Environmental Justice

by Jessica Morthorpe

From an environmental point of view the world is not a very just place. The rich and the powerful are free to pollute and degrade the environment, while the poor suffer the consequences. We have seen it time and time again: large companies building factories in poor suburbs or towns where the children begin getting sick; mining companies destroying the land and livelihoods of local people; oil spills caused by badly maintained ships destroying local fishing industries; free riders causing the tragedy of the commons; and now climate change forcing the poor out of their homes while the rich continue to blithely pollute.

While the rich can afford to enjoy their environments, the poor just have to live in them, no matter how degraded they are. But the rich are also more detached from their environments, and less affected by their degradation than the poor, who rely on the environment for everything. If you are a poor person in rural Africa, the environment is your bathroom, your toilet, your drinking tap, your supermarket, your energy supply and your home. A degraded environment means a reduction in your standard of living. A Kenyan Journalist, Calestous Juma, tells the story:

“Africa is full of lonely peasants; millions of people alienated from one another by the destruction of nature… Forests recede day after day and the peasants walk farther and farther for firewood. As rivers and springs dry up more often, they walk farther and farther for water. As the land gets degraded, the lonely peasant toils only to harvest less year after year…Lamentation alone does not provide enough insight of the predicament of the lonely peasants. When nature recedes, so do the prospects for their well-being. Those threads that tie the peasants to nature are too deep-rooted; their disruption leaves severe wounds on the health and collective consciousness of the people. The lonely peasant is a grim reminder to the rest of humanity of the ultimate implications of a lonely planet.”

As this quote indicates, the health of poor and the environment are directly related. In the words of Gordon Aeschliman from the Green Bible “Serving God’s creation and doing justice for the poor are inseparable missions in today’s world. Said another way, to hurt the earth is to hurt the poor; to serve the earth is to serve the poor. It shouldn’t be surprising that creation and justice are inextricably linked…Just as keeping God’s creation sits within the original mission given to humans, compassion and justice for the poor sit at the core of our faith tradition.”

He goes on to talk of how “When asked what he’d do if he knew God was coming back tomorrow, the theologian Martin Luther responded that he’d plant a tree. There is something wonderfully hopeful and pure about that response. He understood that tending God’s good earth was itself a high act of spiritual worship, an act of faith that honoured the possession of the Lord. If it’s true that to hurt the earth is to hurt the poor, it is also true that being kind to the earth is being kind to the poor. Every time we save another acre of rain forest, clean up another river, recycle another bottle, say no to another frivolous purchase, we are serving God’s creation and we are serving the poor.”

Climate change will always affect the poor the most. The rich might have some buffer from increasing droughts, natural disasters and rising sea levels, but the poor have none. Already 3000 Tuvaluans have been forced to become environmental refugees by the rising sea levels on their low lying pacific island. Millions in other pacific countries and places like Bangladesh may face the same fate. These people have contributed very little to the problem, yet they will still suffer the consequences.

One man who understood justice and injustice was William Wilberforce. The great Christian hero who led the fight for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire also saw the link between justice for humanity and for animals. When he wasn’t working on abolition or introducing a raft of other improvements to schools, workplaces and jails, he was working on his other great achievement – the foundation of the RSPCA. Visitors to his home were often amused by his collection of pets, such as hares and parrots, which he rescued and rehabilitated. Amazing Grace, the movie describing his life, begins with a sick Wilberforce stopping his carriage and getting out in the pouring rain to prevent two men, by the side of the road, whipping their horse to death. Another scene in the movie portrays him getting in some trouble with his frantic cooks due to his inability to turn away beggars from the door when they asked for a meal.

We have seen this example also in St Francis of Assisi, famous both for his care of the poor and his love of animals.

Proverbs 31:8-9 says “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”

As St Francis and William Wilberforce recognised, eco-justice is about more than saving the environment for the sake of the poor or humanity. Who, after all, cannot speak more than the animals?

Brian D. McLaren says “Advocate for creation everywhere. Birds don’t get to vote. Neither do streams or salamanders. Corporations are given legal status and protection, but forests aren’t (maybe they should be?). If birds and soil and trees and wind are going to be given a voice in life-and-death decisions made by humans, people like you and me are going to have to add-our-voice (advocate) on their behalf. That voice will speak in voting, but also in church, and in the office and classroom, and around the dinner table. We can’t just speak with a kind of guilt-inducing duty … we must also speak with love. Because we love people and other creatures who live in desertifying areas, we must speak up and deal with global climate change. Because we love people and creatures who live in areas devastated by mountaintop removal, we must speak up for protecting the mountains. Because we love the spring peepers and spotted salamanders, we must speak up when another shopping mall is going to bury another vernal pool.”

How we treat animals tells much about two things: how we will treat other men, and how we see God.

St Francis of Assisi said of its reflection on the treatment of men “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” Leonardo da Vinci went even further, saying “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” Personally, I look forward to that day.

On the way we see God, Saint Birgitta said “Let a man fear, above all, me, his God, and so much the gentler will he become toward my creatures and animals, on whom, on account of me, their Creator, he ought to have compassion.” While T.S. Lewis stated “A wrong attitude to nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude toward God.”

