Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Voice for the Voiceless
distributed 3/19/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Natalie Morrison, of Crested Butte, Colorado. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

"No taxation without representation!" In the 1770s that remarkable demand helped to energize the fight of the American colonies against English rule.

In the political realm, the expectation of participation has become a bedrock principle of democratic societies -- in theory, if not in practice. The idea is fairly simple. When a decision is being made that has an impact on a group of people, they should have some say in what happens. All of the stakeholders should be able to participate in decision-making, if not directly, then through their chosen representatives.

This Lent, I have been summarizing the four core ethical norms of eco-justice: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation. The fourth principle in that list is remarkably challenging, especially when the other three norms have already expanded our awareness of relationships to include communities far from our daily experience.

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The expectation for participation is most often recognized in the political realm.

In the US, the opportunity to take part in political decisions is both presumed, and poorly used. Electoral campaigns dominate the news -- the front-runners are being declared almost a year before the first primary -- and yet the US has an embarrassingly low turn-out of voters in most elections. Indeed, when polls and pundits narrow the field of candidates without any votes being cast, our ability to participate is diminished. Why vote when the decision is a foregone conclusion? Participation is reduced when the two dominant political parties overwhelm and silence minority views, and when voter turnout is discouraged through intimidation and biased election processes.

The ability to elect representatives does not guarantee that legislative processes will honor genuine participation. Federal budget appropriations enacted in last-minute "riders" that are never debated, and whose proponents are never named, are a gross violation of participation. Powerful lobbyists with easy access to decision makers have more power, a larger voice, than ordinary citizens.

In spite of numerous roadblocks, the desire to participate is widespread and strong. The massive turn-out at immigration rallies last April showed an intense desire to impact decisions that would hit hard at the personal and community level. Hundreds of thousands of people who would be profoundly affected by changes in immigration policies, but who cannot vote in the US, took to the streets to make their presence known. On April 14, when communities across the US rally for strong climate change action, we will be expressing our right to participate in setting this political agenda.

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Politics are important, but participation goes far beyond governmental decisions.

In the realm of consumer products and technology, the ability to shape decisions is often embedded in choices about what to buy, or not buy. We can participate by purchasing compact florescent light bulbs instead of incandescents -- and millions of us making that choice are influencing the marketplace. We participate through our shopping decisions.

Our ability to participate is eliminated, though, when we are not provided with the information necessary to make an informed choice. When food packaging does not indicate content from genetically-modified organisms, or whether foods were transported long distances by air, of if exploited labor was used, we cannot express our preferences.

Economic globalization has brought new complexity to issues of participation. Small international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, operating in secret and without viable options for appeal, have the ability to over-rule national legislation. International treaties such as GATT and NAFTA preclude participation from the communities that are most affected.

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In its best form, the norm of participation will guide us toward systems where all stakeholders are empowered and given voice, where they can speak in significant ways about their own interests and perspectives. It is best when each individual or constituency can make their own case and present their own claims.

But there are many times when that direct participation is impossible, especially when eco-justice makes us aware of the wide range of stakeholders. Because decisions being made today impact future generations and other species we must take it upon ourselves to give voice to the voiceless with as much honesty and integrity as we can.

In discussions about global climate change, I often ask church groups, "What sort of world do you want to leave for your children and grandchildren?" That really is not an adequate question. It would be better to ask, "What sort of world do our descendants have a right to expect from us?" What are the legitimate claims that we should hear from the future? How can we allow future generations to have some say in the world that we are creating for them?

We are living in a time when species are being pushed into extinction at astonishing rates -- perhaps 1,000 times the normal levels. Pollution, habitat destruction, the spread of invasive species and "over-harvesting" of fish are major factors in humanity's forcing of the planet's sixth great extinction event. It is reasonable to assume that those species don't want to be driven into oblivion, but their needs are given little consideration. The ethical norm of participation demands that we give voice to their interests and needs.

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These four ethical norms are principles that we try to apply in all situations. They are not issues for focused action in themselves, but rather they shape our understanding and decisions on many of the issues that we encounter.

If we are committed to participation, we will bring that commitment to many different causes. We will demand election processes that encourage and enable voting by all eligible people. Legislation, zoning decisions, and governmental rule-making will pay attention to all stakeholders, and not only those with big bucks and easy political access. We will demand good information for consumer decisions, and corporate rules that empower shareholder activism. We will demand honesty, transparency and accountability in government, and in the quasi-governmental powers of economic globalization. We will encourage fair trade systems which empower small-scale producers.

With humility and as much honesty as we can muster, we will dare to speak for those who have no voice within existing situations. With open minds and open hearts, we will try to perceive what those others would be saying to us -- the polar bears and the beetles who face extinction, the chicken and hogs abused and exploited by corporate agriculture, the people who will live in the overheated and unstable world of 2100.

The notion of participation was a revolutionary concept 200 years ago. If we take it seriously, the granting of voice to the voiceless is just as revolutionary today.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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