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Eco-Justice Notes
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No Such Right
distributed 2/17/17 - ©2017

In all of Pope Francis' 160 page encyclical, Laudato Si', five words stand out to me as his most powerful theological statement. "We have no such right."

In the opening chapter, "What Is Happening to Our Common Home", Francis writes a detailed, deeply ecological description of the loss of biodiversity -- about species extinction. In paragraph 33 (if you have your copy handy!), he says:

Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of this, thousands of species will never give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Francis proclaims a theological principle that flatly contradicts the reigning assumptions of the modern world. In his theology (and in mine), the amazing diversity of life on this planet is present to give glory to God, to sustain the deeply interconnected web of life, and -- at the end of the list -- to convey a message to us.

In what theologians call "the integrity of creation", each part of creation, each of the multitude of species, has its own reason to exist which is independent of human interests. Those species are not present to serve our needs, or to be subject to our self-interested control. "We have no such right" to wipe them out, intentionally or unintentionally.

This year, I'm lifting up some of the central elements of an eco-justice perspective. The integrity of creation, the inherent worth of all beings, is up at the top of my list. Asserting with Francis that we have no right to devastate other species strips humanity of the arrogant power we have claimed over creation.

Needless to say, that's a controversial stance.

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Yesterday, The Week reported:

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held hearings on legislation to 'modernize' the Endangered Species Act, part of a push by Republicans to roll back environmental regulations and protections. The Republicans on the committee ... argued that the 1973 law to keep animal species from extinction impedes oil drilling, mining, and farming, and infringes on the rights of states and private landowners.

Those senators apparently did not mention the right of species to exist. States and landowners have rights. Regulations that pay attention to wild plants and animals get in the way of the more important matter of producing oil, minerals and food.

You might recognize an echo here of the theme I raised two weeks ago, also quoting Francis: "the Pope expresses a concern that technology and economics are dominating public debates." The push to revise or repeal the ESA often is rooted in economic arguments, and doesn't address ethical principles about the integrity of creation.

I do want to try to be honest and respectful about different perspectives. It isn't helpful to demonize everyone who is on another side of this, or any issue. (A press release a few days ago from the Center for Biological Diversity -- a staunch defender of the ESA -- leads off with language about "Oil Industry-funded Politicians".)

I have found it helpful to look at some materials from the American Farm Bureau, which really do seem to point toward a reform of the Endangered Species Act, not a gutting of the act as part of an anti-regulatory crusade. A survey conducted by the Farm Bureau finds strong support for policies that help with species recovery, but they emphasize conservation efforts through landowners and non-governmental parties.

The Farm Bureau president said, "The ESA can and must be modernized to protect endangered species and respect private property rights. Neither agriculture nor the endangered species have time to wait." I agree that a thoughtful and respectful conversation about how to "modernize" the ESA could be important, if the focus is on what policies would do the best job of protecting species.

A different article from the Farm Bureau, though, shifted the priorities. "Reform should include a focus on species recovery and habitat conservation that respects landowners and prioritizes basic human needs over those of endangered species." Prioritizing human needs over endangered species contradicts Pope Francis' bold theology. Even the Farm Bureau's relatively nuanced position says that we humans do have the right to cause extinction.

I don't know of anyone who proposes that species intentionally should be wiped out. (Oh, wait! Last summer I explored whether we should "kill all the mosquitos" to stop the Zika virus.) But generally, the question of species protection gets down to priorities. Do we make the recovery of endangered species the top priority, or is it something we try to do if it doesn't disrupt other things that we value? (Six years ago, I dealt with the question of the subordinate clause, of top and secondary priorities, in terms of climate action.)

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Yesterday, as part of my careful and rigorous research for this article, I spent over two hours at the Denver Zoo. (I assure you that my visit had nothing to do with the unseasonable weather -- 75 degrees and bright sun in February!)

I sat with a big crowd of other visitors as one of the zoo's Asian elephants was fed and exercised. The staff taught us that there are only 3,000 Asian elephants left in the world. The primary threat to their existence is habitat loss, mostly from the spread of palm oil plantations. Do we have a right to exterminate this marvelous species, so that we can have a cheap food additive?

I learned of a new program at the Denver Zoo working for the protection and recovery of the critically endangered Lake Titicaca Frog. The biologically unique frogs (they don't need to breathe air) are at risk because the Peruvian people have run the amphibians through a blender to make a "shake" used to mimic the drug Viagra. Zoo staff and locals are doing environmental education, creating economic alternatives for the shake-makers, and working to reduce pollution. The frogs now being bred in Denver and other zoos are an important protection against disaster, and just in time. Thousands of the frogs recently died in Peru, apparently from pollution. The zoo's work on frogs respects both human needs and species survival, but it is shaped with a focus on the frogs.

How will we understand humanity's place and purpose in creation? Will we affirm, with Pope Francis, that all species have a right to exist, and that we have no right to cause extinction? Or will we "prioritize basic human needs over those of endangered species"?

Those are important questions that come to a head with the Endangered Species Act. They are also important though, as we do our grocery shopping -- avoiding unsustainable palm oil or endangered fish species -- and as we evaluate how quickly and vigorously to address habitat-disrupting climate change.

I pray that we can at least try to start from the theologically rigorous stance of species protection. May our ethics challenge our self-interest, and push us to place the greatest emphasis on the health and vitality of God's whole creation.

Attention scientists and academics -- This summer the American Scientific Affiliation (an international network of Christians in the sciences) is holding their annual conference in Golden, Colorado. Central to the gathering are presentations of papers on a range of theological, ethical and technical topics. The call for abstracts has been extended to February 28. Researchers, teachers and students may submit proposals. (Disclosure: I'm on the committee evaluating the papers. I'd love to see one from you!)

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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