Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Justice at the Tollbooth
distributed 8/2/02 - ©2002

It is a picture that has inspired many thousands of words, and has energized an important public policy debate.

The photo shows a National Park Service ranger staffing an entry booth at Yellowstone National Park. This is not a charming promotional image, showing the smiling ranger in a Smokey Bear hat with beautiful scenery in the background. The startling detail is that the ranger is wearing a gas mask, needed to protect him from thick clouds of exhaust from the snowmobiles swarming into the park.

The image is a vivid expression of the danger to park staff, and the entire Yellowstone environment, from the dirty emissions put out by snowmobile engines.

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A few weeks ago, I met with a seminary student in a summer internship. She painted a parallel mental picture for me. The scene she described has not been spread by the wire services, or published in countless newspapers. It is likely, though, that each of us can fill in the details of the picture from our routine personal experience.

Jinnie described a booth similar to the one staffed by the Park Service employee -- although this one is smaller and less well equipped. It is a booth at a highway toll plaza, or at the exit to a parking garage. A small, glass-walled box with a cash register and an always-open window. Just like the Yellowstone entrance station, a stream of vehicles rolls by the booth, producing a constant cloud of exhaust fumes.

The booth, of course, is not bothered by the fumes. But the service workers who staff the booth are. And unlike the Park Service ranger in the photo, these workers don't wear gas masks. 40 hours a week, throughout the year, their job puts them in a location permeated by auto and truck exhaust. These booths generally have inadequate heating and air conditioning systems for moderating either the weather or vehicular pollution. Some of these booths have no ventilation systems at all.

Bad air is only one of the workplace problems suffered by these folk. They are generally poorly paid, and the jobs tend to have poor health care benefits. Many of these service workers are not represented by unions, and have little power to negotiate about workplace conditions.

Jinnie also spoke to me of some of the other workers whose jobs subject them to environmental hazards:

  • janitors, who often work with dangerous chemicals (Do you know what products are used by the custodian at your church?)

  • the workers for lawn-care companies who apply pesticides and herbicides on urban lawns

  • farm workers, who also are exposed to pervasive pesticides and herbicides
These examples from the workplace demonstrate the truth of an eco-justice perspective.

It is not possible to separate "environmental" concerns from "justice" matters. Caring for the environment (with reduced vehicle emissions, safer cleaning products, and less use of agricultural chemicals) will also care for the workers at the low end of the economy. And, to look at it from the other side, providing safe and just working conditions will be good for the earth.

Eco-justice concerns are present in parks and suburbs, in parking garages and farms, office buildings and churches. The are present in all of our communities, and should be addressed by all of our churches.

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The seminary intern who met with me was working in a summer program affiliated with the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. The NICWJ "calls upon our religious values in order to educate, organize and mobilize the religious community in the US on issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers."

Since 1996, the NICWJ has sponsored "Labor in the Pulpits," providing interfaith resources for worship services over the Labor Day weekend.

This year's Labor in the Pulpits theme is Remember the Immigrant. Excellent resources are available from the NICWJ website (, and include bulletin inserts, litanies, and lectionary-based sermon notes.

Labor Day Sunday, September 1, can be an excellent time to deal with eco-justice themes in relation to labor issues. Thanks to NICWJ for their leadership and guidance in this cause.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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