Eco-justice I

Today was the first full day of Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a conference for mainly Christian progressives to meet and advocate on pressing social issues. Even though I'm not Christian, I attended because of the eco-justice track.

Given that we work with progressive Christian groups so often, and given our commitment to social justice, I was surprised that out of all the progressive, activisty people there, I could only find two other UUs. Kinda sad. Aside from a couple of "Lord"s here and there, I felt completely at ease. Granted, a non-theist UU might have felt more out of place, but shouldn't the most important thing be the commitment to the issues?

Anyway, yall don't know what you missed because it was awesome. An outsider who didn't know any better might have thought that he'd walked into a den of Neocons because the theme of the conference was "Global Security." But the conference organizers argue, rather cogently imo, that in order to have true security, you have to have justice. The framing was magnificent. For example, global climate change is going to force massive migrations, straining international relations. If you want peace and security, work to address climate change. I could go on with examples from other issues. The presenters made such great points on so many issues such as poverty, immigration, education, defense... But I went to the conference to learn/talk about eco-justice and that's what I've labeled this post, so...

The first track workshop was on the effects of climate change in Asia/the Pacific Islands. Here we were gently confronted with testimony by natives of Tuvalu - a nation of small islands in the Pacific, who quietly but deliberately showed us pictures of their shrinking homeland. It's one thing to read about this stuff, and quite another to know that the way you are living is destroying the way of life of the person standing in front of you.  One of the presenters pointed out that the much touted target - cut "80% of carbon emissions by 2050" - assumes that non-industrialized countries will stay undeveloped. That means that, if, for the sake of fairness, we wanted to allow for economic development in these countries, then we will have to cut back much farther on our end than we think we do.

The second track workshop was on the environmental INjustice of the border wall being built between the U.S. and Mexico. The wall cuts right through wildlife preserves that took decades to buy and build, cutting the migration patterns of many threatened species. In terms of humans, the studies show that the wall is woefully ineffective at keeping people out. All it does is make the journey more dangerous and the smugglers rich. Not to mention that not a single terrorist has been caught coming across the Mexican border. Several have been caught crossing the Canadian border, yet we're not building walls there. Lastly, the mass influx of undocumented workers right now is due to NAFTA. If we decide that goods can move freely across borders, why is it that workers cannot?

The third and final track workshop for the day was on the theology of eco-justice, presented by Catherine Keller. I'd never heard of her before but she was amazing. She spent the entire time dissecting out the first few verses of Genesis. Much of what she'd said I'd heard before in various classes, but she put them in the context of feminism, process theology, and eco-justice. For example, God did not create ex nihilo (from nothing). There was already something there - Chaos. Tiamat, which had been a Babylonian goddess. God did not "zap" here and there and create. God said, "Let there be" and the earth offered forth. Creation was much more of a collaboration between creator and created. And God did not pronounce that things were good. He saw that things were good and said so, ie - He recognized what was the case. The picture that Keller painted was of an ongoing creative process, a mutuality, and an element of surprise and delight on God's part. Not omniscient dictatorship.

The eco-justice implications of this? Our relationship with the earth should be partnership, not dominance.

the Governator

Three cheers for the Governator!  The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has returned to his action hero roots fighting on behalf of Californians and the environment.

Earlier this year, California filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force it to respond to the state's request for a waiver.  California, along with 16 other states, wants to set auto emissions standards that are higher than the EPA federal guidelines.  They needed a waiver in order to do that.  If it had been granted, the higher standards would have applied to half of the cars sold in the U.S.  However, on Wednesday the EPA finally responded, after a delay of over two years, denying the request.

According to the EPA:

"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution, not a confusing patchwork of state rules,” he said. “I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone."

So much for state's rights.  Why in the world would it be a problem to require higher emissions standards?  Just who is the EPA really protecting?  It doesn't seem to be the environment.

The Governator responded by saying:

And I think what it's basically saying is that they made a decision which is against the will of millions of people in California. It's a decision that is against the will of 16 other states. When I look at that, the Environmental Protection Agency is the Environmental Destruction Agency. The name says it protects the environment. How can that protect the environment when you don't want to let anyone really move forward with this agenda? And the excuse that it is a national issue and therefore it must be handled at a national level — I say to myself, "Wait a minute, let me think this through for a second," which we always do, we think a little bit. If you have a national problem with hunger and starvation, do I say, "Stop feeding people at the local level. We can't get involved. We have to have a policy nationally." No, we don't.

Ahhnold says that California will sue the EPA again, this time to overturn the decision.  Go Governator!  

It's Our Move

The U.S. govt has been saying that we will not agree to binding restrictions on green house gas emissions to address global climate change until China does so too.  Even tho we in the U.S. still generate five times more carbon emissions per capita than people in China, our govt had been arguing that it wasn't fair that China should get an "out" in the Kyoto Protocols.  

