Archive for October, 2010

How Sinful Are Environmental Harms?

October 29, 2010

In the discussion in my last post, the topic came up about how sinful environmental harms are compared to other sins.

I’m no moral theologian, so these are only my poor assessments.  I would say that intentially killing a person through the usual means — abortion (when the mother’s life is not at stake) or holding up a gas station and killing the attendant, or perhaps even killing a loved one in a fit of rage — would be worse than causing pollution which unintentionally kills people or causes miscarriages and birth defects.

Although one environmental case sticks out here I heard years back in our campaign to ban and regulate leaf burning.  A man had the habit of burning fall leaves in his yard.  His next-door neighbor asked him to stop, since they had a teen daughter with severe asthma who got very sick every time he did that.  The neighbor persisted as there wasn’t any leaf-burning ban, and one day the daughter came home from school while he was burning leaves.  She never made it to the front door, but collapsed and died in her yard from a severe asthma attack.  Still not as sinful as having an abortion or killing a gas station attendant, but pretty sinful.

And there are companies who knowingly do things that are dangerous and could cause death — such as the fish company I read about 30+ years ago that added something way above the allowed limit (I think sodium nitrite) to make a rotten fish smell okay to make a sale, causing the a family who ate it to get serious stomach problems and their son to die.  (BTW, the company owner got off the hook with a $200 fine.)  And companies knowingly putting toxic stuff in toys, or pollute rivers that cause harm or death — those I think are fairly serious sins.

Then there’s us regular folks (not nefarious company owners) who go about our lives emitting various pollutions and causing toxic harm, including aborting babies through that pollution.  This would not be as serious as killing a gas station attendant, but neverthess sinful, IF WE UNDERSTAND THAT OUR ACTIONS CAN KILL or ARE KILLING OTHERS.

This final caveat is the clincher.  I think most people just don’t know they are harming others through environmental harms, and even the most informed environmentalist would not know ALL the harms he or she was causing.  And even all the scientists put together may not know the “God-only-knows” harms we are causing.

We just do the best we can with our limited time, talents, and treasures to find out these harms and reduce them as much as feasible.  We follow the precautionary principle of prudence — ready to assume that we are harming others even if the science has not yet reached 95% confidence….as the U.S. bishops have suggested.

But there is this other environmental sin — opting to disregard not just emerging science but also science that has reached 95% confidence, and insist to self and others that they are not causing harm.  I’m thinking of the climate change denialists — some of them on a campaign to dissuade others from mitigating climate change; and all the other harms from doing the same things that cause global warming…like profligately driving one’s internal combustion engine Hummer well above and beyond the call of duty & family, emitting not only greenhouse gases but various other pollutants that cause local harms & deaths and acid rain (which causes death from lung problems, as well as killing lakes, forests, and harming soil and property), and ocean acidification.

To me this is a pretty grave sin, but I’m not sure how it stacks up against killing a gas station attendant or having an abortion for non-life threatening reasons — still less than these sins, I suppose.

So you take this retired physicist or engineer with a nest egg to carry him in good style for many decades (I understand many climate change denialists come from these ranks — an army of people who think they know better than the vast majority of actual working climate scientists), getting 300 other people deny climate change and go on emitting the same or even more greenhouse gases, which eventually leads to the death of 10,000 people when climate hysteresis or runaway warming is triggered (which it may be if we persist on our current path), killing off a large chunk of humanity or even all life on planet earth, as some working climate scientists suggest could happen…


…a hapless woman having an abortion because she was caught in the Pakistani flood (likely enhanced by global warming), has nothing, and needs to be there to help her 7 other children survive.

Perhaps that abortion is still a worse sin than that of the climate denialist, even though it is one life lost v. a tremendous loss of lives when we slip into climate hysteresis or runaway warming as on Venus (for more info on this see esp pg. 24 of )

However, I’m thinking that climate change denialist is perhaps almost as guilty as Cain, and for similar reasons — killing, then denying it.  It’s certainly worse than people with no clue at all causing death through their environmental harms.

So, anyway, please don’t have an abortion, and please don’t kill gas station attendants or loved ones in rage, and please also reduce environmental harms.  That is my plea.