Putting the Justice in Environmentalism

This past weekend was both physically and emotionally draining, highly educational, and ultimately uplifting. As happens occasionally, I double-booked myself. I had signed-up to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a three day conference on advocacy and social activism. (I’m not Christian but at no time did I feel excluded.) On the same Sunday, I was also slated to give a sermon at the congregation of Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists. Yet there was a kind of synergy going on, for the “track” that I was attending at the conference was “eco-justice” and the topic of my sermon was on environmental justice. The presentations that I heard on Saturday certainly helped to prepare me for Sunday. And with Sunday in mind, I took in all the information from the conference through the lens of Unitarian Universalism.

I will be talking about environmental justice a lot in the coming weeks, for certainly one post is not enough to do justice to the subject. But I thought I’d start off with an introduction on the difference between environmental justice and environmentalism as it has often been practiced, for indeed there is a difference and there shouldn’t be. Environmental Justice (or EJ for short) looks at environmental issues through the lens of racial, economic, and gender justice. For example, concern about global warming/climate change is environmentalism. Concern about global climate change because of the immense human suffering that it will cause to those who are least to blame is environmental justice. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions is environmentalism. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that low income families do not suffer disproportionately from the “solutions” is environmental justice.

This weekend was emotionally draining as I heard first-hand accounts of how global climate change is impacting residents of Tuvalu, forcing them to plan for mass evacuation/emmigration as their islands are being swallowed by the rising salt sea. The shoreline encroaches on houses; mangrove trees that form a natural protective barrier are dying; agriculture is failing and fresh water is increasingly scarce. They are being forced to become climate change refugees, leaving their homelands and relying on other nations to take them in. And the great irony is that these island cultures are the least responsible for the greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change. They are the least responsible yet the first to suffer.

It isn’t just island nations that are being adversely affected. The drastic changes in weather patterns due to global warming have resulted in floods in some places (which contaminate fresh water) and droughts in others. The United Nations has said that the violence in Darfur, Sudan has been greatly aggravated by the two decade long drought in the region. And given that in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring water, it is they who suffer the most when local water sources are no longer usable and they have to travel ever farther on foot to carry the family’s water. Between the masses of refugees and the fighting over scarce resources, it should be obvious that global climate change is a peace and security issue. If we want peace, we must work for environmental justice.

As we drove to the conference in our cars, sat in well lit and comfortably warm rooms, watched presentations projected from computers onto big screens, ate our lunches packaged in plastic, and shopped for books, t-shirts and fair-trade coffee, etc. the irony really hit home. What we do on a daily basis without even thinking about it is directly responsible for suffering going on right now around the world. And it is taking resources that have taken hundreds of millenia to create and literally burning through them as if they were nothing. Our life style is simply not sustainable. Ultimately, environmental justice is spiritual work. EJ calls us to be in right relationship with our mother earth, with the rest of creation, and with each other.

For the record, the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists welcomed me with great warmth and hospitality. Their questions showed great interest, knowledge and desire to make a difference. UUs have long been leaders in the racial and economic justice movements, in the women’s movement, in the peace movement, and in the environmentalist movement. It’s long past time to link them all together as an organic whole. I believe that our experiences will allow us to do just that, and that our voice is urgently needed.