To some extent there is truth to that.  Even tho we generate far more carbon waste per capita, as a nation China has now surpassing the U.S. as the number one polluter.  (There are some things where one doesn't want to be number one.)  Fairness aside for the moment, 1.3 billion Chinese cannot live like us Americans.  The world just can't take it.

But there is also a reason why the Kyoto Protocol made exceptions for developing nations such as China and India and others, and it's not because the liberals at the UN hates the U.S.  We in the West, especially in the U.S., with our suburban houses with two-car garages, our central ac/heat, fancy flat-panel tvs and kitchen gadgets and washer/dryers and high-speed internet... We cannot with any moral authority tell other countries that they can't have what we have as long as we continue to demand it for ourselves.  It's simply not fair.

So if we are to ask China to step up and take on its share of the responsibility for global climate change, we must too.  And we must lead, instead of saying "Well I'll do it if you do it first."  Time is running out.

Water, Water

Looking at the news these days, it feels like we are in the Apocalypse. And I'm not talking about Iraq and Darfur, I'm talking about California and Atlanta.

In Georgia, the governor is suing the Army Corps of Engineers over water. The estimate is that Atlanta has less than three months worth of drinking water left. And they are in competition with power plants and endangered species. The entire SouthEast is gripped in terrible drought of historical proportions. I'm trying to imagine living in a city the size of Atlanta and not having drinking water.

In California, my home state, we are in need of water too. A tendency towards dry weather coupled with the Santa Ana winds makes fire season an annual tradition. But not like this. I am looking at pictures of the Malibu fire - how quickly it spread from the mountains to the sea. The destruction of Castle Kashan. And that's only one of several fires raging in SoCal, from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. San Diego county is engulfed. Over half a million people evacuated. Seven dead caught in the flames. I fear for the lives of the fire fighters.

Now I know that variations in weather is normal, and that I can't rightly blame all of this on global climate change. There are other factors at play in both regions. Such as poor planning. Populations larger than the environments can sustain. In Georgia, out-dated power plants that use too much water. In Cali, tract-housing built where they shouldn't be. But I can't help but think that global climate change has made everything worse. Longer droughts. Stronger winds. I can't help but feel we're at the breaking point.

Global Climate Change Is a Peace Issue

Color me shocked and also tickled. As all of you probably know by now, the winner of the this years Nobel Prize for Peace was announced today and Al Gore won, along with the United Nations Panel on Climate Change. Ol' Al had been nominated for "putting climate change on the agenda."

To be honest, I did not think Gore would be picked because he is too much of a "celebrity." Alex had made a strong case for a group called Mercy Corps. But nevertheless I am delighted.

Of course the good news comes with the accusations of liberal bias, politicization of the prize, and its general lack of credibility. (Sour grapes seeing as everyone still pays attention to who wins it.) The fact is that for as long as peace (true peace, not world dominance) is valued more by liberals than conservatives, there will appear to be a liberal bias to the prize. And being pro-peace is political statement; it always has been. Sure, everyone pays lip service to peace but as the world situation shows, not everyone actually pursues it.

The criticism that had me flabbergasted, however, was the claim that Gore deserved a Nobel Prize for climate change, but not for Peace, because climate change has nothing to do with peace. What planet are people on? Global Climate Change IS a Peace issue. Probably more so than any other issue facing us today.

As the global climate patterns change, there is drought where there wasn't drought before. There are floods where there weren't floods before. There are increased intensity of hurricanes. The permafrost is melting and islands are going under water, meaning the loss of livable land in both the north and south. All these things are causing massive dislocations of people across borders. Where do people go when they lose their land? Or if they don't have enough fresh water to survive?

Many people predict that the next wars will be fought over fresh water, not oil. And good arguments have been made that the current genocide in Darfur is due to the several year drought that they have been experiencing.

Global climate change IS a peace issue.

Environmental Justice

Our Seventh Principle calls us to recognize that human beings are are part of the interdependent web of existence. Too often environmental issues have been at odds with human needs. Environmental justice recognizes that the same paradigm of dominion that degrades our earth also causes economic and racial inequities. Only by seeking solutions that address both can we solve either.

To the right you will find links to wizdUUm resources on issues of environmental justice.  As always, you are invited to contribute to our collection.

Blowing Hot Air

When I logged on to the interweb Thursday morning and skimmed the news, I admit to being a bit stunned by the headline: "BUSH CALLS FOR GLOBAL EMISSIONS GOALS." Had the Universe shifted in my sleep? 

Despite campaign promises to reduce carbon emissions, in 2001 the Bush administration reversed U.S. policy under Clinton/Gore and pulled us out of the Kyoto accords, claiming that the requirements to reduce greenhouse emissions would be too costly. The Kyoto Protocol was a substantive amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was the first international agreement to fight global warming/climate change.  It has been signed by 162 nations to date, but without participation from the biggest contributor to greenhouse emissions.  Our absence has been glaring. For over six years, the Bush administration has resisted all calls to respond to the growing global warming/climate change crisis, even disputing the overwhelming science by saying that more studies needed to be done before we could conclude that human activity is responsible for the climate change we see.

