By Molly Brown Pope Francis takes on the specific issue of 'environmental impact assessment' in his Encyclical, 'On Care for Our Common Home.' He states emphatically, 'Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of [...]

By Molly Brown
Pope Francis takes on the specific issue of 'environmental impact assessment' in his Encyclical, 'On Care for Our Common Home.' He states emphatically, 'Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning, and be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure.'
Furthermore, 'it should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people's physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety' (183).
Pope Francis then warns us that 'the forms of corruption which conceal the actual environmental impact of a given project, in exchange for favours, usually produce specious agreements which fail to inform adequately and to allow for full debate' (182). Consequently, 'the local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest' (186).
Moreover, 'honesty and truth are needed in scientific and political discussions; these should not be limited to the issue of whether or not a particular project is permitted by law' (183). Far too often, self-serving interpretations of the law get in the way of full and honest assessment of environmental impacts. 'The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information' (184).
The Pope proposes questions to be addressed 'in order to discern whether or not it will contribute to genuine integral development. What will it accomplish? Why? Where? When? How? For whom? What are the risks? What are the costs? Who will pay those costs and how? In this discernment, some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.'
Many thoughtful people now support the application of the 'Precautionary Principle.' The Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development, Principle 15 (June 14, 1992) states that 'where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures' which prevent environmental degradation. The Pope explains that this 'makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof' (186).
Sadly, we rarely use this ethical guideline in evaluating business ventures. We need to take several steps back and redefine our notions of progress. After all, 'a technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress' (194).