Putting the Justice in Environmentalism

By: Kat Liu

Delivered at: Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists, in Finksburg, MD

On: March 9th, 2008

Reading:

by Wangari Maathai, from her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come.

Sermon:

Putting the Justice in Environmentalism

First, let me thank you all for inviting me into your congregation this Sunday to worship with the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists. I am honored. I’m here today, first as a fellow Unitarian Universalist, and second as the Assistant Director of the Washington Office for Advocacy of the UUA. Our office exists to represent your voice on Capitol Hill, and also to provide support and resources to UU congregations and individuals in your advocacy work.

I didn’t start off thinking this is what I’d be doing now, living in Washington DC, working for a religious lobbying group. Long before I’d ever heard of Unitarian Universalism, I grew up in the San Francisco bay area wanting to be a scientist. Not that political activism was that far a stretch. I was a good, Northern California liberal, attending my first political protests in high school, many of them having to do with environmental concerns. Every Friday at noon we had a “die-in,” where everyone in the courtyard would drop to the ground to “simulate” what would happen in the event of nuclear war. College at UC Berkeley in the early 80’s meant campus protests for divestment from South Africa and also against nuclear proliferation. Those of you who came into adulthood later may find this hard to believe but for young adults at THAT time, the threat of mass extinction from thermonuclear annihilation was a pressing fear on many people’s minds.

In addition to nukes, there was save the whales. Save the rain forests. And by the time I got to graduate school at Caltech, it was save the spotted owls. By then, I had at various times been a member of Green Peace, Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, and Union of Concerned Scientists. I recycled, fretted over paper or plastic, bought Seventh Generation cleaning products. And there was also the camping, communing with nature. From Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Anza Borego in California to the beautiful national parks in Utah – Arches, Bryce, and Zion. If you haven’t been to these places, you really should.

And in all of this, there was almost a hostility to humankind. If I was enjoying the scenic beauty, experiencing the spirituality of being one with nature, the last thing that I wanted to see was humans, other than the ones I had come with. If there were too many of them, well, we just had to move, to go some place more remote, more pristine.

Indeed, my view of “nature” was that it was pristine, virginal, having not been touched by man.

And one could have seen the same thing in my approach to environmental issues. I never went so far as to say, “If only humans weren’t around then the whole world could live in peace.” Well, ok, maybe I said that once or twice. But in general my misanthropy was more subtle. The rain forests were being destroyed. It was all the fault of those greedy people who were cutting them down for money. The spotted owls were endangered. It was all the fault of those loggers.

Sure…. I had vague misgivings when I actually thought of the loggers as people, trying to earn a living and feed their families…. But surely they should be able to see that saving a species is more important. That they would just have to find other jobs, and if that was an inconvenience for them, well, that’s unfortunate but it couldn’t be helped. Vaguely… I understood that a truly just approach to environmentalism would involve helping those affected to find new jobs – training, assistance, economic development – instead of just vilifying them. But that kind of work was for someone else to figure out. What was most pressing was to save the owls. Still, it left me feeling uncomfortable. Something was not quite right.

Social activism aside, I went on in science, earning my Ph.D. in biology and moving to New York for a postdoctoral position. It was on Long Island that I found UU. Away from the social activism structures that I knew in California, I realized that if I didn’t join a group of some kind that would help remind me of the larger community, I was in danger of just working in the lab and not caring about the rest of the world. So I joined UU. A bit later, I decided to leave science, moved to DC to study religion at Georgetown, became very involved at All Souls in DC, and then involved in the workings of our denomination as a whole.

General Assembly of 2006 was my second GA, and while I was aware that we had been working for two years on a Statement of Conscience on Global Warming/Climate Change, I hadn’t bothered to look at the text. Surely, I thought, we UUs know environmentalism and we’ll craft a worthy Statement. Pam Sparr, who is a fellow member of All Souls and a member of the UU Ministry for Earth was one of the people that I was thinking of when I figured we UUs knew what we were doing. Well, Pam and others at the UUMFE do know their stuff on the environment, but that didn’t mean that all UUs did. When she showed me the text, I was stunned. On the eve of General Assembly, when we were supposed to ratify this Statement of Conscience on Global Warming/Climate Change that was to represent us as Unitarian Universalists to the wider world, there were some serious flaws with the penultimate draft.

