I started working in the environmental justice field when I was I Junior in college living in Quito, Ecuador. My first job in the field was for Union de Afectados por Texaco/ The Union of People Affected by Texaco. I worked in the advocacy branch of the law firm that was and still is suing Chevron-Texaco for dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste water into the Ecuadorian Amazon’s land and water ways. Although this illegal act of intentionally polluting the Earth and the people who inhabited that region happened 40 years ago the pollution has still not been cleaned up. Birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer have skyrocketed in the region ever since the initial dump. This is a deep issue that is paralleled all over the world by industry choosing to poison land and population far away from themselves.
In addition to the severe health impacts felt by the Amazonian Ecuadorians they also suffered culturally. The pollution harmed the land where they traditionally found medicine and food. Instead of being able to search for food the way they had throughout history, they had to go to pharmacies and grocery stores instead of living off the land. They had to start working more and the only business big enough to employ the workers was Chevron Texaco. This is such a harmful cycle. Kids have stopped using their original language and have started to only learn Spanish which creates a disconnect between the older and younger generations. Extraction may look like simply a climate issue from the outside but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Of course the initial extraction is highly dangerous at the time of the project but also for years afterwards. Generations of children and grandchildren have been poisoned from this process. The damage goes further than the individual community. The oil pumped from the ground is transported around the world to fuel cars, businesses, and other pollutants that contaminate the air we breathe from perceived safety of our homes and neighborhoods here in the US. By investing in crude oil we harm the next generation, not protect it.
Similarly in Alaska, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is in danger of extractive practices. It follows that if these projects begin the ground and water will be polluted but so will the culture of the people who live there. The Gwich'in Nation inhabits the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and would be deeply harmed by extraction. The Gwich'in Nation is also known as the Caribou people because their migration patterns match that of the caribou. The proposed drilling is located in the caribou migration corridor, this dig would alter the traditions of the Nation forever. Their breeding ground is considered sacred to the Gwich'in people and disrupting this would not only cause pain and pollution at the time of the extraction, but for the generations to come. In my time with Creation Justice Ministries, we have stood with the Gwich’in to protect their sacred ancestral lands.
Much closer to home, Appalachia is known for its beautiful scenery as well as coal mining in the mountains. Mining is a dangerous job for the individual miners but is also problematic for the physical health of workers and community members in mining towns. Coal ash is dangerous to constantly breathe in - especially for children. At a time like the present alternative green renewable energy is on the rise and readily available. Communities that transition from coal, oil, or gas to wind or solar are setting a standard for their kids, their grandkids and their great grandkids. They are choosing to protect the health of the future and to protect the beautiful Appalachian mountain range for the next generation to enjoy.
Coal extraction is a major contributor to water pollution in West Virginia where much of the economy of the state comes from coal. In 2014 a coal cleaning chemical known as MCHM spilled from Freedom Industries causing nine counties in the Charleston area to no longer have access to clean drinking water. To this day, West Virginians are still working for reparations and accessible clean water. At the moment the state legislature is proposing to roll back water protections to what they were in the 80s, Instead of mandating that industry be more responsible. This is very curious because everyone needs to drink water; no one can survive without clean water. In my work with Creation Justice Ministries, we help faith communities see the ways water connects us all as human beings, and our sacred responsibility to protect it for the community of God’s creation.
At Ecumenical Advocacy Days, an Christian conference we cosponsor that gathers about 1,000 people in DC each year, we host a slate of ecojustice workshops. One of our presenters was a West Virginia water activist and she shared a very encouraging story from her community. She told a story of a small Presbyterian church of about seven older adult members in a small town in West Virginia. The church also rented out space to a preschool. The church chose to make the switch to green renewables in the coal centered environment. They installed solar panels on their roof and now 50% of their energy use is covered by solar power. Even in a state powered by coal this small group of church members got together and made the transition to green renewables. This story is so encouraging to me because it proves that a small group of people can make a big difference, and they are not waiting for their state legislature to mandate green renewables first. They are leading the way by following God’s mandate to be good stewards and care for the Earth and its inhabitants.
Jesus talked about caring for the least among us who have the greatest needs. Kids need to depend on decision makers for protection. Generations to come will be directly affected by our choices. The second half of this teaching is that we may not reap what we have sown and this is very clear when it comes to God’s Earth. Although we may never get to fully reap all of the rich benefits from restoring the climate, the future generations will benefit and they will be grateful. Only a portion of our actions will be visible to us but to the next generation, our positive changes we make will provide an abundance of clean air, water, and land for them to rightfully share.
We should look up to the children leading the way for a better future. The kids who protest every Friday are not clouded with the social expectations and excuses adults are burdened with. They see the path clearly and know what needs to happen in order for their generation to survive.This movement is heavy in Europe but kids from over 100 countries have participated. The 21 children suing the government are setting a precedent for law makers. They are taking responsibility to clean up after their ancestors as well as holding them responsible for their actions. We owe it to them to listen. I’d like to highlight a portion of the scripture read earlier from Joshua 1:6 “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God commanded Joshua to fiercely protect the Earth for his children and onward. This is a great verse to remember now as we enter into a time where bold action is necessary.
The 4th National Climate Assessment indicates that we have 11 more years to make major ground breaking changes to the way we as Americans exist or there will be irreversible damage. This is truly a message of hope. Multiple people have said to me that it is too late to do anything about climate change. That is not true. The solutions have been developed and adaptation strategies outlined. We can choose our future and whether or not we decide to protect the next generation and future of God’s Earth. We now have the opportunity to listen to the children who are protesting, missing school, and suing the government and tell them that we have heard them and we want to make changes so they will live full and healthy lives. As read earlier in Genesis 17:7 God created a covenant between the Earth, adults, and their children. Let us uphold that covenant.