The Common Good

Attention Must Be Paid

Sojomail - August 5, 2010


"In the deepest recession of our lifetimes, Congress proposes to take food off the plates of hungry children to give more money to doctors, hospitals, and profitable corporations. Last time I checked, you can’t eat a Medicaid card."

- Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, on a bill being voted on by the U.S. Senate to provide aid to states for Medicaid by cutting funding from food stamps. (Source: Columbus Dispatch)

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Hearts & Minds, by Jennifer Kottler

Attention Must Be Paid

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[Editor's Note: Jim Wallis is on a well-deserved vacation for the next few weeks. Rev. Jennifer Kottler, director of policy and advocacy at Sojourners, will be writing the SojoMail column in his absence.]

In our 24-hour news cycle society, where news and so-called news (sensationalism, by any other name) is thrown at us at lightning speed and in ever-increasing amounts, it can be difficult to distinguish the important from the immediate. We get emails and action alerts (even from us at Sojourners!) that speak to the need for immediate action. It’s not only what is done that might get the media’s, or society’s, or America’s attention, but the timing must be right. It’s all very symptomatic of our societal ethos that says, “I want it all and I want it now” and “I want to be entertained.”

And it makes it difficult to pay sustained attention to anything. Even the biggest things. We get what the media call “issue fatigue.” We just can’t attend to a particular issue any longer. It might be too painful, it might require too much energy, or we might actually have to examine how our actions contributed to the problem. At any rate, we just get too tired to listen any longer.

But at Sojourners we have been listening to voices from the Gulf since this started back in April, and we are continuing to listen now. All is not well, the oil is not gone, and nature is not “taking care of itself.” God never intended that oil from deep below the earth’s surface should find its way into the Gulf of Mexico in such massive quantities. Now is not the time for the news media to move on to other issues; it’s time for the spotlight to stay where it is, and ensure that people whose lives have been devastated by this disaster are compensated, and ensure that every drop of the oil that can be cleaned up is. Seventy-five percent isn’t good enough. The minute the spotlight leaves, so will the pressure on BP to make things right for the people and the environment that were destroyed. Attention must be paid.

Let us not lose sight. This is the largest oil spill disaster in the history of the world. At no other time have 5 million barrels of oil been “released” into the waters of the earth. As a recent New York Times article confirmed, scientists have no idea of the long-term effect this will have on the Gulf, or the world:

“We’ve never had a spill of this magnitude in the deep ocean,” said Ian R. MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

“These things reverberate through the ecosystem,” he said. “It is an ecological echo chamber, and I think we’ll be hearing the echoes of this, ecologically, for the rest of my life.”

Similarly, we don’t yet know what the effects of the “clean up” will be. Where exactly do 5 million barrels of oil go? As an Alabama newspaper pointed out on Tuesday, much of the so-called “cleaned up” oil has ended up in landfills in poor communities with high concentrations of people of color:

An analysis by Robert Bullard of the Environmental Justice Resource Center of Clark Atlanta University has made a provocative and, no doubt, controversial finding: that much of the waste generated by the oil spill cleanup efforts is winding up in common landfills located in majority-black areas...

Bullard cited BP's oil spill waste summary, which said that as of July 15, more than 39,448 tons of oil garbage had been disposed at 9 approved landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. More than half (5 out of 9) of the landfills receiving BP oil-spill solid waste are in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents living near the waste facilities.

What will be the effect of the oil as it seeps into the earth, into wells and streams, contaminating both drinking water and the environment? Will BP compensate these residents when wells no longer provide potable water and communities face alarming rates of asthma and cancer? Or will we no longer make the connection?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that efforts to permanently plug the well are working. And I thank God every day for that. But I’m afraid that our attention to this as an ongoing crisis will wane. I’m afraid that the appropriate people will not be held accountable. I’m afraid that we will not examine our use of and our need for fossil fuels, and I’m afraid that Congress will sidestep the issues of both relief for the families and this region, and putting us on a path toward a new energy future -- one that will move us forward as a country and begin to care for our planet.

Thousands of you responded to our call to ask the Senate to pass the bill that the House already passed on these issues. Thank you for your willingness to speak out to your senators. But it doesn’t appear that they are listening, or paying attention to you, or the people in the Gulf region.

But attention must be paid. In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” this line is spoken by Linda, the wife of the salesman, Willy Loman, as she speaks to her children about their father. In Act 1, Part 8, she says:

I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

And in the Gulf, attention must finally be paid to such a situation. If not, it won’t continue to garner the headlines, it won’t continue to receive the attention that it should from those in the federal government who have been charged to attend to such things. And BP, no longer seeing it as a public relations nightmare, will pack up shop and head home. And while the lives of those charged with addressing the problem will return to normal, the lives of people in the Gulf and the environment there will be left in shambles, with both facing an uncertain future. But only if we stop paying attention. Attention must be paid.

portrait-jennifer-kottlerRev. Jennifer Kottler is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners. A long-time advocate for justice, Jennifer has served in advocacy ministry for more than eight years through her work at Protestants for the Common Good (Chicago, IL), the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Chicago Jobs Council.

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From the Archives: August-September 1974

A Larger Payment

"The payment that Jesus made through his shed blood was a larger payment than many fundamentalists have seemed to think. For even when they have sung the words with zeal, they have not seemed to acknowledge in their social/political lives that Jesus did, indeed, pay it all. He died to remove the stains of political corruption, and of all forms of human manipulation and exploitation. And he calls us to witness to and to enjoy the first fruits of that full redemption."

-- Richard Mouw, in the August/September, 1974 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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