Building the Border Wall Hurts Us All

On the grounds of “protecting national security,” the U.S. government wants to build a wall on the 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, with estimated costs ranging between one and eight billion dollars. (For perspective, the first 11 miles of the wall near San Diego cost $42 million – that’s $3.8 million per mile.) The government is building this wall despite evidence that tells us that the Canadian border is far more susceptible to anti-U.S. terrorist activity than the Mexican border. (Yet the U.S. is not building a wall along the Canadian border). Also, where it has already been built, the wall is woefully ineffective at keeping people out, delaying crossing by a matter of minutes. Instead, the wall has made human smuggling a lucrative business.

The Bush administration wants to complete another 670 miles of this wall across the environmentally sensitive Southwest by the end of this year. On April 1st the Dept of Homeland Security announced that it would be waiving almost three dozen federal, state and local laws and regulations in order to accomplish this goal. DHS has the power to do this because Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which amongst other things gave the Department of Homeland Security the ability to waive all legal requirements, as necessary, in order to expedite the construction of border walls.

Unfortunately, this was not a cruel April Fools joke. In addition to the exorbitant costs for something that isn’t effective, these waivers have other quite serious repercussions. First, in the name of security, they bypass the very laws designed to ensure our safety, including the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This means for example that DHS can build its wall without monitoring the impact that it will have on the Rio Grande. (If there are no negative health impacts, then why the need to bypass the laws?)

Second, by bypassing laws that protect land ownership/use, DHS can force the rightful owners to sell the needed land. This includes the forced selling of First-Nation-owned, sacred, ancestral lands, violating the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Third, it means that wildlife refuges that took years to create by painstakingly purchasing contiguous segments will be cut in half, bypassing laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The wall designed to segregate humans will also keep endangered species such as the ocelot from hunting and mating. It’s no wonder that the wall is opposed by a broad coalition of mayors, land-owners and environmental activists.

Our Seventh Principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, tells us that what we seek to do to one group also affects everything else including ourselves. As the examples above show, building a 2,000 mile wall across a continent hurts the most vulnerable people and animals on both sides of the border. We need a more holistic approach than building walls to reinforce boundaries that nature does not recognize. Looking at the economic forces that drive immigration and recognizing the need for equitable economic development would be a start.

Friends, if you are outraged by this latest abuse of power in the name of “security,” please do not let another abuse pass without resistance. Raise awareness. I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t even know about it. Tell your friends. Write letters to the editor. Blog. Make your voice heard.

Updates on the Eco-justice Front

First off, we offer this very graphic presentation on environmental degradation from the Guardian UK, in case you haven’t seen it. The images are powerful and disturbing, and drive home the scope of the challenges we face.

Secondly, some joyful news. Last week, leaders of the two largest faith groups in the U.S. took stronger stances on the need to act on global climate change. When the Vatican spoke to the Catholic faithful about the “new sins” of our times, they listed “ecological” offenses. Pope Benedict has recently and repeatedly said that climate change is an important concern for the entire human race. Along similar lines, the New York Times reported that high-ranking Southern Baptist leaders are backing a declaration calling for more action on climate change, saying their previous position had been “too timid.” We applaud the efforts of both denominations in our shared work to care for our earth.

Lastly, a call to action:

Saturday March 29th, is Earth Hour. Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, Australia. This year it is a global movement. Participants turn off their lights for one hour at 8 pm. Some past participants held weddings by candlelight. Get creative! In addition to raising awareness of the urgency of global climate change, if you register to participate in Earth Hour, they’ll give you tips of further actions you can take.

These actions will be good practice leading up to Earth Day!

World Water Day

Happy Vernal Equinox!

The availability of fresh, clean, drinking water is something that we tend to take for granted. It’s true that many of us worry about possible contaminants, but that is not the same thing as having no drinking water, where the only source of water for you and everyone around you is a well that is miles away on foot, or the river where others bathe and do their business. Most of us take for granted that when we turn on the tap, there will be water for us to drink, to bathe in, to wash our dishes and laundry and water our plants and slake the thirst of our pets. We take for granted that we can flush our toilets, safely and neatly removing bacteria away from us.

What if that weren’t the case?

