Dollars and Cents, Ethics and Ecology

Article excerpt

Franciscan Sr. Kathie Uhler has for months been working on a series of panel presentations to the United Nations that will show the damage exploitative mining has had on the indigenous populations of countries like Peru, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

As Uhler has learned in her research, inhabitants of an area are often unaware of mining--for gems, coal or oil--that is taking place a short distance from their homes, perhaps on a mountaintop, until natural resources have already been polluted. In many cases, she said, the governments of countries where this mining occurs have allowed companies to do the work without alerting area residents or giving them a choice in the matter.

"You have a microcosm, in mining, of what's happening to the whole earth," said Uhler, one of about 400 attendees at the Trinity Institute's recent "Building an Ethical Economy" conference, a three-day event inside the vaulted chapel of the Episcopalian Trinity Church here on Wall Street. The Jan. 27-29 event included remarks from Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, England, and Kathryn Tanner, theology professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Uhler said the panel discussions, which blended economics, ethics, theology and environmental responsibility, have helped focus her upcoming project, on which she is collaborating with a number of organizations.

"They helped me to put in my own language this huge thing that's happening and where we go from here," Uhler said. "You can't really put dollars and cents on water and aquifers--these things belong to everyone."

Uhler said the panel discussions helped her better understand the relationship between faith and economics, and "forced me to think about how the Gospel that I profess to live helps me to address the economic problems of the day." She took particular interest in panelist Partha Dasgupta's explanation of wealth as it relates to natural resources.

"Are humanity's dealings with nature sustainable?" asked Dasgupta, economics professor at Cambridge University's St. John's College in England.

He said there is convincing evidence that continued exploitation of natural capital--ocean fisheries, river estuaries, aquifers, tropical forests and ecosystems in general--will result in its changing "dramatically, for the worse, with little advance notice."

"There isn't just one environmental problem," he continued, tracing the issues from the sphere of environmental conservation to those of politics and macroeconomics. …