The Thirst for Balance: Living Our Responsibility to Promote Environmental and Economic Justice

*Photo: open cut hard rock mining, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; Wikimedia Commons

by Nancy Brouillard McKenzie

“It is not right to sate the [human] “thirst” [for energy] by adding to other people’s physical thirst for water, their poverty, or their social exclusion.”

-Pope Francis; June 9, 2018

On May 24, 2015, Pope Francis issued his papal encyclical letter Laudato Si’:  On Care for Our Common Home, in which he urged the world to protect our common home and to end man-made climate change. Later, Pope Francis celebrated the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aspires to reduce global carbon emissions and keep the global temperature rise below 2º C compared to pre‑industrial levels. In a major setback, the United States abandoned this agreement in 2017.

Worsening climate change, growing energy demands, and an expanding global economy continue to damage Mother Earth and vulnerable communities. 

Recently, Pope Francis summoned to the Vatican leading oil, gas, other energy-related executives and energy investors to the Conference on Energy Transition and Care for the Common Home. In closed-door sessions over two days, participants discussed climate change with environmentalists and aid executives. Afterwards, Pope Francis addressed the conferees about the human thirst for energy and the effects of this unending thirst on our common good and vulnerable communities.

While reading Pope Francis’ speech, I reflected on Columbans on mission in 16 countries serving those communities and living the Columban advocacy priorities for environmental and economic justice. My prayers guided me to Columbans living in Pakistan, the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change in the world. Pakistan suffers an increasing number of extreme weather events and struggles with enormous debt. Of the 200 million people in Pakistan, about 96% are Muslim, 2% are Hindu, and 2% are Christians.

Father Liam O’Callahan, SSC and Father Tomas King, SSC have spent many years in different places in Pakistan and built up strong trust and relationships through interfaith dialogue. As the Coordinator of the Ecology Commission of the Diocese of Hyderabad City, Father Liam works with groups using multiple strategies to safeguard the environment and vulnerable communities from the harm of climate change.

Father Tomas and Father Liam live with the poorest of the poor in the densely populated Sindh province. Sindh solely depends on monsoons for water. Climate change initiated a 10‑year drought in Sindh that caused many deaths, loss of the two main livelihoods—farming and cattle raising—and internal migration for work, food, and water. 

Sindh’s Tharparkar Desert is the world’s only fertile desert. It provides fresh water from its underground aquifers, and has the world’s largest underground coal reserve. Coal mining is the greatest challenge to Sindh’s environment. It threatens the community, as well as the relationships and trust Columbans established through interfaith dialogue.

Pakistan wants a full‑scale mining operation with a coal burning power plant to stop “load shedding” or shortages of electricity for long periods. However, environmentalists wonder if Pakistan’s heavy dependence on China’s $51.5 billion investment under the China‑Pakistan Economic Corridor conceals a plan to reduce Pakistan’s debt and send coal to China.

a coal shipment underway in China; Wikimedia Commons

Father Tomas and Father Liam keep advocating for our common home and vulnerable communities. The moral, environmental, and economic costs of mining operations are high. Will the thirst for coal cause harmful damage and pollution to Sindh’s environment, health issues, and loss of homes and livelihoods? Will Pakistan contaminate or divert all water from Tharparkar’s aquifer to the mining operations? What will happen if droughts occur? What will be left for future generations living in the Sindh province? (LS 159)

Among his other environmental and social justice projects, Father Liam formed groups to educate people on Pope Francis’ messages to the world in Laudato Si’, lobby the government and political leaders for clean water, and mitigate the effects of climate change in Pakistan. Father Liam is creating two interfaith environmental groups and advocating for safe drinking water in Sindh and across Pakistan. Unsafe drinking water is responsible for 80% of all illnesses in the country and 40% of all deaths.

The United Nations Climate Change News just reported that complying with the goals of the Paris Agreement and investing now in climate change adaption “can not only reduce social, ecological, and economic harm, but buffer against fiscal impairments.” I wonder how many nations will act on that finding.

My spiritual challenge with events in the Sindh and the crisis of climate change in the world is growing. Taking shorter showers and using less water and energy are not enough. Our journey with Jesus means taking greater responsibility to advocate for God's creation and vulnerable communities. It is a challenge I must urgently accept.

Learn More

  • Learn more about extractive industries (like the coal mining in Pakistan) and the economic model known as extractivism by visiting JustResponse.Faith. This website is a project of the Inter-religious Working Group on Extractive Industries, a coalition of faith, human rights, and environmental organizations concerned about the negative impact of extractive industries on creation, which includes both the human and natural world. This website includes a "101 backgrounder" on extractive industries and their social and environmental impacts. The Columban Center is a member of this coalition. 
  • Read the Columban statement on extractive industries, which details our concerns and our proposed solutions to the negative consequences of extractive industries.