The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Our Children's Trust
"What kind of world do I want to leave to my children and grandchildren?"
I hear that question fairly often in church circles. Most often, it is voiced by middle-aged and older people in congregations, and often when they have new grandchildren.
With that new little girl or boy as a member of their family, there's a fresh sense of their own lineage stretching into the future. When they hold that child, they can imagine this person living 70 or 80 or 90 years. The year 2100 doesn't seem quite so abstract anymore. If all goes well, that's when their grandchild might be living into retirement.
What kind of a world do I want my precious descendant to be living in at that stage in her or his life? It is a powerful question, and a very important one.
Unfortunately, the question that they ask isn't the right question.
Let's turn it around a little bit. What if we ask, "What kind of world do my children and grandchildren have a right to expect from me?" Does that feel different to you?
The first, and most common question is grounded in a notion of my generosity. I get to decide how much I'm willing to change -- or how much my society needs to change -- so that I can feel OK about the world left to coming generations.
The second question doesn't depend on my generosity, or my sense of what is needed. It is a question of rights. The needs of those who are yet to come have to be taken much more seriously.
What kind of world do our children and grandchildren have a right to expect from us? I don't know the details, but I am convinced that they have a right to a livable planet. I am convinced that this beautiful, fragile world does not belong to us to use up and destroy for our own profit, convenience and pleasure. We are stewards of Earth, with an obligation to future generations, and to the entire web of life.
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There is a legal action in process that I find very exciting and hopeful. In a set of court filings, it shifts the talk about climate into the realm of justice and stewardship. A group called Our Children's Trust is involved in a number of lawsuits now working their way through courts in several states, at the federal level, and in some other countries.
The federal lawsuit is filed on behalf of 21 children and youth. (Full disclosure: Eco-Justice Ministries is one of many religious organizations that has signed on to "friend of the court" filings in support of the youth.)
As Our Children's Trust describes the case:
Youth filed their constitutional climate lawsuit, called Juliana v. U.S., against the U.S. government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015. Their complaint asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
The lawsuit -- which was scheduled to go to trial on February 5, 2018, but is delayed during legal procedures -- says that our children and grandchildren have a clear legal right to a much better world than they are going to get. If it is successful, the lawsuit will require profound changes in US policies about climate change.
This is not a frivolous lawsuit. The judge who will be hearing the case refused the government's attempt to have it dismissed. She wrote, "Exercising my 'reasoned judgment,' I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society."
The legal principle being used in the lawsuit is called the public trust doctrine. It is an idea that goes all the way back into ancient Roman law, and has tracked through western civilization. It is a foundational principle of virtually all legal and religious systems. One of the most prominent legal scholars on the topic wrote, "The public trust doctrine speaks to one of the most essential purposes of government: protecting critical natural assets for the survival and welfare of citizens."
I heard that legal scholar, Prof. Mary Christina Wood, give a lecture at the University of Colorado Law School a few weeks ago. She let us know that there is nothing all that new or surprising about the public trust doctrine. What is new, surprising and frightening is that there is now a strong case to be made for invoking the doctrine because of the climate crisis.
Never before have we had such a clear situation where the well-being, even the survival, of future generations is at stake. Never before has the public trust been so dramatically violated. Her presentation spent a lot of time making the case -- already well known to most of us -- that "business as usual" will not provide the livable future that is the right of coming generations.
James Gustave Speth, in the opening pages of his book, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World", made that case vividly.
How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today ... Just continue to release greenhouse gasses at current rates ... and the world in the latter part of this century won't be fit to live in.
Sometime in 2018, we hope, a US District Court will hear the a constitutional cased that essentially deals with the question, "What kind of world do our children and grandchildren have a right to expect from us?"
In the months leading up to the trial, and especially as arguments are made before the court, we will have opportunities -- in our churches, conversations, and the media -- to turn around the common question, and introduce our friends and neighbors to a basic principle of climate justice.
I am delighted that the case is going to trial, and I lift up fervent prayers of hope that the courts will address the injustice that is being inflicted on future generations. In today's political climate, a strong legal decision may be one of our best openings in fighting for climate justice.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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