Yet yesterday the headlines of all the major news organizations blared that Bush says the U.S. will take the lead in the fight against global warming. For a brief moment I thought that perhaps our president had had a sincere change of heart. Then I read what he was actually proposing. Ignoring the existence of the Kyoto Agreement, President Bush is calling on the world's 15 greatest polluters to meet in order to discuss agreeing to their own standards.   Ignoring the existence of an agreement signed by 162 nations, Bush wants us to start the discussion from scratch, in order to come up with our own standards, while still insisting that mandatory emissions reductions are too costly.

Given that the G8 summit is next week in Germany where global warming/climate change will once again be the top priority, one can't help but think that Thursday's announcement was designed to deflate the expected show-down between the U.S. and the rest of the world, while not providing anything of substance.  The good news is that the Bush administration is now on record admitting that green house emissions are a serious problem and the U.S. must take a lead in addressing this problem.  The bad news is that we aren't doing so and time is running out.

Environmental Justice

Currently on the UUA website, if one goes to the page under visitors/justice&diversity/environmental justice, one finds a nicely written blurb that isn't about environmental justice at all, but rather environmentalism and eco-spirituality.

The page will be changed and soon, but it gives me the opportunity to talk about what the UUA is now versus what we can be. We are a mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-middle class group of folk. Most of us love "nature" and are pro-conservation, and a fair number of us incorporate at least some amount of eco-spirituality into our practice. We are well-intentioned folk but we often see things only through our own mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper-middle class perspective. And this is where much of the environmentalist movement is right now, not just UUs.

Environmental justice requires a broader perspective. Environmental justice recognizes race and class dimensions to environmental concerns. It recognizes that people of color and the poor most often bear the brunt of environmental degradation while less often benefiting from the use of our shared resources. Katrina is a stark example of environmental INjustice.

The difference between environmentalism and environmental justice is the difference between caring about the "environment" as an abstract concept and caring about the environment in reality, which includes people and their needs. One need only look to the "Spotted Owl" controversy of the late 80s/early 90s to realize the short-comings of the earlier environmentalist movement.

I have great hope for Unitarian Universalism however. As a whole, UUs try to look at things from a broader perspective than their own. We try to recognize systemic racism and (to a lesser extent) classism where they exist. Because of this, we are in a unique position to potentially become spiritual leaders in the environmental justice movement.

May it be so.

Reflections on the 7th Principle

I was asked to give some spiritual/theological reflections to my congregation on Earth Day.  Here goes.


As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

Personally I think its funny that we felt the need to add that last bit – "of which we are a part."  If there is an interdependent web of all existence then of course we are a part of it, right?  But the need to add that last bit underscores our feeling of separateness.  We humans as separate from the rest of creation, from Earth.  We as individuals separate from each other. 

As a culture, we celebrate our independence instead of our interdependence.

Our 7th principle came to us late, being adopted in 1985, two dozen years after what in essence were the first 6 principles, and it’s the only one that mentions anything other than human beings. Yet it is much beloved and much cited amongst UUs.  Pagan UUs see in it a reverence for the earth.  Humanist UUs see in it a recognition of the theories of ecology – no living thing exists in isolation from its environment.  And given my Buddhist leanings, I see in it the concept of patrika samaipata – interdependent co-arising.  The idea that all existence is interdependent and mutually give rise to each other.

Our seventh principle calls us to recognize this inherent mutuality.  Separateness is an illusion.   Our existing separate from the world is an illusion.  Our existing separate from our effects on the world is an illusion.  That means we affect the world with everything we do, all of time.  Every time.

Our seventh principle calls us to recognize this inherent mutuality and equality.  There is no hierarchy.  It is not right that some of us can make decisions that affect others and they have no say in it.  Not only are all people equal.  But also, all existence is equal.  Just as we should not use another human to suit our needs, we should not us the rest of existence simply to suit our needs.  We are called to live in ways that are mutually beneficial to all.

Separateness from each other is an illusion.  I said that our 7th principle came to us late, but this idea has been with Unitarian Universalism since our beginning.  It was inherent in the Universalist concept of universal salvation.  Everyone is saved.  In other words, no one is saved unless everyone is saved.  In a religion that calls us to engage in this world, not some future world, there can be no “salvation” – however one defines salvation – unless it is for all of us.  Ultimately, there can be no clean air and water here for those of us who can afford it if there is no clean air and water there for everyone else.  We can try to compartmentalize it, we can try to build "gated communities", but ultimately that’s futile.    We are all in this together.

Lastly, there is one more illusion of separation that we must overcome.  Some of us tend to view spirituality as separate from justice.  We do our meditation or we contemplate a pristine vista and we consider that "spiritual."  And then we come back to the grimy city in order to do "justice."  We need to understand that doing the work of justice is spiritual work. The two are interdependent.

The word "religion" comes from the Latin, religare, to bind together.  Religion, and in particular our religion of Unitarian Universalism calls us to live whole, integrated lives.  On this Earth Day and every day.


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