Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Singin' the Blues
distributed 11/10/06 - ©2006

As election returns dribbled in on Tuesday night, I tracked the local news about candidates and initiatives that were on my ballot in Denver, Colorado. I paid really close attention, though, to a contest where I wasn't able to cast a vote.

My attention was drawn to the 11th Congressional district in California, a seat considered comfortably "safe" until quite recently. What made that distant race so compelling for me? That's the district represented -- for just seven more weeks -- by Richard Pombo.

Rep. Pombo is one of the many incumbents who was booted out this week in a dramatic shift of political power. I confess to finding particular glee in his ouster. Because he got fired by his constituents, my job may be a bit less stressful for the next few years.

Dick Pombo has been one of the most powerful anti-environmentalists in the US House. As chair of the House Resources Committee, he could shape the course of a wide range of legislation dealing with environmental standards, energy policy and public lands. He was a leading figure in recent efforts to dismantle the Endangered Species Act (a recurring topic for Notes in the last 18 months). He was a vigorous advocate for oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and protected coastal areas. He proposed selling off land in national parks to raise quick cash for the federal budget. His strong views on private property rights precluded any compromises on matters of environmental health or community values.

In the last few years, I've received lots of desperate calls asking for help in mobilizing environmentalists to block catastrophic pieces of legislation. It seems that Richard Pombo was usually involved in drafting the bills that needed to be stopped. Now that he's out of the way, those sorts of horrible bills won't be seeing the light of day. If we're not having to fight those urgent threats, Eco-Justice Ministries will be able to claim a tighter focus in our work with churches. The race in California's 11th CD hit very close to home for me.

The shift of power in Congress -- symbolized on all the maps by a change from red to blue -- means that Pombo would have been removed from his power as a committee chair, even if he stayed in office. So I confess that my delight at his election loss (to an expert on renewable energy, no less!) is personal, not very charitable, and quite vivid.

The absence of Dick Pombo and some of his colleagues, and the shift of partisan control of both the House and Senate, will make a real difference in the legislative approach to environmental issues in the 110th Congress. Extreme anti-environmental proposals are unlikely to stand a chance.

As I look at the next two years, I hope and pray that the environmental community can now take a break from fighting fires (Save the ESA! Protect the Arctic Refuge!), and pay serious attention to longer term issues such as climate change and peak oil.

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Of course, this week's shift of political power does not usher in the realm of God. Far from it. The tone and the content of some political debates will change, but there are issues and perspectives at the core which are largely unchanged.

Even with the new political transitions, we're still very much in the realm of "business as usual." For example, the Michigan Democrat who will soon chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee doesn't support raising fuel economy standards for cars, because that's seen as a threat to autoworker jobs in his district. Caring for the narrow and short-term interests of a constituency will always be a primary concern for politicians. That makes it hard to bring about dramatic changes, or to address the long-term common good.

Those questions of political process will always be difficult. The core perspectives which underlie politics, though, are even more significant. In a commentary a few weeks ago, Yale scholar Immanuel Wallerstein wrote about the anticipated turnover in the House, and the impact that it might have on foreign policy.

But what will a Democratic Congress do that is better? That, as everyone has remarked, is not at all clear. ... The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic party is that they believe, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom - in short, a deeply virtuous nation in a dangerous world. ... They seem really to believe that it's a matter of form, not substance, and that the fault of the Bush regime is that it wasn't good enough at diplomacy.
What Wallerstein says about international relations also applies to ecological relations, and to matters of social and economic justice. In his new book, The Great Turning, David Korten makes those connections as he critiques the mindset of "empire". Empire, he says, presumes conflict and inequality, domination and exploitation -- and he points to the US as the most dramatic expression of that mindset in today's world. Korten calls for a turn toward earth community, with more cooperation than conflict, sufficiency instead of excess, and democracy instead of domination.

If our society is steeped in the values of empire, then shifting leadership between political parties is a matter of form, not substance. The differences between parties is real, but not profound. We need a far deeper change if we are going to be able to bring genuine transformation and healing for God's creation. That is the sort of change in values and worldview that I hope churches will address in depth if we're not distracted by ANWR.

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I'm singin' the blues this week -- with two very different tunes.

For a few days, at least, I've got a happy "blue" song of celebration about the shift in government, and the possibilities that are opened for a different direction in legislation and public policy. Governors, Senators, and members of Congress do make a big difference in how our society works. There is some good news!

But at the core, and for the long haul, I'm still singing the blues in the classic sense. Those blues give an honest reflection on the complexities of the human condition, and they combine lament with hope and perseverance. In a world that leans toward Empire, in the face of the earth's great and growing distress, the gritty and realistic blues are the sort of song which keeps us honest and focused in seeking the good for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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