A few recent headlines on climate and environmental justice:
- While Shell’s Perdido platform has spilled 90,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and Shell faces a lawsuit on behalf of communities in Nigeria, Exxon’s shareholders have rejected proposals to include a climate change expert on their corporate board or consider how global carbon-reduction agreements would impact the company.
- Residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, are the first in the US to be described as “climate change refugees.”
- People in Brooklyn challenge NYC’s government to plan a new streetcar service around the needs of “the city’s neediest,” not gentrifiers and developers.
- Meanwhile, UpRose Brooklyn, a 50-year-old local environmental justice movement, is pushing back on plans to displace Sunset Park’s working class community. Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre writes that we have a moral imperative to use industrial zones to drive development that’s renewable, efficient, carbon-neutral, and climate-adaptable. But the campaign is swimming against the current of money and power in NY’s City Hall.
- Chagos islanders, from the archipelago in the Indian Ocean east of Mauritius, are still landless despite multiple UK court and UN rulings affirming their right to return home. The UK and the US forcibly removed the Chagos during the Cold War, and the US has used the largest island as a military base since then. (Learn more.)
There are a few common threads here.
- Private corporations value their profits over their impact on millions.
- Cities value short-term benefits over residents’ long-term needs.
- Western governments close ranks against populations too small or too remote to resist armed power, and ancestral land is a great chessboard for modern war games.
Our definition of “us” limits whose gains and losses we’re willing to care about. Our definition of “we” excludes the people who most need its protection and favors those among us who need it least. Money and media consistently affirm the concerns of a very narrow slice of the human race, and people working for good on the ground floor face incredible institutional resistance.
This is not how we heal the world.
In the penultimate episode of Climate Stew, Peterson Toscano asks, “How do we get people to listen, to care, to act?” We certainly can’t do it with fear rhetoric. Fear of crisis and collapse terrifies people, contracting their ability to envision a future worth living in or make sound, long-term decisions about that future.
But we naturally care for our own; we don’t have to argue people into doing that. So part of our failure lies in our definition of “us.” We have to engage people at the level of their values, the values that determine who in the human family people claim as “theirs” and how we should treat those on this or that side of the in-group line.
Christian theologian Walter Brueggeman has some thoughts about that:
We in the United States live in a deathly social context that’s marked by consumerism and militarism and the loss of the common good… [This] ideological system causes us to be very afraid, to regard other people as competitors, or as threats, or as rivals. It causes us to think of the world in very frightened and privatistic forms…
“The gospel very much wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, in sharing our resources, and of living out beyond ourselves. The gospel contradicts the dominance values of our system, which encourages self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good. The church is in some ways a reflection of those dominant values.” —Walter Brueggeman, January 2015
Brueggeman believes that Christianity in the US has adopted domination values, choosing threat consciousness and isolation over the harder work of negotiating what it means to live on a common planet with others. But for him, and for the thousands of people of faith involved in climate action work, this isn’t a merely political or scientifically logical or economic matter. It’s not even about existential preservation, or saving corn, beans, or chocolate, as much as I care about these crops. Since so many people are frozen out of quality life, my concern for injustice isn’t about keeping things the same. It’s about changing things.
Awakening to our connectedness is about imagining a world unlike the past and distinct from the present. There’s a moral basis for imagining our future knowing that we’ll share it with people we haven’t yet been willing to claim as “ours too.” The facts haven’t changed much since the 1800s: we’re responsible for humankind and we have the capacity to live differently. So it’s our values, and not so much the facts, that can guide us in finding more fruitful ways to handle our social decisions, our use of land and energy, our approval of local re/development plans, our reception or rejection of climate refugees, and the calculus we use in policymaking.
Who’s in our “we”? We have to expand our answer.
Because the only way we can heal our world is if when we say “world,” we mean more than “my friends and me.”