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Earlier this week, the Loretto Community’s representatives to the UN had the privilege of attending a workshop on the interplay of ecology, economy and ethics. While any member of friend of Loretto knows this conversation topic is far from new, the Catholic community (and indeed the larger faith world) has been positively atwitter with talk of climate change, earth justice, and the moral imperative of environmental stewardship since the release of the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ this past summer.
The workshop, which took place at Union Theological Seminary’s Center for Earth Ethics, brought together faith and secular leaders for a full day of learning and idea-sharing centered around the earth justice movement—including who is leading the charge, how they are making an impact (or reducing their impact), and the key tasks before us.
Author Mary Evelyn Tucker opened the workshop by pointing out that, while the field of faith-based ecology did not exist 20 years ago, we are now seeing an outpouring of statements and social actions by religious groups for environmental protection.
Throughout the day, leaders of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and indigenous faith communities supported this assertion, speaking passionately of their scriptural or spiritual motivation to work for earth justice. Among these leaders was Loretto’s own Kathy Wright, who spoke (on an otherwise all-male panel) about Loretto’s role in the anti-Bluegrass Pipeline campaign, the unanimous decision to divest from fossil fuels, and the shutdown of the coal-fired power plant at the Motherhouse. Her co-panelists included representatives of the Church of Sweden, the World Council of Churches, and the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who each shared stories of “cleaning house” through pro-environment divestment or investment. This group was also joined by a representative of a clean energy startup called BlocPower, which has specifically sought investment from religious communities for the work of fitting houses of worship with clean energy equipment such as solar panels.
In another panel, the connections between racial and climate justice were beautifully articulated by Elizabeth Yeampierre of UPROSE, an intergenerational, multi-racial community organization that promotes sustainability and resiliency in the Sunset Park community of Brooklyn, NY. She pointed out that climate change did not begin with the extraction of fossil fuels, but rather with the extraction of minority labor. This ongoing era of economic and cultural colonization has repalcedthe indigenous view of land as a common good and a public trust.
Yeampierre added that racial minorities are uniquely qualified to lead the eco-justice movement. Many were raised to understand Jesus as a counter-culture activist and faith as incitement to action rather than a comforting explanation of the status quo. As the group that has been historically relegated to housing in close proximity to industrial wastelands, people of color have been dramatically affected by environmentally irresponsible patterns of production and consumption and have, as a result, been working for environmental justice since long before the dawn of the modern movement.
Additionally, Yampierre pointed out, no one lives more simply and sustainably than the poor whose very survival depends on reuse and recycling of what others have deemed waste. Low-income people of color have spent their lives learning to live on what they need rather than what they want. As such, they are well positioned to help this nation redefine the “American Dream” as one in which neighborly consumption allows the bounty of the land to be preserved and distributed in the service of all, generations present and future.
In a third particularly striking discussion, policy leaders touched on concrete obstacles the global community must put at the top of its agenda in order to effectively halt and reverse the climate chaos we are experiencing. Former Vice President Al Gore called for an overhaul of the GDP as a measure of national wealth and success. He decried its inadequacy on the basis of its failure to account for the costs and benefits associated with externalities (e.g. carbon emissions, long-term benefits of educational investment), stores of basic resources (e.g. fresh water), and the presence of social inequities.
Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School and Rick Clugston of Union Theological Seminary both echoed Gore’s call for the quantification of environmental costs. They recommended the institution of a carbon emissions tax and inclusion of climate-related financial risks into infrastructural projects (e.g. accounting for risk of operations shutdown and damage to infrastructure due to flooding in coastal cities).
The day was both heavy and uplifting, exasperating and empowering. It was clear to all present that the task before us is immense, but so is the power of our collective will to change course.