Ecological Exiles

“I have seen the earth,” lamented the prophet Jeremiah, “and here in this place is wildness and waste, and I look to the heavens—and their light is gone. I have seen the mountains, and here, they are wavering, and all the hills palpitate. I have seen, and here there is no human being, and all the birds of the heavens have fled. I have seen, and here, the garden-land is now the wasteland, and all its cities are pulled down” (Jer 4:23-26).

Across the earth, the garden land that God loved into being is fast becoming a wasteland. Hills are indeed literally palpitating in Appalachia where explosives are used to blow off the tops of mountains to access the seams of coal below. When this coal is burned to generate electricity, the carbon dioxide that is the by-product of coal combustion is released into the atmosphere, and this heat-trapping gas fuels global warming and contributes to the melting of glaciers, the rising of sea level, the intensification of storms and the changing of weather patterns that are already displacing people around the globe. Last October on the Feast of Saint Francis, the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change organized nationwide screenings of the film Sun Come Up documenting the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands north of Papua New Guinea. The Islanders are among the first of the world’s people to be forced to relocate as rising sea levels creep over the islands on which they have lived simply and sustainably for generations. Climate change is also contributing to the food shortages in Africa that are compelling droves of people to leave their homes and seek refuge in Southern Europe. The United Nations projects that by the year 2020, fifty million people will be displaced by climate change. Some say this number will triple to 50 million by 2050.

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In “Strangers No Longer—Together on the Journey of Hope,” a pastoral letter coauthored by the Catholic Bishops of Mexico and the United States in 2003, the bishops reflect on the mass migration of people across the U.S.-Mexico border in light of Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching. They call for both a pastoral response to the suffering of people and policies that will address not just the symptoms but the root causes of migration. “Only a long-term effort that adjusts economic inequalities between the United States and Mexico will provide Mexican workers with employment opportunities that will allow them to remain at home and to support themselves and their families,” they emphasize. “The Church has consistently singled out economic inequality between nations as a global disorder that must be addressed. In the relationship between the United States and Mexico we have witnessed the application of economic policies that do not adequately take into account the welfare of individual proprietors who struggle to survive. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has harmed small businesses in Mexico, especially in the rural sector. Both nations should reconsider the impact of economic and trade agreements on persons who work hard at making a living through individual enterprises. The creation of employment opportunities in Mexico would help to reduce poverty and would mitigate the incentive for many migrants to look for employment in the United States” (no. 60 and 61).

The root causes of migration include not only economic policies but also ecological degradation and climate change. Neither of these issues was addressed in the Immigration Bill that passed the Senate by a vote of 68-32 this week. In response to the passage of S. 744, the  United States Jesuit Conference issued a statement that lauded those provisions of the legislation that will allow many of our undocumented brothers and sisters to qualify for citizenship. But they also expressed disappointment in the portions of the legislation that “dramatically militarize our border with Mexico at an estimated cost of 46 billion dollars. These provisions double the number of Border Patrol agents and provide warfare technology for non-military operations by introducing drones, infrared sensors and 140 million dollars’ worth of Blackhawk helicopters into civilian border communities. All of this will be implemented despite serious transparency and accountability failures by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and despite unprecedented growth in the immigration enforcement apparatus over the last decade. We must express our deep concern about the impacts these policies will have on the civil rights of border residents, the humane treatment of migrants, and the natural environment at the southern border.”

The Immigration Bill passed the Senate in the same week that President Obama announced a long-overdue climate action plan. The global crisis of the displacement of persons would be far better served if the 46 billion dollars the Senate would spend to further militarize the U.S.-Mexico border were invested instead in reforestation, sustainable agriculture and the research, development, production and deployment of the infrastructure for a new green energy economy.

Let not the garden land become a wasteland.

Elizabeth Groppe is associate professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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