Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving for Mt. Rainier

By Josh Gross

Dear friends,

Sometimes the challenges before us seem overwhelming. The implications of climate change are so dire, and the Earth so close to the tipping point, that it's hard not to give in to despair. This isn't helped by the fact that many Americans are still in denial about the reality in front of them. Given our situation, it's often difficult to find anything to be thankful for. But if we take a moment to pause we'll quickly realize just how much we have to be grateful for. There are so many good, wondrous things in this world worth celebrating! In honor of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I'd like to take some time to describe one reason I have to be thankful this fall.

I've been in Seattle for three months now, and during that time have had many wonderful experiences. But when I reflect on the ones that meant the most to me, nearly all of them revolve around the earth. The first of these is my trip to Mt. Rainier. In September, Ballard First Lutheran church organized a hike on Mt. Rainier and invited the Lutheran Volunteer Corps members in Seattle to join them. I will be forever grateful to Pastor Erik for giving me that opportunity.

I was impressed with Mt. Rainier as soon as I entered the park. As we drove up the long, winding road to the higher portions of the mountain everything I saw filled me with awe. Never before had I seen a forest like the one covering the lower reaches of Rainier. They were so lush, so green! The massive trees were so densely packed that I wondered how any creature more than a few feet tall could navigate them. And all of them, even the trees that were lying on the ground, had some sort of moss or lichens growing on them. This was my first exposure to the temperate rainforest, and I loved it. But the forests were nothing compared to the mountain itself.

Once we ascended above the main forests and the snow-covered peak came into view, my heart stopped. Everyone in the van gasped, and one of my fellow volunteers was so shocked by Rainier's greatness that she screamed. It wasn't a frightened scream, like the ones given off by children when they awake from nightmares. It was instead an exclamation of wonder: as if her body had suddenly been filled with so much awe that it burst forth in a flood of emotion. As for myself, all I could do was stare at the massive compilation of snow and rock that now towered over me. No words were needed.

Hiking on Mt. Rainier was the most magical experience of my life. The sights, sounds, and smells I took in will always be part of me. But even more significant than Rainier's beauty is the lesson it taught me. When I was first confronted with its enormity, I felt incredibly small. But further reflection showed me that the opposite is true. Yes, according to physical measurement I am tiny compared to even the smallest mountain. But the same God who shaped Rainier shaped me, indeed all of us, as well. What's more, God entrusted us with the care of all creation. It is our job to safeguard such amazing works of nature as Mt. Rainier.

This is a huge vote of confidence in humanity. God wouldn't have appointed us stewards of creation unless we could fulfill that role. The unique gifts of intellect and ambition our Creator endowed us with give us the power to alter the world around us; even mountains. So far our species has used this power to degrade the planet. We horde its resources for the benefit of a privileged few, causing great damage in the process. But humanity's gifts also give us the ability to set things right. If we work together we can change the course of history. We can bandage our planet's wounds and slow the bleeding. Over time we may even be able to stop it entirely, and help the earth heal. We may not see these changes in our lifetimes, but if enough of us join together they will happen.

So this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for two things. The first is the opportunity to hike on Mt. Rainier. That was the trip of a lifetime, and even now I'm in awe of that mountain's greatness. The second is the power our species has been given by our Creator. The intellect we've been given grants us the ability to be truly effective stewards of Earth. We have only to cast off the self-effacing shackles of greed and realize that our gifts are meant to benefit more than just ourselves. They are meant to benefit us, our neighbors, and all creation. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have been given these abilities, and for the opportunity to share them with all of you.   

Friday, November 9, 2012

Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice: Part 3

Dear friends,

We come to it at last, the final part of my Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice series. Today I will post the last part of my talk from the October 13 colleague consultation. It's only two paragraphs, but the information contained in them is vitally important. It gives a very brief overview of the current environmental justice situation in the United States. There's no way anyone could possibly cover that topic in detail in two paragraphs, but that was not my intention when I wrote this talk. What I hoped to do was give attendees of the Fall 2012 colleague consultation a sense of the direction our country is headed in regards to environmental justice. With that in mind, feel free to read the final excerpt from that presentation:
       Despite successes such as Executive Order 12898, our nation continues to be plagued by environmental injustices. In 2007 the UCC conducted a follow-up study to their groundbreaking Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. They found that in 20 years the situation hadn’t improved. In fact, it may have gotten worse. A community’s racial demographic is still the single most important factor in determining whether or not it hosts a toxic waste site. On average, neighborhoods that host commercial waste sites are 56% people of color. Neighborhoods without toxic waste sites tend to be only 30% people of color. It’s important to note that the state of Washington is the 7th worst in this regard (Bullard, Mohai, Saha, and Wright, 2007). In addition, as recently as the year 2007 African Americans were three times as likely to die from asthma-related diseases as European Americans. This could be because 70% of African Americans live in counties in violation of federal air quality standards. Cosmetic products marketed towards communities of color are also full of harmful chemicals. For example, there’s mercury in skin lighteners, formaldehyde in hair relaxers, and coal tar in hair dyes ("Is There No Balm in Gilead").
       The Environmental Justice movement has had a large impact on the United States. It’s shown Americans that the health of the environment and the health of a society are inseparable. Cultural practices such as racism influence nearly every aspect of our lives, mostly in ways we aren’t aware. Therefore it’s not surprising that when we degrade the environment, people of color suffer the most. It’s imperative that we take this into account as we work to be better stewards of the earth. We must acknowledge that those with less political power are the most harmed by irresponsible environmental practices, and do all we can to ease their burden. If we do this, if we look for solutions that take all people’s needs into account, then we will establish a truly just and sustainable future.
As I said earlier, the above paragraphs don't even scratch the surface of the current state of the Environmental Justice movement in the US. Despite this, they illustrate an important and frightening fact: environmental racism and related injustices are just as common as they were in 1987. Depending on how the data is interpreted, one can confidently claim that in the past 20 years the United States has become even more environmentally unjust. There's no excuse for this.

