One step forward: an energy week retrospective
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, November 9, 2017
At the beginning of October, Notre Dame celebrated both Respect Life Week and Energy Week. Both featured daily events that explored how our lifestyles and choices affect others. Despite the timing and content similarities, events from the two series are traditionally not coordinated in their planning, and the cohort of attendees is, for the most part, separate.
Being a sustainability nut, I attended several Energy Week events. The documentaries I saw revealed glaring right-to-life issues. Documentaries exposed the struggles of families dealing with water contaminated by toxic mine runoff. I saw retired coal miners with black lung explain that their company had cut their pension plans and health benefits. I heard a fellow student share about the severity of the air pollution in his home city of Dallas.
These people’s suffering is not simply unfortunate but is unjust and avoidable. That family’s water was contaminated because a mountaintop removal mining company had bulldozed mining debris into a stream. Those miners’ company purposefully sank its pension funds into a subsidiary that was losing money. The air pollution in Dallas and Fort Worth results from the countless upwind natural gas wells that leak methane and dispose of toxic waste by evaporating it into the air. In the cases of air and water pollution, the extraction companies choose to externalize the environmental costs of their practices, which poisons people living downstream or downwind. In the case of the retired miners, their company forsook its responsibility to care for men who had sacrificed their long-term health to make a living.
Whether due to malevolence or neglect, degrading a person’s health violates their right to life. In order to decide to allow the poisoning of downstream communities or the betrayal of retired miners, one must first decide that the lives of those affected are not worth protecting. The industry requires this type of thinking to continue its success. On Tuesday of our Respect Life Week, a record-setting 40 Catholic institutions responded to this injustice: In celebration of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, dioceses and religious orders around the world announced commitments to divest their financial assets from fossil fuel holdings. The number signifies the growing moral statement of Catholics on the issue: We will not profit from such injustice.
Notre Dame was not included in that number. In his last public statement on the matter, chief investment officer Scott Malpass informed us that 4 percent of the endowment’s value pool lay in fossil fuel investments, but that his office had “restricted” investments in a few particularly concerning coal companies. While these restrictions may respond to the suffering of the abandoned pensioners or families with water contaminated by mine runoff, they do nothing to address the same suffering in different contexts. Hydraulic fracturing pollutes families’ drinking water supplies with many of the same contaminants as coal mines and pollute the air that people breathe with still others. Why should our University’s investment practices exclude the lives of these others?
When the University of Notre Dame makes a moral statement, the world listens. It is therefore our duty to finish the business of divesting our endowment from fossil fuels, in order to say loudly and clearly: “The right to life is inalienable, and it does not discriminate.”
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.