One of every six people in the world lacks access to safe drinking water. That’s over 1.1 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

Two of every five people in the world lack access to basic sanitation services. That’s nearly 2.6 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

The repercussions of these numbers are immense. Since in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring the needed water for their families, water scarcity poses an extra burden on their lives. And the lack of safe, clean water and sanitation leads to diseases such as dysentery. Over 13,000 people die every day due to water-related diseases, many of these children and almost all of them poor and communities of color. Over 13,000 deaths every day that could be easily avoided if we had the will.

March 22nd is World Water Day. It grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and its purpose is to raise awareness to water scarcity experienced by so many while we here often take the right to water for granted.

Several factors exacerbate water scarcity, the two of the biggest of which are global climate change and privatization of water:

As global climate change results in droughts and flooding (which contaminates water), water scarcity will be increasingly urgent. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2080, it is likely that 1.1 to 3.2 billion people will be experiencing water scarcity. At least a billion will be forced to leave their homes, becoming water refugees. Those who are the least responsible for climate change are the first to suffer.

Large multi-national corporations are gaining increasing control to water sources all over the world. On the premise that they will provide jobs, these companies are often given large subsidies, even as they drain away millions of gallons of water from the local sources, leaving residents in the dust. As private companies have gained control of water sources, water has become a commodity that is denied to those who cannot afford to pay.

Water scarcity affects people all around the world and right here in this country. Last Fall we heard the amazing news that the metro area of Atlanta, Georgia had less than three months worth of water left. A booming population was competing for drought-scarce water with power plants, wildlife refuges for endangered species, and the needs of people down stream in Alabama and Florida. Imagine living in a city with no water coming from your tap, where only those who could afford to pay for bottled water can drink.

Given that access to clean, drinkable water is essential to human life, the UUA recognizes the human right to water, regardless of ability to pay. We follow the lead of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on this issue. We also lift up the work of the UU Legislative Ministry of California for their work in my home state.

March 22nd is World Water Day. This Saturday, please take the time to reflect on all the ways you use water in your life. Visit the UUSC’s pages on the right to water. Visit the UUA’s new pages on this issue. And pledge to work for water justice.

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.

Native American Activists and Allies Embark on the Longest Walk for Healing and Justice

Today over three hundred walkers are departing from San Francisco on a five month journey across eleven states to bring awareness to environmental and justice issues. Along the way, a rotating team of walkers will pick up trash, leaving 4,400 miles of road trash-free in their wake.

Iroquois tradition mandates that communities consider the impact of their decisions down to the seventh generation to come after them. The Longest Walk 2 is “a peaceful, spiritual effort to engage with the public about restoring harmony with the environment,” according to their website. The Longest Walk 2 is also setting out to call attention to how environmental degradation is hurting not only today’s communities, but also those of the future.

The walk is kicking off with a ceremony on Alcatraz Island, the site of Native American activists’ 18-month occupation from 1969 to 1971, which sparked modern Native American activism and resulted in the federal government shifting from a policy of termination to a policy of Indian self-determination.

Walkers will divide between two routes. The Northern Route will follow the route taken by walkers during the original Longest Walk in 1978, which helped defeat eleven bills that threatened Native American sovereignty. The Southern Route will trace the route of the Sacred Run of 2006, which added hurricane recovery to the justice agenda and passed through the Gulf Coast to be in solidarity with those rebuilding after the storm.

The Northern and Southern routes will meet in DC on July 11. You can follow the walkers’ progress by reading walkers’ blogs about their experiences in Voices From the Walk. Show your support by taking a look at the The Longest Walk 2’s wishlist of camping gear and first aid supplies, or sponsor a walker through Paypal. For more information, check out The Longest Walk 2’s website.

“We shall walk for the Seventh Generation, for our youth, for peace, for justice, for healing of Mother Earth, for the healing of our people suffering from diabetes, heart conditions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other diseases.

Through the elements of the seasons, we shall walk through the rain, snow, over mountains, high winds, through the heat and cold, nothing shall deter us from completing our mission<. . .
Let those who doubt, hear our pledge. Let those who believe, join our ranks. As we walk the final miles, by our side will be elders, families, children, people of all races, from many walks of life, the old and the new America. All Life is Sacred, Clean Up Mother Earth.

–from The Longest Walk 2’s Mission Statement