Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Foes Outside and Within
distributed 9/26/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Natille and Carl Zimmerman of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

It was a truly amazing week in New York City. Amid the string of remarkable and inspiring events, I see evidence of a fundamental difficulty that we need to face in order to address the crisis of global climate change. That difficulty is familiar to almost any religious perspective.

To recap the week's events:

  • Sunday -- As many as 400,000 people from a very diverse array of constituencies filled the streets of Manhattan for the People's Climate March. Not only was it the largest climate march ever, it was almost 10 times the size of the largest previous event. What's more, there were huge affiliated protests in major cities around the world, and a total of 2,646 events in 121 countries. In the days surrounding the march, related events in NYC brought together movement leaders for study, networking, and strategy sessions.

  • Monday -- The protests got edgier with Flood Wall Street's day of direct action, which was designed to name the complicity of economic systems in the growing climate crisis.

  • Tuesday -- At the UN Summit Meeting on climate change, 160 heads of state were called together by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "to galvanize and catalyze climate action." It was necessary to break the group into three simultaneous sessions so that all of them could have a four-minute chance to speak about the importance of action.

Then President Obama spoke to the UN. He ended by saying:

"Resolutions alone will not be enough. Promises on paper cannot keep us safe. Lofty rhetoric and good intentions will not stop [the crisis]. The words spoken here today must be matched and translated into action. ... For if there was ever a challenge in our interconnected world that could not be met by one nation alone, it is this".

Unfortunately, those strong words by Mr. Obama at the UN were spoken on Wednesday, not on Tuesday. He was admonishing the UN Security Council about terrorism, not climate change.

How is it, after the People's Climate March on Sunday, and after Tuesday's unprecedented UN summit on climate, that the US President could name "terrorists crossing the border to unleash terrible violence" as the "challenge in our interconnected world that could not be met by one nation alone"? How could all of that emphasis on climate change as the issue which requires unified action disappear so quickly and easily? (There's a "to be fair" elaboration on Obama's UN statements at the bottom of today's Notes.)

I know that the political and rhetorical realm of the United Nations is not a place to expect consistency. And terrorism is a great and immediate danger. But I think it was easy for Obama and others to put climate on the back burner (so to speak) because it is always easier to deal with an external foe than it is to take on an internal problem.

Terrorism is threat from outside to most nations of the world. Our collective dependence on fossil fuels is internal to our entire modern culture.

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This isn't a new problem. Through the ages, humans have found it easier to see fault in somebody else, instead of recognizing our own failures. Jesus said, "Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own?" (Luke 6:41)

Some of that difficulty in facing up to our own problems is self-interest and denial. It is hard to deal with our own issues, though, because there are different styles and strategies involved in facing up to internal and external crises.

I've pondered those differences often as I interpret to churches the difference between activism and transformational ministries. In a Notes on "Transformation and Activism", I wrote:

An activist approach tends to be confrontational. It divides people into the opposing sides of our allies and our enemies. ... A transformational approach is more confessional and more inclusive. It recognizes that we're all part of the problem, and that we all need to change. ... A transformational perspective reminds me that I must always question my own motives, my own values and assumptions.

External problems can be dealt with through confrontation and conflict. When the problem is out there somewhere, armies can be mobilized, bombs dropped, or sanctions imposed. When the problem is internal, though, anger, indignation, force and power don't work.

It is easy to be inspired to action when there is a threat to what we love. It is far more difficult to take action when what we love is a threat.

We do love the wealth, convenience and power that come from fossil fuels. International agreements on climate are difficult because no nation -- developed or developing -- is willing to give up the incredible benefits that we get from coal, oil and gas, especially if other countries continue to profit from cheap fossil fuels and unpriced pollution. Our affluence and identity are dependent on the very thing that is destroying the world. What we love really is a threat.

Knocking out a broad terrorist network seems like a manageable task when compared to rearranging our values and our economic systems. Yes, we can take out some of the most immediate "enemies" within our system. The dirtiest coal plants can be shut down. The leaks and waste of gas production can be tightened up. Efficiencies in lighting and transportation can help.

But at some point, at some level, we have to stop loving the thing that is killing us. We have to make changes in ourselves -- personally and culturally -- so that we claim different values, and a better way of living.

Those changes are coming. In the US, communities are saying that they prefer safe air and water more than they do the jobs, taxes and fuel that come from fracking. Protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and coal export terminals recognize that risks and damage come to local folk, and the benefits go to distant corporations and countries. China is recognizing that abundant electricity isn't much good when cities are choked by unbreathable smog.

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The UN Climate Summit on Tuesday was not a negotiating session. It was a pep rally where all the nations of the world (except Canada, Australia and Russia) could publicly state their best aspirations. It was a day for words, not action.

The hard work of negotiating standards and treaties begins in December of this year in Peru, and comes to a head at the December, 2015 session in Paris. As we head toward those meetings, we who seek climate justice need to continue the vocal and vibrant political action that came from the People's Climate March. We need to work on two fronts, internally and externally.

As activists, we do need to demand changes in technology, public policy, and economic rules so that reductions in carbon emissions happen dramatically and soon. And confessionally, we need to work toward changes in our own aspirations and identity, so that we will be able to embrace the great transformations needed to maintain a stable climate.

The climate threats are both external and internal. Our work for change must happen on both fronts.

NOTE: To be fair about Mr. Obama's statements at the UN on Wednesday, in his longer statement to the General Assembly, he did list climate change in a list of the world's difficult issues, and he named the need for all countries to be involved: "America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions, and we have increased our investments in clean energy. We will do our part, and help developing nations to do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power. That's how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren." That is one paragraph in a 40 minute speech.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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