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Let’s Listen for ‘Cry of the Poor’ before the ‘Cry of the Earth’

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When governments have followed the sort of environmental and free-market admonitions Pope Francis gave us in Laudato Si, negative results often follow. This struck your writer this past week as he read a piece reporting the unforeseen consequences of one specific wrongheaded environmental effort.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis writes:

Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor [italics in original].

Yet, the Pope’s analysis mostly responds to earthly matters when he praises biodiversity and ecosystems as well as:

… marine life in rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, which feeds a great part of the world’s population … affected by uncontrolled fishing, leading to a drastic depletion of certain species. Selective forms of fishing which discard much of what they collect continue unabated. Particularly threatened are marine organisms which we tend to overlook, like some forms of plankton; they represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them.

It’s difficult to find disagreement with Pope Francis on such wasteful actions, but one wonders if Francis would’ve agreed with the National Resource Defense Council back in 2007, when it convinced a California judge the state violated the Endangered Species Act. According (subscription required) to National Review writer Charles C. W. Cooke in his essay “Golden State Dust Bowl:”

California has constructed a complex system of pipes and pumps that funnel lifesaving water southward from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Since 2007, that system has been deliberately crippled. In that year, the National Resource Defense Council convinced a judge that, by operating the pumps at high capacity, California was killing too many smelts – as small fish that is explicitly protected within the Endangered Species Act. In consequence, the throughput was severely curtailed, and the farmers, who under the state’s ‘seniority’ system have the last claim on the water, were all cut off. Two years later the drought began, and a blow was struck upon a bruise.

What follows is a tragic saga, mostly unavoidable, that depicts in terms rivaling John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the economic and social devastation wrought in part by the 2007 court decision. Fresno County, for example, was forced to lay off 77 people, including 70 deputies, resulting in an increase in crime and gang membership. Also:

When I ask for information, the visitors surround me and share their stories of decline. A once ‘vibrant school system with lots of parent support’ has been turned into a nightmare, in which families ‘starve and scrape together to survive’; there is abundant ‘domestic violence,’ and ‘kids need constant counseling’; single-family homes are now ‘hovels for multiple families,’ while ‘garages are shelters for out-of-luck workers’; the food banks have ‘gone from assistance to subsistence’ – so necessary, perhaps, that ‘in 70 or 80 percent of communities, they are indispensible.’

The remainder of Cooke’s article is an artfully rendered, journalistic account of the unforeseen negative consequences of one particular, well-intended environmental effort (albeit one exacerbated by California’s drought, which both Cooke and your author acknowledge).

The cry of the poor is indeed deafening in Cooke’s essay, and one Pope Francis should acknowledge before the cry of the Earth. Both require attention, but human life always should be granted priority. Plankton and smelt come later.

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Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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