Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

New Political Strategies
distributed 11/22/02 - ©2002

Colorado's drought is showing me the need to rethink some political strategies.

Last summer, extreme drought dried up rivers and reservoirs, exacerbated raging forest fires, devastated agriculture, and browned suburban lawns. The next crisis happens in about 6 weeks, when the drought hits our state legislature.

Experts are predicting that at least 60 different bills on water issues will be introduced in the Colorado legislature this session. They will cover a wide range: proposals to build huge new dams and water storage projects; a plan to clear-cut forest areas to increase runoff; a variety of strategies to control and transfer water rights; and restrictions on the ability of homeowner associations to mandate green lawns.

Dealing with those water-related issues on a bill-by-bill basis is certainly overwhelming and probably ineffective. A meeting I attended this week gave me some insights into some different approaches for churches engaging in political action.

I was invited to sit in on a day-long meeting where leaders of Colorado's environmental organizations mapped out their legislative agenda for the coming year. They laid the foundation for a broadly unified agenda, and highlighted which groups would take the lead in framing particular issues.

Water was only one of the complicated topics to be discussed. Other big concerns have to do with forest fire prevention, energy (conservation, renewable energy, oil and gas development), transportation, growth and sprawl. Environmental justice issues were named. Some organizations have a focus on wildlife or land preservation. The legally complex "takings" movement is a major concern.

In that group of 25 environmental leaders, I was one of three people working with religious communities. The three of us were there, not so much to push our own agenda, but to learn about what issues are emerging, and to consider how we can bring those back into our congregations.

It was the first time that religious communities were invited to join in such a planning session. Our presence there reflects a growing respect for the faith-based environmental movement.

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When literally hundreds of bills will be introduced in one state legislature on environmental topics alone, dealing with action alerts on immediately pending votes does not work. That problem is amplified as we try to deal with local and national issues, too.

There are three steps in building a faith-based strategy that look different from the way many of us have done issue activism.

  1. As religious leaders, we need to become informed early on about what issues and themes are likely to be most significant. The news media may give lots of play to proposals that are sure to pass, or that are already dead in the water. But there may be other vital issues that have received little media attention, or where the outcome really is up in the air. Check with legislators and trusted advocacy groups now about your areas of special interest. Your first contact with these folk isn't to push a point or lobby for a bill, but to ask for information and insights about what are likely to be the decisive issues where action can be effective.

  2. Try to discern some of the broad philosophical themes that underlie those key issues. For eco-justice issues, it is likely that the political controversy will hinge on clear differences in several areas:
    • who receives the most benefits, and who pays the highest cost
    • the extent to which problems are solved though voluntary choices, or by legislated action
    • how to balance economic, social and environmental considerations
    • whether an emphasis is placed on conservation and efficiency, or on increasing the resources that are available for human use
    • taking long-term vs. short term perspectives
    Churches can play an important role in raising ethical criteria around these sorts of conflict areas. Most of the time, the best approach within a church is to foster intentional conversation among our own diverse community, and not to stake out "right" and "wrong" answers on these highly controversial subjects. Such a conversation can be stimulated through sermons, classes and newsletter articles.

  3. Go back to your legislators to press an ethical and philosophical agenda. Take a group like-minded folk from your congregation, or a collection of local religious leaders. Your input on broad areas of concern can be more influential at the start of a session -- when many different and competing bills are still being sorted out -- than later on, when the option is a yes or no vote on a single bill. An early and strong presence that gives voice to clear values can help determine which of those many bills live or die in committee.
At a national level, and in many states, multitudes of bills are shaping a broad legislative agenda on environmental and justice issues. To be relevant and effective in our congregations and our communities at such a time calls for fresh strategies. Let's think carefully and creatively about how to identify priorities, define ethical themes, and communicate persuasively with our legislators.

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Next week, the entire staff of Eco-Justice Ministries will be taking a few days off for the Thanksgiving holiday. I'll be sending out the next Eco-Justice Notes on December 6.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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