Acton Commentary

Pebble Mine: Moral Witness Requires Clear Thinking on Environmental Science

The Alaska Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America, at its 2009 annual meeting, passed a unanimous resolution calling on state and federal agencies to deny permits to any ”commercial or economic project”’ that threatens to damage or pollute the natural environment. The basis for the sweeping opposition to any development derives, the Diocese said, from “a spiritual and theological concern, rather than political considerations.” The intent of the resolution, quite plainly, is to exercise a moral veto over a proposal to build the open pit Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska.

The reason for the Diocese of Alaska’s opposition is a concern that the proposed mine poses an environmental threat to the rivers that comprise the Bristol Bay watershed. In subsequent statements, it argues that any environmental damage would harm both water quality and local fisheries. This last point becomes the key to its argument, as any threat to water represents a grave cultural threat to the native people whose traditional way of life is built around salmon fishing.

The Diocese of Alaska’s defense of the native people’s right to self-determination is not only morally legitimate it is both praiseworthy and necessary. As with native people in the Lower 48, Alaskan natives have suffered a range of cultural and economic harms because of federal and state policies. As was done with other native people, the government took Alaskan children from their parents and placed them in boarding schools to foster the children’s “Americanization.” Sadly, this extended to forbidding children from practicing their Orthodox Christian faith in favor of other Christian confessions.

 So there are substantive moral reasons for the Diocese, which traces its presence in Alaska to the arrival of Russian Orthodox missionaries on Kodiak Island in 1794, to advocate zealously on behalf of the self-determination of the native people and to raise the alarm about the potential environmental threats. But while the moral argument is well founded, the environmental argument isn’t.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial (“Exposing the EPA,” May 13) takes issue with what the newspaper describes as a “pre-emptive veto of the Pebble Mine project, a jobs-rich proposal to develop America's largest U.S. copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska.” According to the Journal, the inspector general of the EPA “is looking into internal EPA documents … that show agency officials were maneuvering to kill Pebble more than five years ago, and that EPA's main concern was building a façade of science and procedure to justify it.” This was evidently done by a desire of some in the agency to usurp the authority in these matters given to the Army Corps of Engineers by the 1972 Clean Water Act. If this turns out to be the case then, the Journal argues, the “EPA's decision to initiate a veto process before Pebble had even received an Army Corps review is a disturbing first—and a flouting of the law.”

Whatever the deficits of the EPA in this matter, the Diocese is to be commended for its defense of the native people. Its advocacy, however, raises a number of issues for me. Chief among these is the role science should play in Christian participation and witness the Public Square. It is a fool’s errand to try and avoid the tough questions posed by scientific or public policy controversies by simply arguing from Scripture or Tradition. Without a critical understanding of the environmental science and economic effects at play in the Pebble Mine project we are unable to offer a compelling moral witness.

Yes theology and science “have different points of departure and different goals, tasks and methodologies” but they “can come in touch and overlap.” For this convergence to be fruitful we must resist “the temptation to view science as a realm completely independent of moral principles.” Science can, and often does, serve as “a natural instrument for building life on earth” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, XIV.1). However when we limit ourselves merely to the findings of the natural, social and human sciences, we risk confusing expediency with prudence and diluting the Church's witness.  

As is her Lord Jesus Christ, the Church “is not of this world.” At the same time, again just as is our Lord, all Christians are called to serve “not only the salvation of people in this world, but also the salvation and restoration of the world itself” (Basis, I.2). Christians  participate “in the life of society … based on the awareness that the world, society and state are objects of God’s love” and “are to be transformed and purified” (Basis, I. 3).  The reformation and transformation of society happens as Christians—Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants—bring themselves and society into ever greater harmony with Jesus’ commandment that “we love one another” as He has loved us (Jn 13:34-35). While ignorance of science can be as harmful as ignorance of Christ, we must be careful not compromise our witness by rooting it in anything other than a sound theological anthropology drawn from Scripture and the Christian tradition.

So how might the Diocese of Alaska, and more broadly all Orthodox Christians, offer a better Christian witness to the Pebble Mine issue?

I think in focusing primarily on the environmental threat, the Church has overlooked what I see as the root cause of the threat to the native people’s self-determination: A lack of robust, legally defensible property rights to ancestral fishing waters and so an inability to compete and to profit economically in a complex and ever changing social situation. Given its concern to help preserve a way of life based on salmon fishing, I wonder if the Church might not do better to advocate for policies that help the native people re-claim their rights and codify them in law. This approach would have the advantage of being more firmly rooted in Orthodox social thought while at the same time being less dependent on scientific data which, by its very nature, is at best only provisional in character.  While the nature of property rights both in native culture and in Orthodox social thinking needs to be more fully developed, I think it is an approach that would better serve the complex of spiritual, cultural and environmental goals that the Church is pursuing.