An injustice that is close to my heart is that of conservation based on men’s values – where a species is deemed worthy of conservation only if it has a use for man, or if it is sufficiently cute and cuddly to stir compassion. Because of this, thousands of reptile, fish and insect killings are ignored while vast resources are pumped into saving dolphins and pandas. What hope then, is there for the ugly creatures whom God loves just as much?

If we are to ‘do justice,’ as we are commanded in Micah 6:8 we must stop allowing the poor to pay for our comfort. We must consider whether it is just that Australians have an ecological footprint so large we would need four planets to support everyone in the world at the same standard of living. If it is not, we must act together to help reduce our impact on the earth. As well as reducing our energy use, this means reducing our use of water so that everyone has access; reducing our use of pesticides and production of waste so we aren’t polluting the areas others have to live in; and making ethical purchasing decisions so we are not buying things we don’t need, and so we are not contributing to slavery, sweatshops, unfair trade or the production of products like blood diamonds.

We, as the church, have a wealth of opportunity to become a part of something very important. Christians can make great environmentalists. The Bible’s teachings on the environment and how we should live as Christians help us to move beyond the (crisis motivated) sustainability ethics that have evolved around climate change. By reflecting on God’s words, we can learn to act in a way that is more in harmony with nature, and with God’s will and purpose. These teachings move us toward a different way of thinking and acting; one based on humility, kindness and justice for all creation.

Eco- Justice is something we should all work for in our own lives, as families and in the community, but it is also something we should work together for as a church. In this journey, there will be as many ways of becoming a greener and more just church as there are churches, but this is how I imagine it:

It’s Sunday morning so I drag myself out of bed and ride my bike to church. As I enter the solar panels on the roof glint in the sun and I can see the water tank peeking around the side. I am greeted by a smiling face and handed a newssheet printed on recycled paper. I flick to the environmental tips and events section and scan the offerings. I move to a table to place some native flowers and a box of fruit from my garden on it for distribution. I grab a cup of Fairtrade coffee and sit in the sun to enjoy the building’s passive heating. In worship we sing thanks to God for the wonders of creation and as it is September and we are doing the Season of Creation we have an interesting sermon about the need to follow Biblical practices and values in our lives in order to reduce our environmental impact. When we share communion it is with tasty, freshly baked bread from organic flour and environmentally friendly grape juice. The gentle light of beeswax candles and sunlight lights the scene.

In our prayers for others our weekly endangered species prayer is for the endangered frogs we had a talk about at the youth meeting on Friday. We also thank God for the way he has blessed and added to our church through our environmental work. After the service I pack up my copy of the Green Bible and join the communal lunch. Fresh, local, vegetarian food abounds and is shared with the homeless. After the meal I go to check on the animals in our special rescue room. We have an arrangement with the local wildlife rescue network whereby our church gives carers a day off each week by caring for their charges. We also provide food, money and sew little pouches for the various marsupial orphans. I quickly make a couple of arrangements for the clothes and tool swap next week on the way out. I meet up with the church greening group and we head out to Greenhills Camp and Conference Centre for a working bee. Our Canberra Christian Environmental Action group is going quite well, with our church teams and local conservation groups making quite a difference around Canberra by dedicating a few hours per week. It is a testament to the way the church has now taken leadership in the environmental arena.

Ok, so I’m dreaming. Yet I have not mentioned anything that is not possible, nor anything that could not, in theory, be started today. The church could, and I think should, lead the future development of the environmental movement, and I would like churches like Kippax to be a part of that.

After all, here in our presbytery where we have a highly educated population, with one of the highest incomes per capita in the country, and also one of the highest levels of awareness of environmental issues. These privileges come with a responsibility to lead the country in environmental efforts.

Helping churches like Kippax is why I started the Five Leaf Eco-Awards. An ecumenical church greening award program, Five Leaf is my contribution to the growth of the exciting church greening movement in Australia. In the UK, and particularly the US church greening is rapidly taking off and gaining a lot of power as hundreds of churches and church leaders become engaged in environmental improvement projects and environmental certification schemes. Here in Australia, the movement is smaller, but already there are some really exciting stories coming from churches around the country. Currently a new church is being built in the grounds of an environmental education centre in Melbourne for a congregation who are so focused on the environment they chose their new minister for her ability to fit in with that philosophy. Another church in Melbourne, the Port Melbourne Uniting Church is running an eco-project including a community garden which provides food for their outreach programs to the local poor. They were the first church in Australia to achieve the Five Leaf Eco-Awards Basic Certificate and they have many more exciting plans for the future. Another example is St Luke’s Uniting Church in Geelong who achieved a 22% reduction in their energy use last year, and are planning to reduce this by a further 10% this year. In Sydney Project Green Church at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church have been running their exciting program for years and closer to home we have the community garden at O’Connor UC, some exciting greening work at the Greenhills Camp and Conference centre and of course, the solar panels recently installed here at Kippax.

If you are interested in getting involved with prayer, action or joining the Kippax church greening group please let me know. It’s going to be an exciting journey, and in the end we will have a more just world for all.

Improving eco-justice isn’t hard, but it can require a little thinking and change. So, how are you going to make the world a more just place today?

This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.