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Inequality of basic needs

Pope Francis noted in “Laudato Si’” how environmental degradation has a disproportionate adverse impact on the impoverished of the world.
That is quite easy to see in the developing world. However, it is a little more subtle here in the United States and in the rest of the industrialized West.
Take the city of Flint, Mich., and its crisis of lead in the city water. By every measure, this community is a poor and primarily minority population. Unemployment in Flint runs about 1 percent above the national rate. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. In 2015 the median household income was under $25,000 -- less than half of the national median household income. Less than 83 percent of its residents are high school graduates and only 11.2 percent are college graduates.
The combination of population characteristics in Flint is often associated with a relatively powerless population.
In contrast, more than 91 percent of Vermont residents are high school graduates and more than 40 percent have higher levels of education.
Flint has been in the news because of its water problems.
Prevention of lead poisoning has long been an essential aspect of running public water systems.
Lead poisoning was recognized in ancient Roman and Greek times; it was known to be toxic to the human body and to have an adverse effect on the human mind.
Without rehashing all the details from Flint, changes made to the water system resulted in lead being leached from antiquated lead pipes.
The process lacked due diligence for the safety of the residents. There was also a failure by public officials to alert the community to the hazard after the problem was recognized. Delays in remediation and communication of the hazard were costly to the health of many children.
A child’s brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning; lead poisoning results in reduced intellectual and emotional growth along with behavioral problems. Those health and social problems will continue impose burdens on these impoverished families and society for decades to come.
Flint’s poverty clearly played a role in this tragedy. City officials, perhaps operating in very good faith, saw an opportunity to reduce the cost of its water system and moved to take advantage of the savings without having done a sufficiently thorough engineering analysis that would have identified the potential problems and prevented the disastrous consequences. A more prosperous city might not have seen the need to take the risk or revamping the water system.
This is but one example of lead or other toxic chemicals in the drinking water, the air or the soil in less-affluent communities in the United States. Lead has been ubiquitous in paint on the walls of older housing stock in poor communities. Lead can even be carried in dust and transported by wind. The consequences of these hazards fall on the impoverished residents of those communities. According to a report from Reuters News Service, high levels of blood lead in children have recently been identified in nearly 3,000 other U.S. locations, including large cities and small towns.1
In Vermont, the chemical PFOA2 has migrated in ground water to North Bennington from a manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. PFOA is suspected of causing cancer. Vermont officials and company officials have endeavored to respond appropriately to the needs of local residents, but in this situation it is hard to predict what the final economic and health burdens for residents will be.3 These burdens are worse for the poor since limited financial resources limit options to remedy a problem.
The moral imperative is clear. Health effects of hazardous materials must be properly and pro-actively addressed by public officials and private sector decision makers. There can be no excuse for exposing human beings to risk of significant harm, whether by overt action or by failure to act. With deteriorating infrastructure and increased budgetary pressures, I fear the problem may even get worse. The effects will disproportionately harm the impoverished and the voiceless.
1 www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa- lead-testing/
2 PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in producing Teflon.
3 www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/nyregion/vermont-town- is-latest- to-face- pfoa-tainted- water-scare.html?_r=0

Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

Cry of the Earth; Cry of the Poor

Since the release of the encyclical, “Laudato Si,’” last year, Pope Francis has continued to emphasize the importance of ecological justice.
In the document, he demonstrates how “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue.” He reemphasized this point during the Year of Mercy: making care for creation a prayer intention; suggesting that care for creation be added to the traditional lists of works of mercy; and proposing, “Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home” as one of six new beatitudes. Pope Francis proclaims that ecological justice is inherently a part of the Christian mission of mercy, service and love.
In October, we saw one of the strongest storms ever to hit the Caribbean in Hurricane Matthew. This is a direct effect of reckless human use of natural resources, of disrespect for the world created by God. Yes, storms exist as part of the natural weather patterns on the planet, but rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contribute to the rising temperature of the planet. Warmer oceans produce stronger storms with heavier rains, which in turn contribute to increased flooding in coastal areas.
Pope Francis explains, in addition to the immediate dangers of flooding, “many of the poor . . . are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.” The long-term effects of climate change, such as the migration and/or death of animals and plants, also “affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children.” They become ecological refugees, fleeing from poverty caused by environmental degradation. Furthermore, the communities to which they flee often do not greet them with a welcoming embrace or a more beneficial ecology.
We often think of climate change as primarily affecting poor communities in other areas of the world, in the future, and this is true, but the distinction is just as much one of socioeconomics as it is of geography. The pope turns to the ecological experiences of the poor in our cities, “which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation and visual pollution and noise.
Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water.” Some of us are privileged to reap the benefits of living near a city while retreating to fresh air and open space anytime we wish. Many are not so fortunate.
He continues, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.”
The poor are met with ecological adversity in urban, rural, coastal and inland communities. As people who stand for life and human dignity, we cannot remain blind to this reality, and once informed, we cannot remain complacent. We must “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” as “Laudato Si’” urges us to do.
The effects of climate change are vividly present in all of creation’s communities, right now.
Pope Francis asserts, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature.” Social justice initiatives require attention to ecological justice if we truly wish to better our world and the lives of those who call it home.
  • Published in World
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