For the 49th commemoration of Earth Day, two members of the Franciscan Response to Fossil Fuels reflect on the damage they have seen done to the environment. Jackie Schramm spent 11 years in the Philippines as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, looks at parallels between the Philippines then and the United States now. Barbara Stomber, a seasoned traveler, has witnessed much of the natural world in its unparalleled beauty and, more recently, in its decline and degradation.
Then and Now: Jackie’s Witness
We made a seismic shift environmentally in 2006 when fracking was added to our repertoire of fossil fuel production in the United States. What made matters worse is that fracking was exempted from the Energy Act of 2006 so it was unmonitored and unregulated. With lightning speed, fracking drills and pipelines popped up like dots and dashes in crisscross patterns across 39 states.
The fracking process drills deeper to 400-million-year-old shale and then spreads miles across at that deep level. Leaky cement pipe casings, all of them which will fail within 25 years, according to experts, cause the eruption of methane into our water and atmosphere; methane is 87% more damaging to climate change than CO2, according to Food and Water Watch. A vast array of very toxic chemicals is used to frack, mixed with tons of water, which permanently pollute our water aquifers. Large condensers spray this fracked waste into our air causing deadly illness in people and animals.
The main selling point that overrode all the health and environmental warnings was that it would make the U.S. “energy independent.” The fact is that we didn’t need all this fracked gas; we are exporting roughly 50% in 2019 through a web of pipelines and oil trains to our ports. And it has kept us from vigorously transitioning to sustainable renewable energy from fossil fuel dependency at a critical juncture.
Part of the definition of a third world country is one that destroys or depletes its own natural resources for foreign consumption. In the Philippines case, for example, it was tied to economics. The World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hog-tied underdeveloped countries to do the biding of developed nations, i.e. the U.S., in exchange for loans for “development.” But the United States has fallen into this third world category and yet we are the most “developed” nation in the world. So why are we doing this?
“Nature viewed solely as a source of profit and gain has serious consequences for society… immense inequality, injustice… winner takes all.” (paragraph 82,”Laudato Si'”). Pope Francis wrote his comprehensive encyclical on climate change above all else as a “call-to-action.” It could not be more critical today; we are all connected in this climate crisis and it needs everybody to solve it.
I had my first encounter with the IMF and WB schemes in 1978 when I moved to Mindanao, a southern island in the Philippines. Mindanao was the “richest tropical agricultural land in the world,” teeming with tropical virgin forests, rich soil, abundant fruits and minerals such as gold, uranium, silver and copper. Beautiful coasts were lined with mangroves, coral and every type of tropical fish.
Transnational corporations moved to Mindanao to take advantage of the year-round crop yields because there were no typhoons. Tax-free zones and other laws gave foreign corporations 60% ownership rights. Its eight-mile deep trenches off the coastlines made it ideal as ports for large ships to export the produce.
Impact on Poor
By 1993, virgin forests were all but destroyed and people had been displaced and replaced by foreign-owned palm oil, pineapple, rubber and banana plantations. Palm oil plantations are responsible for deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses; because of its versatility, palm oil can now be found in approximately 50% of products on supermarket shelves.
Today, much of Mindanao comprises plantations. Mangrove and virgin forests are not there anymore to protect the coastal areas against the increased strength of typhoons and rising sea levels. They experience typhoons where none occurred before. The Filipino poor are the first to feel the effects of climate change.
Worldwide, this story has been duplicated in the span of a few decades, by palm oil, mining, mountain top removal, fracking and its pipelines, GMOs and other causes.
I look at the Philippines as a cautionary tale when I see what fracking is causing right now in our own backyard, be it the extensive fracked gas and oil pipelines to ports (pipes will leak over time and can explode), the volatile fracked crude oil trains riding through our towns (they explode too), the landfills, Superfund sites, treatment plants for fracked waste, the GMO experiment and on and on. In Pope Francis’ words:
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (p. 21, “Laudato Si'”)
The Philippines was forced to destroy its environment for foreign consumption. What is the reason we Americans allow the same to happen here in the United States? Do we believe we need fossil fuels “at all costs” for our convenient lifestyle? Do we believe there are no other solutions — like job-creating sustainable energy industries — because we allow the fossil fuel industry to continue to benefit from greed, subsidies and misinformation campaigns? Do we as a nation not care about our future generations? Are we not willing or able to imagine a “Green New Deal” for the 21st century?
Global Changes: Barbara’s Witness
One of our family’s priorities in life has been “to see the world.” Our trips have given me the chance to not only get to see how people live but to see in many countries the harm that people’s behavior is causing.
