Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Yes We Can
distributed 11/7/08 - ©2008

I was not an objective observer as the election returns came in on Tuesday night. I had a clearly partisan reaction when my favored side won. Obama was the candidate that I had supported with my vote, and with my volunteer efforts. I was, and continue to be, delighted that this nation's political policies and motivating visions are about to shift into new and hopeful directions.

But on a deeper level, none of us were objective observers as we watched the scenes of celebration from across the country and around the world that night. We all were witnesses to a defining moment in US history. In the uniqueness and intensity of that event, all of us were engaged personally and emotionally.

The election of 2008 has symbolism and implications that go far beyond the practical details of a new President and a solidified hold on partisan power in Congress. The vast multitudes who gathered in a Chicago park, and those of us who were present there via our TV sets, were caught up in an experience that transcended the moment. That night, something happened that changed our nation, and changed us all.

I was profoundly moved by images of people -- young and old, male and female, with skin hues ranging from pale to dark -- whose joy went much deeper than happiness about an electoral victory. So many of the faces were streaked with tears. I saw expressions that were prayerful and reflective, still coming to grips with a stunning new reality. This nation -- with its deep-seated history of slavery and racism -- had just elected an African-American to the highest office in the land. Regardless of fervor for or against Mr. Obama's policies, we all knew that we were sharing in a genuinely transformational occasion as we saw the embodiment of our nation's highest ideals.

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I was not an objective observer on Tuesday night as I listened to Barack Obama's acceptance speech. My ears were attentive for specific words and themes. Even as I was carried by the drama of the moment and the power of his oratory, I listened critically, and with a definite agenda, to see what the President-elect would say.

My hopes for the Obama presidency, for the nation, and for the international community are tied to my passionate eco-justice commitments. I listened to hear whether my agenda for sustainability, ecological justice and changed values would be addressed at all.

Early on, I was encouraged to hear "a planet in peril" named as one of the three great challenges of our lifetime. Those four simple words express a depth of ecological awareness and a global perspective that have been tragically missing in the White House these last eight years. The recognition in Tuesday's speech of our planetary peril is all the more significant because -- unlike two ongoing wars and a great financial crisis -- the environment was not one of the more visible or defining issues for this election. "A planet in peril" was not named as political pay-back, but because the peril is all too real. Those four words nurture my guarded optimism about eco-justice sensitivities in the Obama administration.

I found myself somewhat unsettled, though, by the powerful and inspiring litany which closed the address. As you recall, Obama told the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106 year old voter from Atlanta. He used her century of life as a measure for the change that passionate and committed people have brought to this country. The refrain for each stage of accomplishment was a line from his campaign, lifted up as an American creed: "Yes we can."

The accomplishments of the last 100 years include voting rights for women and people of color, a New Deal of economic opportunity, the defense of democracy and the spread of technological wonders. Many of the changes that he celebrated were long and hard struggles, made in the face of explicit and demanding challenges. And the crowd joined in the refrain of change: Yes we can.

Then Preacher Obama turned us toward the future. "America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?"

And that was the moment where my eco-justice agenda intruded in the purity of the emotional moment. I was not an objective or a passive observer. As Mr. Obama sketched the shape of progress into that future, he dealt with the great challenges of war and economic health, but the peril of our planet was nowhere to be seen.

I am anxious when that great challenge is not an explicit part of how we envision the future, because as I picture the next century, I know that "business as usual" is the path to ecological and cultural devastation. If "progress" continues to be defined in terms of increasing consumption and energy use, our descendants will not inherit a better world. If the American dream of individualism, prosperity and growth shapes the way we move into the next century, the already-great peril will increase for the entire Earth community.

Just a few days before the election, I read an article from the British magazine, Green Futures. Where Obama urged us to think ahead 100 years, "New Year's Day 2030" looks forward just 20 years, and posits five scenarios for a world wrestling with global warming. The authors wrote, "The way we tackle climate change won't just shape the weather of the future; it will change everything from the way we do business to the way we are governed. The years to come will be defined as much by climate change as the 1930s were by depression or the 1950s by the Cold War."

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama lifted up the Great Depression and the Cold War as two of the challenges that were met with what we can now see as great accomplishments. In the face of such huge challenges, we have asserted, "Yes we can." None of the changes in the acceptance speech litany were achieved easily, or without great vision. The progress that was made in each case named the problems, and confronted them boldly.

The peril of our planet will shape the way our future unfolds in the United States, and for the global community. Climate change and other threats will define how we live, whether we chose to address them or not. Rather than denying the great ecological challenges, we must face them head-on if we are to find an acceptable new path for our global society. We must affirm that, yes, we can take on this great challenge of our lifetime.

This election can offer us some optimism about an attentive political context for our eco-justice work. I see strong signs that the new Obama administration understands "the common good" as a principle that must balance individualism. Our new President-elect is willing to speak to us of sacrifice and responsibility. There are reports that Mr. Obama takes science seriously, and will once again allow researchers and government scientists the academic freedom they need to honestly inform public policy. These hopeful factors can encourage us in our hard work.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama said to us: "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other." I would only add that we must insist that our planet in peril be a constant measure of our progress.

In our work for the common good, for a thriving Earth, may we affirm, yes we can!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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