The USA has undergone significant changes since 1987. There's been an unprecedented technological boom, Americans elected the first African-American president, and just a few days ago Washington voters approved same-sex marriage. And yet communities of color and those with lower socioeconomic status are still forced to suffer disproportionately due to unfair environmental practices. As people of faith, we cannot stand for this.

God gave this planet to all people, therefore we all share the responsibility to care for it. Treating the earth in whatever way is convenient for us while leaving others to deal with the aftermath is poor stewardship. Remember, whether we realize it or not we're all God's children. If you knew your sister was being forced to drink poisoned water, would you allow it? If your brother had no choice but to breathe toxic air, would you look the other way? As people of faith, we need to realize that it's our duty to care for our brothers and sisters. Therefore we must make sure no one is disproportionately harmed by environmental degradation.

I hope some aspect of this series on the Environmental Justice movement in the United States has been meaningful to you. Thank you for reading this post, and may God bless you.

Josh Gross        

Friday, November 2, 2012

Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice: Part 2

By Josh Gross, Outreach Coordinator

Well friends, it's time for the second part of my series on environmental justice. For those of you who haven't read "Becoming Aware of Environmental Justice: Introduction", on October 13 Earth Ministry held its fall 2012 colleague consultation at University Lutheran Church. The theme of that event was environmental justice. I believe this to be an incredibly important topic, since far too many Americans are unaware of how disproportionately environmental degradation harms communities of color and those with lower socioeconomic status.

In order to call attention to this dilemma, I'm posting the talk I gave at the October 13 colleague consultation to this blog. Due to the document's length, I'm adding one section per week. Since last week's post was the first one, it only included the introduction paragraph. This section, however, contains the main body of the talk. It gives a brief overview of the historical roots of the Environmental Justice movement in the United States. These paragraphs contain information about the event in 1982 that started it all, and the United Church of Christ's study that showed the nation how dangerous it is to mix racism with irresponsible environmental practices. If that sounds interesting to you, read on:
       Environmental justice has almost certainly been a concern for as long as resources have been unfairly distributed. However, the modern Environmental Justice movement in the US was kick-started in 1982. That was the year authorities decided to build a toxic waste landfill in the predominantly African-American community of Afton (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The citizens were outraged. The people, initially led by members of a Baptist church, took to the streets. They literally laid down in the road to block trucks from reaching the landfill (Chavis, 1993). Civil rights leaders such as Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard also got involved, drawing national media attention to Warren County (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The resident of Warren County put up an admirable fight, but in the end landfill was completed.
       Six weeks of nonviolent protests and over 500 arrests weren’t enough to prevent toxic wastes from being deposited in Afton, but it was enough to start a movement (Skelton and Miller, 2006). The protests prompted the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) to examine the demographics of areas with toxic waste sites in 1987. The results were astounding. The report, titled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, found that race was the single most important factor in determining the location of hazardous waste facilities. This was true even when the study controlled for influences such as socio-economic status. For instance, they found that three out of every five Black and Hispanic Americans lived in communities with unregulated toxic waste sites (United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1987).
       Findings such as these prompted Environmental Justice pioneers to convene at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. This meeting resulted in the creation of the Principles of Environmental Justice (Pacific West Community Forestry Center). Guided by the Principles, the Environmental Justice movement continued to gather momentum. President Clinton appointed Reverend Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard to his Natural Resources transition team in 1992. More importantly, in 1994 he signed Executive order 12898. This order instructed federal agencies to make sure their environmental policies didn’t disproportionately harm marginalized populations (Skelton and Miller, 2006). This was an important milestone for the Environmental Justice movement, but it wasn’t the end.
There you have it folks, the entire history of the Environmental Justice movement condensed to three paragraphs. Obviously there's far more to environmental justice than that, but due to time constraints the best I could do was highlight some of the most important milestones.

Don't forget to tune in next week, when I'll be posting the last two paragraphs of my talk! They'll focus on the current picture of environmental justice in the US. I'll also include a list of all the references I used in case you're interested in learning more. Until then, may God bless you.