Recently, I traveled through Vietnam — from Hanoi in the north to DaNang on the coast to Saigon in the south. Industry is booming, coal is widely used. Motor scooters are replacing bikes in the tens of thousands. Air pollution is overwhelming. An air mask can be bought on the street in any fabric, color or design for the cost of one American dollar. The mask clips over the ears and is remarkably comfortable to wear. I used it throughout the country. I checked the weather daily during my three-week stay; my iPhone told me “full sun.” Unfortunately, the sun never made it through the thick smog that pervades the cities. I experienced similar air pollution in Beijing, New Delhi, Hong Kong and Quito. As our population increases and the demand for the conveniences we take for granted spreads to other developing countries, I wonder what the outcome will be.
On another recent trip, I went to Iguana Island, a small island of pristine beauty off the coast of Panama, a refuge for frigate and other sea birds, I was extremely disheartened to see broken pieces of bleached coral strewn along the entire shoreline. Coral, called the “rainforest of the seas,” provides home and shelter to 25% of all fish in the ocean, and coral reefs are dying around the world due to the warming of the ocean and acidification. In addition, sea birds have declined by 70% since the middle of the 20th century as commercial fisheries compete for their food. Will the birds on this sanctuary island have a chance to survive? Will the local fisherman who rely on the coral reefs to continue their livelihood continue to survive?
I have also visited a desert wasteland that once hosted coastal forests and thriving mangroves, met rangers in Africa who give their lives to protect rapidly diminishing species from extinction and poachers, and oil men in New Orleans whose job it is to find yet more oil in a fragile landscape despite the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Why are we leaving this legacy to our children and grandchildren?
Solutions on the Horizon
Pope Francis’ Encyclical On Climate Change and Inequality — On Care for our Common Home (know commonly by its beginning words in Latin: “Laudato Si'”) insists that we embrace the moral dimensions that are associated with climate change, deforestation, and the need for clean, safe drinking water, genetic modification of crops (GMOs) and more. The Washington Post calls Pope Francis’ grasp of the science behind climate change “masterful” and The New York Times brands it “an urgent call to action.”
As a result of the documented dangers of fracking and its connection through its methane emissions to accelerating climate change, Franciscan Response to Fossil Fuels, based on the principles of St. Francis, creates awareness of the critical challenges we face as greenhouse gases continue to heat our planet, warming and acidifying our oceans.
As followers of the Franciscan tradition, we believe that all creation is a manifestation of the goodness of God. We, as well as the rest of creation, are dependent on one another, and all humans and the natural world are interconnected. God’s goodness does not simply manifest itself in the physical beauty of creation but the inner beauty of ideals and actions. These include virtues of compassion, goodness and justice. Climate change has been described as the world’s greatest threat — to both the current and future generations — by the vast majority of climate scientists, as well as by the World Economic Forum, the World Health Organization, world leaders including Pope Francis, President Obama and 194 other leaders of countries and organizations who signed the Paris Agreement in 2016.
A bold new idea called the “Green New Deal” is being explored in Congress to address the issue of Climate Change and Inequality. Based on the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a stimulus to deliver a set of social and economic reforms to end the Great Depression, it combines Roosevelt’s economic approach with modern ideas such as renewable energy and resource efficiency. Its premise is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions while transitioning workers, invest in infrastructure sustainably, secure clean air and water and a sustainable environment, and promote justice and equity for vulnerable communities. We need a drastic solution to resolve a catastrophic series of events. Could this be the answer? As Pope Francis says, each of us will be required to do our part in solving this global crisis. Our survival as a species depends on this.
We urge people to get involved. In honor of Earth Day, attend an event that looks at solutions to this planetary crisis. Bring a family member or friend. Form or join an action group. Read “Laudato Si'” as a “call to action.” This involvement may prove life-changing.
— Jackie Schramm and Barbara Stomber are both residents of Wayne, N.J. Schramm worked for 29 years, from 1989 to 2018, at St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J., as a volunteer and as creator and director of the Social Justice Ministry and is currently a member of the HNP Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate. She and Stomber are founding members of Franciscan Response to Fracking, now Franciscan Response to Fossil Fuels, which has networked with other faith-based and environmental groups to support life on earth and all that sustains us since 2011. They meet monthly, speak and write to legislators, develop educational programs, attend town halls, actions and conferences with the aim of moving New Jersey to 100% renewable energy by 2050 in what has become a primary focus of their lives.
Editor’s note: Additional reflections on seasonal themes can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.
“Province Celebrates Earth Day and Beauty of God’s Creation” – May 10, 2017, HNP Today
“New Jersey Parish Launches Website About Environment” – Sept. 29, 2015, HNP Today
“Franciscans Welcome Laudato Si’” – June 24, 2015, HNP Today
“Who’s Tampering with Our Water Supply: A Franciscan Response to Fracking” by Jacquelyn Schramm – July 27, 2011, HNP Today