Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Polluted Social Environment
distributed 7/8/16 - ©2016

Thanks to the 14 people who provided thoughtful and extensive comments on last week's Notes, "Compromise and Climate Activism". The topic will be addressed again in the near future, drawing on your insights.

"The environment is where we live and work, play and pray."

With those few words, the environmental justice movement brought an important reminder about the diversity and the urgency of environmental issues. The succinct definition was offered in the 1990s as a counterpoint to environmental organizing on causes that were seen by some as distant and elitist. The environmental justice lesson needs to be remembered and taken seriously.

I think of that challenge to predominantly white and affluent environmental groups in the context of this week's shocking news of two more police shootings of African-American men. What are the "environments" that we recognize as important, and where we seek justice?

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The definition of nature and the environment is one that I addressed a couple of times in close conjunction to New Year's Day, when calendars get changed over. In "Conflicts about Calendars", I pondered the implications of hanging up a Sierra Club wilderness calendar in my office.

I wrote, "In the world of nature calendars -- and the lovely Sierra Club ones are only one example of the genre -- the full beauty of nature is ruined if people are present. Within this iconography, 'nature' and humanity occupy completely different realms."

That's the mindset that was challenged by the environmental justice definition. The environment is not only pristine beaches and stunning mountain vistas. It is not only polar bears and colorful fish in a coral reef.

The environment is also "Cancer Alley" -- an industrial region along the Mississippi River in Louisiana with sky-high cancer rates. The environment includes the communities in North Carolina that were devastated 20 years ago when large-scale hog production moved in, with overwhelming sewage and smells. The environment includes countless urban neighborhoods where highways and industry generate constant air pollution that causes asthma and other health problems.

And far too often, those settings of human environmental distress involve communities of color. Even more so than poverty, many statistics of environmental risk correlate with race. Two important studies on "Toxic Waste and Race" document clearly those disproportionate impacts.

I am grateful for the outspoken challenges from environmental justice leaders, naming the day-to-day experience of people who live in toxic settings, and calling to account the limitations of "green" activism. And I am grateful for the emerging partnerships that bridge previous divisions between human justice and ecological commitments, finding common ground in "eco-justice" and "climate justice" perspectives.

Our work to care for all of God's creation is stronger when we understand "the environment" most broadly.

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This week, a revised definition has been settling into my heart. "The environment is where we live and work, play and pray -- and die." The daily experience of people of color in the United States includes stress, insults, abuse, discrimination, violence and death that is hard to recognize from the perspective of white privilege.

The human environment -- social, economic and political -- of many of our black, Latinx and Native American sisters and brothers is as poisoned and toxic as the air and water of Cancer Alley. The cumulative effect of persistent, if low-level, damage leads to psychological hurt, anger and anxiety, fear and rage. And sometimes, egregious events bring out the pent-up passion of that ongoing experience.

This week, police killed two black men in incidents that -- to all first appearances -- should never have escalated to that level of violence. Alton Sterling was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, in a confrontation outside a convenience store. Philando Castile was shot five times after a routine traffic stop for a broken tail light.

Just as I honor what environmental justice advocates have taught me about the racism and violence in disproportionate pollution, I also honor the anger and grief that I hear from communities impacted by disproportionate violence. For them, these two shootings are not unusual or unfamiliar. They are icons of an all-too-familiar experience.

Speaking on Thursday -- before the reprehensible assassination of five Dallas law officers -- President Obama named "a few statistics to try to put in context why emotions are so raw around these issues."

According to various studies -- not just one, but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years -- African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over. After being pulled over, African Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched. Last year, African Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites. African Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites. African American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.

So that if you add it all up, the African American and Hispanic population, who make up only 30 percent of the general population, make up more than half of the incarcerated population.

There is deadly pollution in our human environment, in poisoned social relationships. Statistics catalogue the numbers, but those percentages are clinical. An equally true expression of that polluted environment is found in a photo in today's Denver Post. A woman protesting this week's killings holds a sign" I hope I don't get KILLED for being BLACK today!!!"

I must honor the reality of her experience, where shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota resonate with the setting in Denver where she lives and works, plays and prays. Her experience of daily life includes pervasive racism, injustice, anxiety and fear.

Do all people of color experience that ongoing toxic environment? No. Is it only people of color who experience injustice and oppression? Of course not. But there a pervasive pollution of our social environment that is undeniable in the presence of this week's police shootings.

The Governor of Minnesota was candid in naming that experience. "Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don't think it would have."

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I am grateful to the academics and advocates who opened my eyes to the reality of environmental racism. I especially honor my friends in church settings who pushed me hard and relentlessly about their daily experiences of pollution and disempowerment. And I am grateful that they not only called me to awareness, but that they also challenge me to action for racial and environmental justice.

I am grateful, too, for the advocates and activists who demand recognition of racism and violence in the United States, and in my home town. The often angry and challenging messages that I hear from Black Lives Matter make it impossible for me to dismiss the experiences of black folk in this country. I honor and respect the descriptions that they offer of their environment. I am moved to witness and action by their testimony. (I have found that Showing Up for Racial Justice is an important and insightful national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice that complements Black Lives Matter.)

It is dishonest to consider environmental activism without incorporating the realities of environmental racism. So, too, it is dishonest to consider US domestic policies without acknowledging the realities of disproportionate violence in and against communities of color.

As we seek God's shalom -- God's realm of peace with justice for all creation -- let us be explicit in placing our priorities for justice and action with those communities and environments that have been most severely impacted.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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