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

Eco-Justice and Jobs
distributed 7/24/15 - ©2015

I'm venturing into a difficult and complex topic today: an eco-justice perspective on jobs in this time of environmental crisis.

I don't have bold prophetic announcements, or tidy answers. Drawing on a pair of conflicting narratives, I do offer a few affirmations, and several questions. I'm eager to hear your thoughts!

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In the last week, I've been part of several conversations with leaders of the People's Climate Movement -- the ongoing mobilization which is building on last fall's People's Climate March. Plans are being discussed for similar big acts of political witness this fall, calling for bold and urgent action at this winter's climate talks in Paris. The proposed National Day of Action would seek to have the same vibrant diversity that energized the huge march in New York City last September.

One of the planning documents talks about "working together with workers and their unions, faith communities, youth and students, Indigenous peoples and others" with the vision that "our nation can transition to a clean energy economy that is fair for workers and improves all of our lives."

Amen! What a wonderful, hopeful, inclusive vision! And that vision seems to slam head-on into the practical and political realities of our fossil fuel dominated world.

In the far northwestern corner of Colorado, the future of a coal mine is at stake in a federal lawsuit. The federal permit for the Colowyo mine, which supplies fuel for a nearby power plant, was challenged in a suit filed by WildEarth Guardians. The Bush-era Interior Department had not considered the environmental impact of burning the coal produced by the mine. This spring, a court ordered the Interior Department to re-do the impact statement on a very short timeline.

If the study is not completed on time, the permit will be revoked, the mine will close, and 220 miners will be out of work. The power plant, too, might shut down, and there would be other dramatic shocks to the small city of Craig. Colorado's two US Senators, and the US Representative for that part of the state, have spoken out in support of the mine in a statement to the Interior Secretary Jewell. The Governor, too, has spoken out, saying, "Don't kick people off their jobs."

Despite appearances, perhaps it isn't a clear-cut envrionmentalists vs. miners situation. Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, said , "I want the Interior Department to respond in 120 days, so that Colowyo doesn't have to be shut down."

As High Country News reported, Nichols said he pursued this and other cases because he believes the federal government should inform the public about the climate impacts of burning coal mined on federal lands. He hopes that once the government provides an honest accounting of the climate consequences of using coal, the public will see the "dismal picture" and think twice about approving more coal mines in the future. "It's high time that the future of mining be weighed against the future of the climate," he said.

I don't know what will happen, in the short term, to Colowyo. But those mining jobs are at stake if -- hopefully, when! -- we start a rapid transition to the clean energy economy envisioned by the People's Climate Movement.

Closing that one coal mine ends 220 high-paying ($100,000+) jobs in a town with 9,400 residents. The town of Craig doesn't have a lot of other options for economic vitality. It exists because of ranching and energy. Close the mine and the town is in crisis.

What's to be done? Keep that mine -- and hundreds of others like it -- open to preserve jobs and local economies, even when that has devastating impacts on the global climate? My thoughtful and abstract ethics can't accept that sort of capitulation to local needs in the face of a planetary crisis. But my ethics also cannot see those local impacts as insignificant. And it is very clear that local, state and regional politics are far more tuned to those mining jobs than to climate impacts spread around the world.

A short-hand definition of eco-justice speaks of "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth." Workers and ecosystems are both valued, and the legitimate needs of both have to be addressed.

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So -- to keep this from being a rambling 45 page essay -- let me touch on a few broad affirmations that are shaping my thinking.

  • As I mentioned above, the preservation of particular jobs cannot be the dominant consideration as we address climate change, or other ecological threats. The era of fossil fuels has to end. That means that jobs, and whole industries, will also have to be phased out rapidly.

  • I have often heard humanity described as "the most adaptable species" ever to exist on this planet. We've been able to spread into every kind of life-zone, from deserts to Arctic tundra, and find ways to thrive. And I've heard boosters of the US speak of the nation's heritage of inventiveness. Transitions are possible, even if they are difficult, disruptive and painful. We need to affirm, and utilize, all of our creativity and adaptability.

  • Work is an important part of the human experience. The availability of work is a matter of psychological health for individuals and families -- not only at coal mines, but on Indian reservations, or in settings like Syria where unemployment magnifies social turmoil. Pope Francis wrote in the recent Encyclical, "Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment." (paragraph 128) The same message is found in a recent article in The Atlantic, exploring "A World Without Work" as technology eliminates jobs.

  • There is a difference between economic growth or wealth creation and the development of jobs. "The economy" can look lively when automation displaces workers, or when jobs are shifted to countries with the lowest pay. Building a society with full employment -- especially one that seeks to be ecologically sustainable -- may reduce profits and trim the beloved (but misleading) Gross Domestic Product. If we are genuinely concerned with workers and communities, then bold proposals will have to shift economic incentives and redefine the measures of success.

I do affirm the vision of the People's Climate Movement, seeking a rapid "transition to a clean energy economy that is fair for workers and improves all of our lives." And I know that such a transition will be difficult for workers and communities that are tied to the fossil fuel economy that must soon end. The court case involving the Colowyo mine is a case study for what lies ahead.

What do you think? What is a responsible eco-justice approach that can guide us through the coming transitions?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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