Not Just Light Bulbs: Environmental Justice

A New Unity Sunday Gathering


What a wonderful day it is
There is no snow on the ground
The temperature is neither bitter cold nor oppressively hot
The streets are not flooded with water
The winds are gentle - no debris flies through the air
We live with peace and substantial safety
We get enough to eat and have shelter from the elements
There is medical care when we need it
For these and so many other often unnoticed wonders, we kindle this flame
Let its light remind us of all we have



X, by  Imtiaz Dharker

Turn it on and an anxious mutter swells to thunder in the plastic bucket. 
Don’t spill it.
Fill it to the top. Lift to the hip, stop, 
balance the weight for the dangerous walk home. Home.
Don’t lose a drop.
From the police chowki across the track a whistle, a shout. 
Run. Don’t stop. Don’t slip.
A drag at the hip. Hot, hot underfoot. 
Water slops up and out in every direction, over the lip, over her legs, a shock of cool, a spark of light.
With her stolen piece of sky, she has taken flight.
Behind her, the shouters give up. 
She puts down the bucket. 
The water stills.
She looks into it, looks up to where the blue is scarred with aimless tracks.
Jet-trails cross each other off before they die out, a careless X.


A Vision, by Wendell Berry 

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing it, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven.

Then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear,
as we will never know it,
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.

On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand,
Its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.

Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting.
Memory, native to this valley,
will spread over it like a grove,
and memory will grow into legend,
legend into song, song into sacrament.

The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradise or dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

Message, by Andy Pakula


Has everyone seen the new Star Wars film? 

I’ll avoid any spoilers here except to say one thing - I was unsatisfied with the ending. I like stories with happy endings. I don’t like to be left with too many questions. And then what? What happens next? What did that mean?

So the end of the new film left me hanging and that didn’t feel good.

And today’s message is going to be one of those unfinished stories too, without a tidy ending and all questions answered. Unlike Star Wars, I’m not doing that to make sure you’ll buy tickets for the sequel, but - as much as I like all questions to be tied up in a nice happy ending - this story ends with more questions to wrestle with. So be warned. You might want to save some of your popcorn for comfort eating later… 

Today we are talking about environmental justice - about the ways in which our human relationship with the environment has not just been wasteful, not just damaging of our world, not just negligent. It has been and is today unjust to other beings.

And to begin, I must tell you in all honesty that I used to be very disdainful of environmentalists.

This was at a time before global climate change was something we knew about - something that was in front of us - threatening our future. A lot of the environmentalism we talked about had more to do with saving oil so the oil producing states wouldn’t have so much power over Americans. It was so we wouldn’t run out of oil any time soon.

My disdain also had a lot to do with the fact that the people I associated with were interested in the environment in large part for aesthetic and financial reasons. They didn’t want litter in their streets or to see it along their walks in nature. And they didn’t want air pollution to spoil their historic monuments or reduce the value of their homes.

The way I saw it - they were making a choice to work on the environment rather than to work on justice issues. There were too many people who were underprivileged, underprotected by the state, under-cared for by the medical system, underpaid, under-educated, underfed, and under the thumb of those who held most of the power. 

So, it seemed to me that there was a pretty obvious and clear separation between justice issues and environmental issues - between changing educational opportunities for poor children and changing out warm-coloured light bulbs  for cold blue ones - between supporting gay rights and supporting litter collection - between preventing police brutality and preventing me from putting a log in my fireplace - between adding insulation to our buildings and adding income to the underprivileged.

Environmentalists emphasized the extinction of species. As a biologist, that certainly gets to me. We have eliminated animal and plant species that had survived thousands or more years before we made their habitats unlivable. But if I am forced to choose, I will choose a better life for human beings over the survival of a non-human species any day.

Environmental work was much easier and much tidier, which seemed to explain its appeal. Change some light bulbs, install some draught excluders and sign a petition for tighter air quality regulations and you can walk away feeling virtuous.

The real justice work, as I understood it, meant getting your hands dirty working with people who lived in dangerous areas of the city, people who might not show gratitude for our noble generosity, people who might not be like us. That work was uncomfortable and scary and tugged at the heart. Lightbulbs were easy.

The time we live in now is very different.

We now know about global climate change. We now know that the effects of human activity are raising the temperature of our planet and we now know that these changes have begun to wreak havoc on our climate. Weather patterns are changing, ice caps and glaciers are melting, the sea level has begun rising.

