Eco-Justice: Getting There from Here

By Elizabeth Palmberg 6-19-2009

As I look at where we need to get, pronto -- 350 parts per million or less carbon in the atmosphere, sustainable use of planetary resources, and a world economy consistent with those things -- and where we are (none of the above), my question is, what strategies will help us get there from here?

Now is the time to ask, as Congress considers some kind of climate change legislation; as Bill McKibben reflects in the July issue of Sojourners, that means "giv[ing] up the chance to get all you've dreamed of for the possibility of getting some of what you need." (Sojo's current action alert helps you ask Congress to make that bill include real aid for poor nations suffering from the global warming rich nations caused.)

For a problem this big, we are going to need the kind of radical vision that faith is good at. As the Israelites leaving Egypt needed to liberate imaginations held in thrall to empire, we've got to name the spiritual as well as economic forces at work.

So I am mostly in agreement with arguments, like this one on the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice blog, which demand radical changes to an economic system which is destroying the biosphere, concentrating wealth so that 1 percent of adults own 40 percent of global assets, and allowing tens of thousands of kids to starve or die of preventable diseases every day. And I want to look into the radical argument that, in addition to choosing things like compact florescent light bulbs and green jobs which try to de-link economic growth from carbon emission, we might eventually need to re-examine the idea of economic growth itself. This idea has such far-reaching implications for how we live, work, and save that I haven't even begun to digest it.

But for a problem this big, strategy has to go with vision. So while it's important for there to be visionary voices pointing out that the legislation before Congress is nowhere near good enough, we also have to try our darnedest to get that legislation passed -- and not just because something is better than nothing and the planet has no time to lose.

We need it because having something not good enough will help people get used to the idea that it's possible to have anything at all. We need it because having something not good enough will help people start seeing the outlines of something that is good enough. And we need it because, if our Kyoto-abstaining, gas-guzzling nation doesn't get Congress' buy-in before going to Copenhagen this December, other countries will have zero reason to believe anything our negotiators say.

Vision also has to be as precise and discerning as possible. I've heard people critique the cap-and-trade idea because it's "based on greed," which is true in a limited sense. Neoliberal economics' self-interest-based rhetoric hasn't succeeded in fundamentally changing people's souls -- but its rules have been very effective at giving people information relevant to buying, selling, and accumulating, while screening out information about those things' effects on the environment and on our fellow human beings.

We hide our current market system's rule-setting with jargon, rhetoric, and the Fed's closed-door policy. Bad idea, because the wrong rules produce things like mafiosos, monopolies, AIG -- or, as that Eco-Justice blog puts it, a system that acts as if there were an unending resource base, infinitely expanding markets, and a bottomless disposal capacity.

Can cap-and-trade's attempt to make markets recognize our limited resource base work? Could we also demand some meaningful form of triple bottom-line accounting, where companies must make some kind of report about their social and environmental, as well as financial, impact?

'Writing the vision and making it plain' is going to be a messy, on-the-fly process. But it's one we need to keep doing, as fast as we can.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.


As a courtesy to the Eco-Justice blog to which this blog responds, here is the comment of its writer:

As the author who penned the NCC Eco-Justice blog referred to in this article, I must say that I appreciate Ms. Palmberg's critique. Perhaps it all comes down to one's eco-eschatology. I believe that as we pass peak oil, peak coal, peak fish, peak water, peak wood, and peak copper while simultaneously poisoning the air, water and land, we are headed towards a disruption that people are really, really not going to enjoy. Given that eschatology, the question of whether GM dealers deserve to continue existing, or CEOs deserve large salaries, or whether people will give up large houses or cars becomes moot. If compassion is the heart of true religion, and mitigating suffering is part of our realized eschatology, then the time for action is now. (Actually, I think that the time for action was after WWII when we could have gone to a 20 hour work week, dismantled our military, left women in the workforce, not promoted consumerism as the meaning of life, and made a host of infrastructural changes that would have made our society more sustainable and richer.) It might seem hard or expensive to make changes now, but it will be much worse later on.

