Polluted Water, Polluted Culture

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reacted to an August report that emissions from coal-fired power plants have led to widespread mercury pollution in our rivers and streams by saying: “this science sends a clear message that our country must continue to confront pollution, restore our nation’s waterways, and protect the public from potential health dangers.” Who, after all, wants toxic levels of mercury in our rivers?

But mercury is not all there is in the water. Estrogen – from artificial contraception pills, consumed daily by tens of millions of women – makes its way through sewage treatment plants and severely pollutes our waterways. Classified in the United Kingdom as a pollutant, “the pill” has led – according even to the Austrian chemist who helped invent it – to “demographic catastrophe”. The oversaturation of estrogen in the environment likely contributes to male infertility, which has been rising in recent years; there is also the impact it has on aquatic life.

To take one recent example, University of Colorado scientists found that of the 123 fish they had caught at a nearby mountain stream for research purposes, “101 were female, 12 were male and 10 were strange ‘intersex’ fish with male and female features.” The director of the Colorado Genetic Engineering Action Network, Dave Georgis, reacted to these freaky findings by saying: “Nobody is to blame for this, and I don’t have a solution.”

That, no doubt, would be above his pay grade.

It does not take much effort to imagine a Dictator behind the scenes (Relativism, as Benedict XVI famously suggested), ordering him to dissemble like that. To speak the truth – even only about the science of estrogen overload, as Salazar did with respect to mercury – would be an act of gross insubordination. The inability to say what is manifestly so or not so, Romano Guardini (a mentor to Benedict) perceptively wrote nearly fifty years ago, is “the most hideous manifestation of tyranny.”

You can get away with such evasions scot-free, since the Zeitgeist cannot be bothered to target this source of contamination, even though that means making peace with harming women and the environment. How quickly its professed faith in strictly disinterested science is exposed as mere pretense, when the science scrutinizes its interests.

Is there any better illustration of the connectedness between human and natural ecology, each of which Benedict XVI stresses (in Caritas in Veritate) can only be protected by firm commitment to moral truth? Artificial contraception’s modus operandi is to thwart nature – it ruptures the intimate (“ecological”) bond between a man, a woman and future generations, splinters entire societies, and contaminates the environment.

Nature can only brook so much dissent.

Connecting the dots is a straightforward but thankless task. Anyone who is aware of ever having preferred darkness to light knows that truth can irritate before it illuminates. Indicting the tools of consequence-free sex as the culprit in environmental degradation, much less personal or social disintegration, is to court rage.

In this case, ’roid rage, since oral contraceptives are steroids (yes, think Mark McGwire), though few know it – and carcinogenic ones at that. To “work,” they must first interfere with the liver, which normally breaks down ingested substances; they are specifically designed not to biodegrade – which helps explain estrogen’s presence in the environment, and why they are implicated not only in breast cancer, but also liver cancer.

Plato timelessly remarked that “men prefer themselves to the truth.” Overcoming the all-too-human aversion to uncomfortable truth costs parts of ourselves dearly – which is why grappling with truth is a noble act.

Without a willingness to acknowledge and “love what is true,” Benedict suggests, there can be “no real social conscience or responsibility,” however much well meaning environmentalists earnestly cultivate and aggressively retail those goods. (A woman may believe that by bringing her own reusable grocery bag to Whole Foods in one hand she helps save the planet – but only if she does not let herself know that the contraceptive pill she pops with the other hand is messing with the planet’s water supply). Quite the contrary: without truth, “social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power.”

This striking passage calls to mind not so much Plato and the human penchant to struggle with truth, but Nietzsche and the “will to power”; it evokes the cold, self-centered nihilism which lends a brutish quality to our culture.

The nihilistic assertion of the self – which lashes out at truth in its quest for power (even over the human body) – is a defining characteristic of “modern liberalism,” which Cardinal Pell of Sydney observes “has strong totalitarian tendencies.” It is a toxic cultural contaminant that shrinks hearts and minds, restricts happiness, and produces “lovelessness, fear, and despair.” It helps foment what Archbishop Dolan of New York called “the real vocation crisis”: fewer and fewer people getting married, later and later in life.

It, like truth, also imposes costs – but in diametrically opposed ways.

The nihilistic “hook-up” culture dishes out debilitating and drug resistant emotional wounds that, though less quantifiable, propel many young and not so young people to “lead lives of quiet desperation” – as Thoreau put it.

But the Truth came to set us free, to heal and reconcile, to restore equilibrium, so that we do not take our quiet desperation “to the grave,” as Thoreau imagined most men do, but rather might find love and happiness in this world and the next.

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.