Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

distributed 9/2/05 - ©2005

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

The lamenting words of the Ancient Mariner are embodied this week along the Gulf coast of the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of flooding, people are dying of thirst.

In the midst of the world's most affluent and powerful nation, people are starving. In the midst of our most astounding technological wonders, people are paralyzed by the complete failure of communications, transportation, health care, water and sewage. In the midst of "the world's greatest democracy," social systems collapse, and anarchy rises.

From my comfortable distance, I watch the news and read the commentaries, and I feel complex cross-currents of grief, anger, compassion, frustration, hope and fear.

I am disturbed and disgusted that TV networks can bring camera crews into the heart of the devastation to do live broadcasts of the desperate cries for help, and that they can bring celebrities into the middle of New Orleans to publicize a charity telethon, but that it has taken four days for relief agencies to begin to bring tanks of water onto the Interstate bridges or to the convention center to keep the victims alive.

In this morning's news, there are astounding words from Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said that those trapped in New Orleans bear some responsibility because of their decision not to evacuate.

Oh, yes, there are some folk who thought about leaving, and decided not to. I'm sure that they profoundly regret that decision.

But Mr. Brown's callous comments deny the reality of New Orleans. In that impoverished city, there were tens of thousands of people who don't own cars, who have no money to buy a bus ticket (as if any bus seats were available in the 36 hour evacuation window), and who have no money for food or shelter elsewhere. There were people in nursing homes who had no choice, and others whose health conditions made travel extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Multitudes in the disaster zone did not "chose" to stay at home and ride out the storm. They had no options. What's more, their lack of options was well known to politicians and disaster planners for years in advance.

When the man in charge of emergency management seems to believe that everybody in this country can simply pack up the car, and finance an evacuation on their credit card, we're in serious trouble. It is called "blaming the victim" and it is unconscionable.

Almost exactly a year ago, these Notes shared a set of reflections after Hurricane Ivan swept across the Caribbean and into the Gulf Coast. My words about poverty, climate change, urban planning and compassionate giving all ring true this time around, too. But the most haunting words must be these, about New Orleans: "One of these days, The Big Storm will hit that city. The city leaders know of the danger. It will be inexcusable if hundreds or thousands die because there is no safe place to go."

Whatever may be done after the fact to provide relief, the most authentic expressions of compassion and justice deal with known dangers in advance. The trauma of the Gulf Coast, and especially of New Orleans, represents a disregard for the poor and powerless.

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My work with churches through the last five years has often hit a problem that is common within the larger environmental movement. It is difficult to inspire people to action, to motivate them to change, because "the environment" is seen by so many as something that is "out there," far removed from our everyday lives.

Here in the United States, almost all of us live an a world that is profoundly separated from nature. Pure water comes from a pipe whenever we want it. Food is abundant in stores, with no sense of seasons or locale. Technological health care promises cures for any ailment or pain, and death, when it comes, is antiseptic and tidy.

This week's hurricane is a powerful dose of reality. When the veneer of technology is blown away, we discover that we are part and parcel of the natural world. The environment is all around us, and inside us.

We need clean water within just a few days. We need food, and that food spoils when it is not refrigerated. We produce sewage, and that waste causes disease if it is not managed well. When water and food and essential medicine are not available, people die. And the bodies of humans are just like all the other bodies that decay and are eaten by scavengers.

"The environment" includes the coastal wetlands and barrier islands that should have buffered the fury of Katrina. But those fragile lands have disappeared because silt no longer washes there from the Mississippi River, and because oil and gas development has fragmented the area, and because rising sea levels have flooded marginal land. Last weekend, New Orleans was 40 miles closer to the open water of the Gulf than it was 100 years ago.

One of the painful realizations of this week is that "national security" demands that we come to grips with the way we live as part of the natural world. The environment is not a pretty amenity that we might decide to preserve after we've taken care of more urgent concerns. The environment is the basis for our very survival. When we ignore it or abuse it, the costs will come back to us -- and especially to the poor among us.

Hurricane Katrina is a disaster whose far-reaching impacts I can only begin to imagine. In the face of this tragedy, I pray that we might grow in wisdom and compassion in the days and years ahead.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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