I attended a Congressional briefing on Friday. Present were: Michael Wara, Stanford University Law School; David Bookbinder, Chief Climate Counsel, Sierra Club; Cecil Corbin-Mark, WeACT for Environmental Justice; Margaret E. Sheehan, lead partner, EcoLaw; and Richard Sweeney, Resources for the Future. Only Cecil Corbin-Mark had the temerity to say straight up that Waxman Markey (H.R.. 2454) as it is currently written is a total turkey, and worse than nothing. The others, more solicitous of not burning bridges perhaps, just gave detailed, wonky, statistics-and-graphs explanations of their concerns about the bill, while sounding objective and not making any recommendations. Significantly, however, Wara's presentation showed that there would be no serious attempt at carbon reduction until 2040 (well past tipping point), Bookbinder explained why the bill favored keeping filthy old coal plants online, Corbin-Mark explained how the bill is an environmental justice disaster, and Sheehan elucidated the provisions for burning bio-mass, which because they compound carbon emissions with deforestation might be worse than coal. So, without saying it, they said it - Waxman-Markey is worthless. Of course, the hope is that the bill can be strengthened in its final hours before a vote. Wanna bet?

I also question the notion that we have to show up in Copenhagen with something. I used to believe this, but I suddenly realized, when reading about Latin American environmentalism, that I had absorbed an kind of U.S. chauvinism. I'm not absolutely sure that we do have to lead in Copenhagen. After all, we're not leading the global environmental movement ideologically, legally, or politically anyway. It is true that we have a disproportionate capacity to be an obstacle, but I'm unconvinced that we wouldn't all be a lot better off paying attention to Ecuador, Peru, Pacific Islanders, and others. Just a thought.

As for our local whipping person/climate change denier: I love the idea that peer reviewed science would clear matters up, but peer reviewed science has not done itself any favors in recent years, and the American public is seriously skeptical. Tobacco obfuscation, Teflon, BPA, nuclear power, etc. There are always impressive scientists on both sides of these issues. So here's two things to consider:

Whom do you trust? I'm fascinated by the "climate change as conspiracy" thing. How again does Bill McKibben get rich off of this? Does Lester Brown get to hot tub with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders for his work on Plan B? What is the conspiracy exactly? That just don't make no sense to me. Rachel Carson died of cancer. Actually, climate change is the ultimate indictment of the status quo. I don't see that people in power benefit from it in any way, except if they still think that making moral choices counts for something.

The challenge with climate change deniers is not that they don't believe the science per se. Consider Creationists, for a moment. Does any educated person actually want to be in a position of having to say that God invented the world in six days out of nothing about six thousand years ago (with the fossils already in there to test our righteousness)? Of course not! It's absurd. (It is a powerful creation myth--good arguments for stewardship, despite troubling nonsense about "having dominion" and "subduing the earth" and especially "go forth and multiply"--but still a myth.) The reason there are Creationists is that if they cede the Creation story, their entire religion, based on (selective) Biblical literalism, falls apart.

Similarly, to acknowledge that climate change is a problem requires us to surrender some very sacred cows. One is the mythical "free market." (Might work, but has never been tried.) Another is material wealth=well being. Another is that it is just fine if I live in a 5000 square foot house and vacation in Cancun while half the world's population lives on $2 a day or less--those people are less worthy, righteous, capable, able, deserving than I am or they'd have what I've got, since resources are limitless. The myth that the market will turn everyone's greed into the greater good goes out the window as we realize that Adam Smith's "invisible hand in the marketplace" has been giving us the finger since the Industrial Revolution. Yet another is the usually unconscious association of private property with freedom. The belief that human beings are the pinnacle and point of Creation, rather than a dubious evolutionary experiment that has not concluded yet is called into question.

Another sacred cow that goes is the proposition that small government is a good idea--at the least, one must acknowledge that some level of effective, enforcing global governance would be necessary to successfully reduce CO2 to 300 ppm. (350 ppm is quite optimistic for climate stabilization.) So, it's pointless to argue atmospheric science with these people. That's not really where they are stuck cognitively. Their entire world view is dismantled by acknowledging a finite Earth.

Spiritually, there is another sticking point, and that is culpability/guilt. Just like slave owners before Emancipation, acknowledging that the very basis of our society--owning slaves or emitting carbon--is damaging, unfair, and cruel involves acknowledgement of sin. That is, if I accept that driving my SUV to work every day from the suburbs is changing the climate (causing drought, famine, epidemics, species loss, soil salinization, and setting the conditions for genocide as in Darfur, etc., etc.) then I have to admit that doing so is "missing the mark" of both stewardship of Creation and love of neighbor. If I have no idea how to live a carbon neutral life, then I am locked into a state of perpetual sin. Easier to say that it isn't a problem.

I'm pretty sure that I read something recently about the way out of sin, however in a book called simply, The Book, or Biblios. Apparently some eccentric Jewish carpenter from Galilee had some stuff to say about it a long time ago. Of course, science can't prove he existed...


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