Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

DDT, Eco-Justice and Climate Reality
distributed 1/6/17 - ©2017

THANK YOU for the strong and supportive response to our winter fund drives! Eco-Justice Ministries ended 2016 with individual donations that exceeded our budget for the year. Your support -- financial and with other forms of engagement -- is deeply appreciated.

On the Friday after last fall's election, I made a promise to you.

Through Eco-Justice Notes, and in other ways, Eco-Justice Ministries will seek to provide guidance and encouragement about what it means to "be the church" in such a time. We will continue to provide an eco-justice framing for the critical issues of the day. We will explore the nature of relevant ministry and witness, and we will share resources for worship and for activism.

That will be an ongoing process. On occasion in the coming months, I'll be very explicit in addressing themes that are at the core of an eco-justice theological perspective. I begin with the ecological, relational way of understanding God's creation that is foundational to me, and to any environmentally responsible theology.

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I started college in 1970. For a bit of perspective, that was the year of the first Earth Day, and it was when the US Environmental Protection Agency was established by Richard Nixon. My studies had a strong emphasis on environmental biology, which was only then emerging as a reputable field of study.

In one of my first biology classes, we were put to work doing cutting-edge research on the insecticide DDT. We dissected a variety of locally-collected animals for tissue samples. (Our professor was renowned for scooping up road kill without coming to a complete stop on the highway.) Those samples were then analyzed to measure the levels of DDT.

We found that the insecticide bio-accumulated at a remarkable rate. Animals that ate insects had some DDT in their systems. The animals that ate insect-eaters had much higher levels. And the predators at the top of the food chain were very heavily contaminated, even when they were far from areas where the pesticide was sprayed.

One of my professors was an expert on birds of prey, and especially Peregrine falcons, a species that was suffering rapid population declines. Falcons and eagles, of course, are birds at the top of the food chain, and they tended to have very high levels of DDT. The insecticide itself didn't hurt the birds. But at the time we were doing our research, a different connection was discovered. DDT, metabolized in these birds, leads to a thinning of egg shells, so that many eggs break before chicks can hatch. High egg mortality because of DDT was a strong factor in the plummeting numbers of falcons and eagles.

In 1972 -- because of research like we were doing -- DDT was banned from most uses in the United States. The removal of that chemical from ecosystems is one factor in the strong recovery of birds of prey.

My hands-on participation in biological research like the DDT studies has had a life-long impact on the way I see the world. I know -- in my head and in my guts -- that all creatures are connected. I have no doubt that we are all part of a complex and interdependent web of life. No person, no creature, no plant exists in isolation. We are all in relationship. That always has been a pervasive theme from Eco-Justice Ministries (as seen in "The Forest and the Trees" from early in 2001).

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In June of 2015, Pope Francis published his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si', and I sat down to read it the day it came out. I was filled with joy and delight as I read through the first chapter, because the Pope clearly is grounded in a profoundly ecological awareness of relationships.

That first chapter is not explicitly theological. Rather, he sets out to describe "what is happening to our common home" in scientific terms. There's a fairly short section on climate change, and then one on water. Then comes a long and passionate section on the loss of biodiversity. He wrote, "Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another."

He chides us for paying too much attention to "charismatic" species. "It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms."

He rejects the notion that it is acceptable "to think of different species merely as potential 'resources' to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves." To which he adds what may be the most direct and authoritative statement in the whole encyclical: "We have no such right" to cause extinction.

Francis sees ecological and systemic relationships in the crisis of climate change, describing the feedback loops (such as the melting of ice caps) that accentuate and accelerate climate damage.

And of course, throughout the document, Francis is deeply concerned about just and responsible human relationships. "The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation."

At the very end of the encyclical, Francis is writing theologically, not scientifically. One of the closing sections is titled, "the Trinity and the relationship between creatures." He reminds us of the "trinitarian communion" of internal relationship. "The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships." We become more mature and more sanctified by entering into relationship "with God, with others and with all creatures."

Pope Francis calls the just functioning of this web of relationships "integral ecology." In other theological circles through the last 25 years or so, it has been called "eco-justice." By whatever name, this theological perspective is grounded in the reality of a world that is inherently relational -- ecologically, economically and sociologically.

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Relationship and interdependence are at the core of eco-justice. Those foundational principles of theology and ethics seem to be severely lacking in the incoming Trump administration, and in dominant parts of the US Congress.

Speaking broadly, I see in those political circles a propensity to value individuals over communities, to see the natural world as resources instead of ecological systems, and to disregard the scientific evidence of the climate crisis. I find it hard to imagine how such a distorted view of God's creation can lead to policies that lead to the common good and to ecological health.

Three of Mr. Trump's Cabinet nominees -- Scott Pruitt for EPA, Rick Perry for Energy, and Ryan Zinke for Interior -- are prominent "climate deniers." Rex Tillerson, the nominee for Secretary of State, was president of Exxon while that company internally acknowledged climate science, but publically acted to deny or question the science. People who will not acknowledge basic realities about our relational, interdependent world cannot provide good leadership for our nation. TAKE ACTION: Confirmation hearings for Cabinet appointments are scheduled in the US Senate for next week. I urge you contact your two Senators (look up their names, phone numbers and email contacts on the US Senate site). Call for extensive hearings that will really look at the nominee's beliefs and qualifications. You might tell the Senators that your faith calls for responsible actions in a world of ecological relationships, and that you oppose confirmation for nominees who don't acknowledge climate change.

God's creation is a web of relationships. We are called to seek justice and health in all of those relationships. An eco-justice perspective must always honor the complex relationships that nurture and surround us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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