Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Then They Fight You
distributed 1/11/13 - ©2013

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Hank and Mary Warren of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." So said Mahatma Gandhi, who knew from personal experience about each of those stages in the nonviolent struggle against colonialism.

Popular movements don't spring into being fully formed and winning decisive victories. They start small, often ignored and looking foolish as they take on impossible causes. Eventually, some of those movements gain visibility and credibility and power, to the point where they become serious agents in a process of dialogue, negotiation, demands and conflict. And sometimes, those efforts at change -- those causes that not long before seemed ludicrous and destined to fail -- sometimes they succeed.

Change happens slowly. There's no clear line that suddenly determines when a movement is gaining the essential momentum and respect. But there are indicators of shifting public sentiments, of growing power, of a real fight taking shape.

As I look at a variety of news stories and action alerts from the last few months, I'm seeing signs of active and engaged resistance to fossil fuels -- especially the many ways that those fuels are extracted and transported. Industries that are used to getting their own way are having to fight hard against serious challenges.

A movement is growing and taking hold. Political and legal battles are shifting as new constituencies find their voice. On many fronts, and for many reasons, folk are taking strong stands and demanding to be heard.

I find hope as I see credible challenges to the long-standing hegemony of the fossil fuel businesses. I am encouraged as I see a diverse movement growing more powerful in the fight for health, justice and sustainability.

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A recent Christian Century magazine (1/9/13) has a back-to-back pair of articles that provide some evidence of a movement growing in scope and power. The second article, written by Bill McKibben, describes the newly-launched initiative to have colleges and universities -- and also religious denominations -- divest from fossil fuel stocks. In just a few months, motivated primarily by concerns about climate change, thousands of students and alumni have taken demands to sell those stocks to hundreds of schools. This is an important and empowered new strategy.

But it was the first article that spoke to me of a real shift in the character of the movement. The pastor of a Baptist church in an east Texas town writes about the connection between her church and a crop of young adults who have come to Texas to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

Some church members were already part of the local fight against the pipeline, which is designed to move oil-like bitumen from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Now, the church is often visited by kids who have come to Texas for civil disobedience to disrupt pipeline construction. She describes "kids coming into church with wild haircuts, scruffy beards and raggedy clothes and smelling as if they haven't bathed in a week or two -- because they haven't." The kids join in the life of the church, worshipping, setting up chairs and washing dishes. And members of the congregation invite them home for meals, showers and laundry. The outside agitators are being treated with love and respect by the church.

One older couple from the church went to a site where the protesters were sitting in trees, blocking construction of the pipeline in a direct confrontation with police and TransCanada employees. The couple went to take plates of brownies to the protesters, and they stood up to intimidation and interrogation from the police to make their delivery. Church and community members are standing as allies of those who are facing arrest. That's a sign of a growing movement.

The pastor reflects on Paul's writing that we are to be "fools for the sake of Christ." She sees that sort of prophetic and holy foolishness in the interaction of the protesters and church members as they stand against powerful institutions.

The Keystone Pipeline is just one of many fronts where the movement against fossil fuels is taking hold. Parallel efforts with similar motivations and goals are happening in many other settings.

  • In the Pacific Northwest, there is strong resistance to the development of coal export terminals. These proposed facilities would take coal strip-mined in Montana and Wyoming, moved by train to the west coast, and load the coal on ships that would carry it to China. The fight against coal terminals combines local issues of health and safety -- lots of trains through metropolitan areas every day, with dust and pollution -- with global strategies about shutting down the flow of climate-warping coal. Our colleagues at Earth Ministry in Seattle have helped to organize churches in this fight.

  • In Appalachia, the fight against mountaintop removal is another aspect of the rejection of coal. The local issues of community health, toxic pollution, water quality, ecological preservation and corporate intimidation are combined with disgust that the mountains are being destroyed so that coal can be exported with huge impacts on greenhouse gasses.

  • Impacted regions across the US are rejecting and resisting "fracking" for natural gas and oil. The intrusion of drilling rigs into developed communities is mobilizing a diverse constituency. When industrial operations set up shop next door to homes and schools, and bring noise, dust, fumes, toxic chemicals and polluted water, many people are no longer accepting the legitimacy of industry's dominance.

    In Colorado this week, hearings before a state agency about drilling rules brought out hundreds of citizens with demands for larger setbacks, better research about health impacts, and stronger measures on water pollution. Industry leaders had tried to exclude testimony from citizen groups, but they were able to speak, and a commissioner called their witness "very compelling and helpful." These citizens used to be ignored, now the industry has to fight them.

I wrote last May about the depletion of easy sources for fossil fuels, and how industries are now "scrounging for the dregs" with mountaintop removal, drilling for oil in extreme locations, tar sands, and fracking for oil and gas. (A recent ad campaign by Statoil acknowledges that "The days of easy oil exploration are over" and describes their dramatic efforts to wring more fuel from marginal formations.)

The movement against fossil fuels is growing, in part, because those extreme efforts are causing larger impacts for smaller returns, hitting closer to home for many communities, often are exporting the fuels for big corporate profits with little benefit to local folk, and adding substantially to global climate change. There's a growing sense that the balance of costs and benefits is shifting, that drilling and mining and piping are not giving us enough in return.

A few years ago, this movement was small, easy to ignore, and the subject of jokes. Now it is becoming more powerful, more diverse, more strategically sophisticated. There is a real fight now, and the opponents of fossil fuels are being taken seriously.

Join the movement where you can. Divest, or fight coal terminals, or oppose reckless fracking. Stand on the front lines, or support those taking the big risks as a visible ally. Speak up in your church and community, and respect and credibility to the moral message of the growing movement against fossil fuels.

A note to our friends in the eastern US: On Sunday, February 17 in Washington, DC, a massive protest rally will demand that President Obama reject permits for the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline. I urge those of you within a reasonable and responsible travel distance to join this protest, take a stand against fossil fuels, and build the movement.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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