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"What Lies Upstream" and Care for the Earth

"What Lies Upstream" and Care for the Earth

When a list is made of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching “care for the earth” is always the final one, as if it is the foundation holding up all the others. Pope Francis began his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” with the words of the Canticle of St. Francis of Assisi: 




Praise be [Laudato Si’] to you, my Lord, 

through our Sister, Mother Earth, 

who sustains and governs us, 

and who produces various fruit 

with colored flowers and herbs.


Pope Francis, along with religious, world, scientific, and civic leaders have been warning the human family about the dire consequences of unsustainable and irresponsible use of the gifts of creation to the detriment of humanity for the purpose of short-term profit for the few.


Pope Francis does us a great service in this encyclical by tracing the history of papal teaching on care for the earth since Pope Saint John XXIII rejected the destruction of nuclear war and proposed peace in 1963. Pope Paul VI warned of the unchecked exploitation of natural resources by men and women and called for authentic change. Pope St. John Paul II outlined the necessity for a global ecological conversion in his very first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis in 1979. Pope Benedict XVI asked nations to change and heal economic structures that have “proven incapable of ensuring respect for the environment” because the alternatives are simply unacceptable for humanity.


Care for the earth, for Pope Francis, goes to the very core of what it means to be human, to be filled with the wonder and awe for creation that leads us to use what we need, replace what we consume, live sustainably, and to be content with what is enough. Respect for human dignity and the common good indicate why and how we can care for the earth because it belongs to all of us, not just those who can afford to be so comfortable as to not see the effects of rampant, unlimited consumerism and the uncontrolled capitalist economic system that compels it forward without concern for its victims.


One of the unceasing themes of “Laudato Si’” is that of clean water – he devotes all of section II to this necessary means of life and mentions it 46 times throughout the document. He notes the relationship between toxins in water and the well being of the poor and those who live near the sources of pollution:


One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.


The 2017 documentary film “What Lies Upstream” illustrates Pope Francis’ concerns too well.


“What Lies Upstream” and Care for the Earth


In January 2014 West Virginians who got their water from the Elk River noticed a strong odor.  A leak from a damaged chemical holding tank allowed MCHM, a detergent used on coal to rid it of unburnable matter, to contaminate the river that provided water to 300,000 plus people in the state. 


A young California-based filmmaker, Cullen Hoback (“Monster Camp”; “Terms and Conditions May Apply”), had spent much time as a child in in West Virginia while visiting family. He decided to investigate the leak, the chemicals, industry, state and government offices and officials with the responsibility to safeguard the environment for the sake of the public. What he discovers is a legislative political system on state and federal levels controlled by industry lobbyists to protect economic interests of coal and coal-related industries.


Photo: Hyrax Films


I watched the film twice because Cullen asks questions that lead to more questions with few answers or solutions. He encounters whistleblowers but even more inept officials and those who were willing to ignore or manipulate scientific data for their own ends. As he was investigating in West Virginia, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan erupted that April. He travels there and interviews whistleblowers and scientists working to find out the cause of lead in the water that poisoned so many, especially children and, it should be noted in both cases, women of reproductive age.


As I watched I was reminded of a film I reviewed in 2011, “The Last Mountain.” It tells of the destruction of the environment of West Virginia and the loss of the democratic process for people to determine how the assets of land of their towns and communities at the local level are used, as well as hiding the consequences that dirty energy have on the men, women and children who live there. 


Unfortunately, there is too much similarity between the two films, especially when it comes to toxins in the water. 


Photo: Hyrax Films


Cullen discovers however, that the chemical industry supporting coal mining has found ways to work around the Clean Water Acts of 1977 and 1987 and found other ways to deposit toxic matter. He notes that the political system that is supposed to regulate industries to maintain a safe environment is broken – but science, which lobbyists have manipulated or removed from consideration, can lead to solutions. Science tells us about what is flowing downstream, and as Cullen insists, we are all downstream from something.


The hope in a documentary that seems overwhelmingly dark is that ordinary citizens will become aware and engaged in the democratic process in view of changes to industrialization that will do what Pope Francis urges us to do: care for our earth, our common home. If we do not, the consequences of failed environmental leadership are dire indeed, for human reproduction, for children to be healthy, and for adults to live long and well. Care for the environment has been politicized but it is not a political issue: water should be free and not commoditized. This would be consistent with Church teaching. Clean water is a life issue that is human, moral, and spiritual and it concerns us all.







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