And we know that these changes will harm people - people living today and people living tomorrow.

The injustice comes about because the harm from climate change and other environmental degradation does not affect everyone equally - not at all. As the oceans rise, the wealthy will take up the more expensive higher ground. The poor will be left mostly to fend for themselves - as they were in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina and so many other so-called natural disasters.

We can’t yet know the scale of the human suffering that will result from global warming, but consider that in the past six years alone 2% of the earth’s population has been forced to relocate due to climate-related disaster alone. That’s 140 million people - more than twice the entire population of the UK.

This is 140 million people who had to leave their homes - who often had to leave everything they knew, their means of survival, their security, their support and their safety. The rich nations of the world are not prepared for refugees, as we well know from the challenges faced by the flood of people seeking safety currently. In the face of such crises, there is only a weak welcome in potential host countries and funds fail to materialise to alleviate the enormous suffering.

This is a taste of our future. It might touch some of us here. It is even more likely to touch our children and the children of our friends. And it will decimate the poor of many countries, including island nations whose people - if they survive - will become stateless refugees.
I guess the simple point I want to make at this point is - well - I was wrong. Whether the lightbulb-changing, petition-signing, litter-cleaning activists knew it or not, they were wrestling with the thin end of an enormous human catastrophe.

What they probably didn’t accept though is that light-bulbs were not going to be nearly enough.

And this is the part I wrestle with and I imagine that you do as well. There will not be a painless way to minimise the effects of global climate change. There will not be an inexpensive or unnoticeable way to treat the future’s many millions of climate refugees justly or humanely.
For there to be significant justice for the underprivileged in the face of the coming human-created climate disasters, we will all have to sacrifice. And that makes it all very, very real.
How much are we each willing to give up to avoid a desperately unjust life for our children or our children’s children? How much are we willing to give up to avoid millions of people becoming stateless climate change refugees? 

Our government refuses to take many refugees. This is not because they’re mean, heartless people. I think everyone is capable of compassion. 

They are resisting a flood of refugees because they need to keep us happy so they can be re-elected. And as little as we may want to admit it - as much as we imagine that absorbing refugees will be painless - large-scale welcoming of refugees would be disruptive and it would be massively expensive. 

We don’t have enough housing now - how will we find enough housing for hundreds of thousands of new refugees? Who will pay for it? 

Who will pay for educating refugees and helping them to become acculturated to this nation? Who will pay for their medical care when they are ill? For their benefits when they cannot get work? Their clothing, food, and other necessities when they are unable to fend for themselves?
It comes down to a questions of sacrifice. We think we want to help, but we are not clear that we want to suffer higher taxes, less available housing, or a worse job market to make it happen.

It is the same with climate change. There are things we can all do, but they are not necessarily easy and not comfortable.

We can stop eating meat and dairy - livestock production produces more global warming than transportation - higher than cars and planes combined.

We can stop travelling by airplane. 

We can get rid of the car and walk, bike or take public transport everywhere.

We can reduce our of energy consumption. Zero carbon energy makes up only a tiny fraction of the energy supply so we can’t expect that we can continue consuming power as we do if we are to slow climate change. We should all have as small a home as possible, invest in great insulation and keep the temperature down. Keep electricity use to a minimum

Stop buying stuff. Just about everything we buy requires energy and therefore contributes to global warming. 

And then, of course, give as much money as you can to charities that will help alleviate injustice. Expect even higher taxes.

You’d be left with a much less comfortable life than you have now or that you’d like to have. You’d feel virtuous perhaps - maybe you’d be more content because you’d know that you were contributing to a world of less suffering. But how much are you willing to give up for others? How much are you willing to give to alleviate suffering?

I wish I could give you answers to these questions. I have very few and I have a long way to go to get to the point where I could say with a clear conscience that I am doing enough.

The important thing though is that we wrestle with these questions - that we don’t simply turn away and look elsewhere - that we don’t try to explain away suffering and injustice as inevitable or perhaps the fault of the victims - that we don’t imagine that some magic of technology or the supernatural will fix things - that we don’t deny the problem entirely as too many people continue to try to do.

The answer is not an answer and the resolution does not lie in this episode or even in the sequel. The only answer we have now lies in the struggling with and holding onto the questions - keeping them open and staying with them despite everything.

Today, let us know that we are people who care and who struggle. We are neither perfect altruists or uncaringly selfish. We are human and we are engaged in the journey toward justice.