The pictures of oil-encrusted seagulls and cranes from the Gulf of Mexico glimpse only the surface of the death and destruction beneath the sea from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. Marine biologists fear for shrimp, oysters, crabs and untold varieties of fish endangered by the oil assault on the fragile ecosystem. The wetlands of Louisiana, a critical spawning ground for many species, present the next worry.
Our addiction to oil keeps 7,000 oil platforms with 35,000 wells in the gulf pumping crude to fuel our lifestyle of mobility and convenience. Yet, federal statistics reveal 172 spills of more than 2,100 gallons in the gulf over the last decade. The effects of the Exxon Valdez spill still linger in the coastal habitat two decades later along the Alaskan shoreline. Our petroleum economy with its drilling, shipping, refining and burning oil is killing the planet locally with poisoned water and air and globally with accelerated climate change.
While secular publications raise the issues of economic impact and legal liability, people of faith are reflecting on phrases like “common good,” “solidarity” and “care of creation.” The National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) issued a statement encouraging people of faith to “ask for the wisdom to live in harmony with God’s plan and the courage to serve as stewards of God’s creation.” The statement implies our ordinary economic ways disregard God’s plan, especially when rural residents and the environment pay the price. (Disclosure: as board member, I contributed to the statement.)
Carelessly we ignored essential moral principles and consequently invited disaster. All workers have a right to a safe workplace, yet we complacently allow workers to risk their lives to supply our energy from oil rigs and coal mines. Eleven men died in the gulf rig explosion when only two weeks before 29 miners died in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine. The global economy demands productivity and profits, producing a corporate culture that occasions short-cuts and negligence. Regulations go unenforced and workers give their lives for a paycheck. Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in his pastoral letter, “On My Holy Mountain,” asks: “Why is it safer to travel in space than to work in a West Virginia mine?”
Extractive industries, now virtually controlled by giant corporations, operate for the enrichment of their stockholders. With a “least cost” incentive, frequently their methods reduce the rural area to a sacrificial resource colony. In the gulf those whose livelihoods revolve around fishing or tourism just got sacrificed. In Appalachia community people whose lives and well-being depend on their well water and forests just lost to mountaintop removal.
Care of creation comes directly from the Book of Genesis when God put humanity in the garden “to care and cultivate it” (Gn 2:15). God’s garden, i.e., creation, needs attention because it possesses inherit worth. God found it “very good” (Gn 1:31), and not just “useful.”
The NCRLC statement recommends that “we reflect about our own lifestyles that make undue demands on nature.” The United States with 4.5 percent of the world’s population uses 33 percent of all electricity generated each year and consumes 42 percent of gasoline refined. How many vacant parking lots are illumined all night, and how many computers are on “sleep mode” all weekend?
“In these days of anxiety, we encourage people of faith to assemble for prayer and sharing,” says the NCRLC statement. The gulf folks need one another’s support, but the whole Church needs to ratchet up care of creation to a higher ranking in the Gospel of Life.