditions. When you drill down into that question, however, other questions pop up. Moral posturing does not resolve such complexities. Moral realism conscientiously accepts that there are going to be losses as well as gains in whatever path you choose.

You could, I suppose, get very aggressive about population reduction, as the U.N. and other international bodies currently friendly with the Vatican would be only too happy to do.

What is certain, however, is that no people on earth is going to accept remaining in — or returning to — poverty. The Vatican has been decrying the “technocratic paradigm” and promoting an “ecological paradigm.” In theory, as paradigms, these are opposed. In practice, if you want to live in greater harmony with the web of life on earth, it's going to require pursuing smarter ecological ends by better technological means.

And there are other considerations. There's been talk about infanticide among the indigenous peoples over the past week at the synod. The partisans claim that it does not happen. But it does — or rather infant exposure happens, just as the elderly are often allowed to die.

And there's a simple reason: without the technological developments in medicine, a robust health-care system, and the whole infrastructure of materials like metals and plastics that all this requires, it would be impossible to take care of ailing newborns and the elderly, even if every god and goddess in the Amazon proclaimed the sanctity of human life.

So weaker members of the group, who won't survive very long anyway and are a drain on limited resources, are allowed to die. It's something that's practiced by indigenous groups in all parts of the world.

If the synod intends to be serious about ecological matters, then — and it's not clear yet that it does — it will have to take a more sober path than the reckless approach it has already shown towards evangelization. It will need to make fewer easy moral pronouncements and to pay greater attention to some difficult realities about our world.

Published with permission from The Catholic Thing.