Pope Francis’s new encyclical Laudato Si is, as expected, making a lot of waves. Though it maintains the criticism of market ideology found in both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (the latter even once called for a “New World Order” capable of restraining the destructive effects of unfettered economics), Laudato Si is unambiguous about what needs to change. Even conservative commentators are noticing there is little wiggle room, opting for outright critique of the document rather than simple domestication. Laudato Si addresses, however, the undeniable situation of humanity today, one in which humans can and do actually change the environments we find ourselves in—and Pope Francis recognizes that we can no longer afford to ignore the increasingly toxic environment we are actively producing.
Pope Francis recognizes that we can no longer afford to ignore the increasingly toxic environment we are actively producing.
In a recent article published in Rolling Stone, Paul Solotaroff tells the story of a fracking town, Vernal, Utah, where infant mortality rates are rising at an alarming rate. The discovery of this tragedy was made not by the EPA, and certainly not by those in the fracking business, but by a midwife, Donna Young, for whom infant mortality rates are not a statistic but a lived reality. As Solotaroff narrates, the conditions of Vernal are hardly inviting for the fragile development of new lives. Fracking, which injects high-pressured fluid into the ground in order to force the gas underneath to the surface, produces a variety of derivative environmental effects—perhaps most troubling are the carcinogenic gases which populate both the air and the ground. Vernal’s location in a basin only compounds the problems, since the bowl traps the gases producing a thick haze of contaminants.
When Young began to investigate the unusually high numbers of infant deaths and troubled pregnancies she was encountering, her reputation and position were quickly maligned—for a town that depends on fracking to exist, calling its adverse effects to the fore is a dangerous political move. Young’s story is heartbreaking, a classic case of someone trying desperately to speak the truth for the common good but being squelched for the sake of deep pockets. But Solotaroff’s article brings another important question to the fore, namely, the general problem of atmospheric conditions. Vernal is a town where the environment is literally becoming unsuitable for life.