I’ll tell you about the most glaring problem. As part of our efforts to combat Global Warming/Climate Change, our Statement of Conscience called on developing countries to limit their population growth…. Some of you may be wondering what’s wrong with that. After all, over population is a serious concern, taxing our earth’s resources and keeping families in poverty. Wouldn’t we want to promote responsible family planning? Yes. Yes, we would. But not as part of our Statement on Global Warming. Here’s why. The United States constitutes 5% of the world’s population, yet it creates 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. We are 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 25% of the world's fossil fuel resources. Per capita, we use five times more resources than the average human and we belch out five times more pollution. And yet our Statement of Conscience was saying, yeah, global climate change is a really serious problem and we want you all out there to fix it for us. You all who use less than we do, and pollute less than we do are gonna fix this problem, even though we’re the main culprits.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

That was when the concept of Environmental Justice really hit home. Our Statement of Conscience had the right goal in mind. Yes, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming/climate change is a pressing reality, and we really need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But environmental justice says that how we get to that goal is as important as getting there. Who is being most affected? Who is most responsible for the problem? Who bears the brunt of the “solution”? And who gets to decide what happens? These were the questions that were missing from our Statement of Conscience. Missing from our general awareness. As a result, despite the best intentions of the environmentalist communities, more often than not it is the poor and communities of color who are made to suffer the most from both the environmental problems and their solutions, even though they have less access to the benefits and little control over how resources are used. This is true both internationally and within our country.

Some other examples of environmental injustice:
In relatively affluent and thus shielded, middle America, people are still debating whether global climate change is even real. It’s discussed on a theoretical level, like whether life on Mars could have existed at some time. Meanwhile, within our own borders in Alaska, the Inupiak and Yup’ik peoples are losing their land and way of life due to the melting permafrost. Over 180 villages are expected to slip into the sea within the next ten years.[1] In the South Pacific, low-lying island nations are going under the waves as well, creating a tidal wave of climate refugees. Tens of thousands of islanders have applied for residence in New Zealand.[2] Entire cultures will have to be transplanted. The irony is that these people contribute the least to global warming, and yet they are the first to suffer.

Even more than loss of land, loss of fresh drinkable water is the greatest concern. All over South and Southeast Asia, sources of fresh drinking water are drying up or being contaminated by rising salt waters, ruining agriculture, creating refugees and conflict. Global climate change is a peace and security issue.

And speaking of the coal-burning power plants that are responsible for much of the change, where are they located in this country? Where do our garbage dumps go? Usually, power plants and garbage dumps are near the poorer neighborhoods or communities of color, people who don’t have the power to say, “Not in my back yard.” This is where the highest levels of lead and other toxins are located, and not surprisingly the highest incidences of children’s asthma.

To be honest, in all my years of trying to conserve and reduce, reuse, recycle, I never used to wonder where my electricity and clean water came from or where my waste went. I had wanted to reduce landfill waste for the sake of the “environment,” so that my beloved wildernesses would not one day be turned into garbage dumps. But I did not think of who already had to live down-wind of the land-fills we have right now.

To look at environmentalism through a social justice lens means to look at the picture as a whole, not just focusing on the immediate causes and effects. If people living near rain forests are clear cutting them to graze cows, we have to look at why a they doing this. And when we do, we see people being pressured into plundering their own natural resources in order to supply us with the cheap goods that drive our consumer-based economy. Given that we too depend on healthy rain forests as much as they do, to keep carbon gas levels lower and maintain biodiversity, perhaps we too need to take responsibility for their preservation. Perhaps we need to help them find ways to preserve the forests and feed their families, in partnership with them. To look at environmentalism through a social justice lens means that everyone involved has a voice in the decisions, at every level. It is a holistic and democratic approach to the environment.

My studies in biology taught me well that we humans are no better than other species. We share our DNA and a common origin, and from the standpoint of evolutionary theory are no “better” than the cockroach. But if I had really been paying attention, I would have understood this meant we humans are no worse than other species. Indeed, we are natural. Not separate from nature. And our Seventh Principle says the same thing. It calls us to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. We cannot think in terms of either or. It cannot be either the spotted owls or the loggers; it must be both/and. Thus, any truly comprehensive view of environmentalism must incorporate the needs of our fellow humans into the picture. Our Seventh Principle calls us to come into right relationship with our mother Earth, with our fellow humans, and with other species.

For those of you who don’t know how things turned out with our 2006 Statement of Conscience on Global Warming, I am very proud to report that when the injustice of the population control provision was pointed out to them, the UUs at General Assembly of 2006 were reasonable and fair enough to take it out. In the end, after much debate, which is de rigueur with UUs, we ratified a Statement of which UUs can be proud. It was another positive step in our prophetic tradition of witnessing for social justice. I believe that we UUs, with our long histories in the racial and economic justice movements and the environmentalist movement and the peace movement, (and the feminist movement for that matter,) can make the connections. To see the interdependency of all these things and realize they must be approached as one unified, organic movement. Now is the time.

Now is the time, as Wangari Maathai said in our opening reading, making the connections between all these things for us. She said, “There can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.” We are called to heal the earth and in the process heal ourselves, for as long as we see ourselves as separate from the earth and from each other, we cannot be whole. Now is the time for us to “shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground.”

Amen.

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