For years, those of us living along the Gulf Coast have been crying out to the rest of the nation and world that there is a potential for major disasters to happen—over and above the critical, ongoing disaster of land loss. When canals and channels for oil pipelines and shipping are cut through the marsh, the land disappears. In the last 50 years, we have lost an area equal to the state of Delaware, and that brings with it the loss of estuaries and resting places for migrating birds.
Over the past five years, we have experienced Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and other lesser-known storms, all eating away at the fabric of land and community. This summer, yet another: the BP oil spill.
One longtime warning voice has been Rob Gorman, who helped the political community take action through the 1990 Breaux Act, which helps restore and protect coastal wetlands. Another voice is Mike Tidwell, whose book Bayou Farewell was sent to every member of Congress in 2003 by Louisiana’s then-Gov. Mike Foster. Shirley Laska, several years before Katrina, testified to Congress and the National Academy of Sciences that a large hurricane would have the results we saw in Katrina. Even I showed a map of the massive network of oil pipes—64,000 miles of them zigzagging across Louisiana like a bowl of spaghetti—to national ecumenical denominational leadership and organizations, warning of looming disaster. Then there are the people of the bayous, who have been raising their voices for years—folks who have gone to national meetings and venues, but were not embraced.
Those of us on the Gulf Coast often feel like we are the sacrificial people for the rest of the Western world. Politicians would call us the “don’t counts”; economists call us disposable; some religious people call us hedonists or sinners; educators call us backward. Like people in Appalachia and the Navajo areas of the U.S., and in other regions of the world that have natural resources and whose people are not of the mainstream hegemony, we become prey for the corporate world and for the rest of society that wants those resources.
A woman in my congregation says, “They didn’t listen to us before, but now that they are facing bigger prices at the pump, maybe they might just want to see who we are.” Yes, she is angry. She is seeing her ancestral home washing away because of national neglect. Now, to add insult to injury, she is seeing the greed of the American economy, which led to the BP oil spill, rob her children and grandchildren of their inheritance—the land and its beauty.
So as a pastor, an activist, and an academic, I am hurting and I am angry, but I am hopeful.
We build raised-bed gardens and chicken coops with those who formerly survived on shrimp from their front yards. We ponder together: How are we going to support each other for at least a generation without the resources we know? How are we going to pass down traditional knowledge during our time in exile? How do we, like Jeremiah (32:9-15), buy the plot of land in a destroyed region and have faith that one day there will be homes and vineyards?
What can the religious community do? Start seeing the ways in which our lifestyle is built on the backs of people and the environment. Find out about the people who are supporting the lifestyle we have: Who are they, and what are their desires? How do we localize our economy and pursue the goal of sustainability? And how are we, as God’s people, going to have a lifestyle that will reflect the resources we have on this planet—and still have this planet for the next generation?
Kristina Peterson is pastor of Blue Bayou Presbyterian Church (USA), a historic Cajun-French congregation in coastal Louisiana, and a community-based researcher on disaster preparedness and sustainable communities.