+quot;What Do You Mean, Environmental Justice?+quot; Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Ned Wigh

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"What Do You Mean, Environmental Justice?" Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Ned Wight at Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Sunday, November 28, 1993 Reading: "To Savor the World or Save It" by Richard S. Gilbert I arise in the morning torn between the desire To save the world and to savor it-- To serve life or to enjoy it-- To savor the world or save it? The question beats in upon the waiting moment-- To savor the sweet taste of my own joy Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor; To celebrate life with exuberant step Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden? What am I to do-- When the guilt at my bounty Clouds the sky of my vision; When the glow which lights my every day Illumines the hurting world around me? To savor the world or save it? God of justice, if such there be, Take from me the burden of my question. Let me praise my plenitude without limit; Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk! No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears To the cries of the hurt and the hungry; You will not close my eyes To the sight of the afflicted. No, you will not! What is that you say? To savor one must serve? To savor one must save? The one will not stand without the other? Forgive me-- In my preoccupation with self, In my concern for my own life I had forgotten. Forgive me, God of justice, forgive me, and make me whole. - Richard S. Gilbert The Prophetic Imperative When I was in seminary, the verb "unpack" came into widespread usage. It means to "analyze and explain clearly and thoroughly what something means." I guess the task I've set for myself this morning is to "unpack" the phrase "environmental justice." Wish me luck. Let's be clear at the outset: "environmental justice" is political jargon that sprang out of the social change movements of the sixties and seventies. The environmental justice concept--and movement--was born in the late 70s'climate of protest against perceived injustice. In 1979 the Urban League, Sierra Club, and the United Auto Workers--an unlikely trio-- co-sponsored a conference in Detroit. Their mission was to formulate a critique of the mainstream environmental movements in this country, charging them with overlooking the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities and working class people. Environmentalism was in danger of becoming the sole province of white people of privilege in America. As such, it was guilty of ignoring some hidden dimensions of environmental degradation. These included: o toxic waste dumping in poor neighborhoods o dump sitings on reservation land o health and safety for farmworkers in CA o legacies of toxic waste on abandoned US military bases overseas (such as in the Philippines) o continued high levels of resource consumption by US businesses and citizens Since the late seventies, we have all read stories about these hidden environmental perils. Environmental justice was coined as a phrase to capture the importance of considering the interests and perspectives of poor people and people of color in framing sound environmental policies. The goal of a "sustainable economy" needed to be modified to add a commitment to establish and maintain "social justice." Otherwise it would be possible to create a system that is sustainable, but that makes some people very wealthy and keeps others at bare subsistence levels. Now, over a decade later, the UUA will be considering a resolution entitled "Environmental Justice" at next summer's General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas. The resolution begins with a reminder of the UU principles at stake: o justice and compassion in human relations o the inherent worth and dignity of every person o respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part; and o the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. If we covenant to affirm and promote these values, we also covenant to give the call for environmental justice a fair hearing. As a protest movement, environmental justice seeks to keep a basic truth before us--a truth that it is all too easy for us to forget: Namely, if any suffer, all suffer. The fabric of the interdependent web is continuous. Tears in one part of the fabric affect us all. Or to use another metaphor, we're all on the same ship. Let's try to agree upon where we're heading--and how we're going to get there. In short, then, environmental justice is an attempt to bring our commitments to social justice and ecological protection together for the benefit of all the world's people--and the planet itself, as well. This all sounds very good, very noble, righteous even. Since it is the nature of resolutions to spur us to act, what specifically would this UUA resolution have us do to put our pennies and passion where our principles are? I've asked seven members of the congregation to help. "THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Unitarian Universalist Association shall act and urge its affiliates, member societies, and individual Unitarian Universalists to: "1. develop religious education and community action programs that honor cultural and religious diversity and that connect environmental issues to other social justice concerns. "2. promote programs for the social and political empowerment of women, people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, and others, so that all persons can join together in one struggle for peace, justice, and sustainable development; "3. support the development of community organizations, labor unions, and business cooperatives that are democratic and ecologically responsible; "4. bear witness to the need for environmental justice by making responsible choices as investors and consumers; "5. work with the Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle Project, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, and others to implement the recommendations of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development; "6. set time aside in every season to declare our interdependence, to celebrate natural and cultural diversity, and to address the issues of environmental justice; "BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the Unitarian Universalist Association shall act and encourage its affiliates, member societies, and individual Unitarian Universalists to reduce their consumption of the earth's resources, to produce as little waste as possible, to recycle, and to make a conscious commitment to developing a more sustainable lifestyle." If you're like me, the first thing you'll notice is that this is a huge "to do list." This resolution commits us as UUs to: Develop and promote programs of Religious education Community action Social/political empowerment Support creation of community organizations Make responsible choices as investors and consumers Work with others to implement recommendations of the UN Conference on Environment and Development Set time aside to focus on these issues Reduce consumption, waste, recycle and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. I can't go on without venting a little about my love/hate affair with "to do lists." I've taken enough management seminars to know the value of making and checking "to do" lists. There's a risk, however, that the lists themselves take on not the identity of helper, but that of tyrant judge, increasing the guilt you feel about your inability to "do everything on your list in the time allotted." Such lists are intended to be tools to help us act, not barriers to action. They're intended to help and encourage us, not to intimidate and stymie us. And that's a risk with such a massive "to do" list as that proposed in this resolution. There's so much "to do" that it almost seems pointless to try. We're doomed at the outset to fail. I must admit that was my first reaction upon reading this resolution. "It's too much!" All I felt was overwhelmed and discouraged--as if hugh obligations were being imposed on me from outside, against my better judgment. It's not that I disagree with most of the content of the resolution, but its tone and spirit are so demanding, so exacting, so seemingly unrealistic--impossible. And then, after I'd written the first draft of this sermon, venting my frustrations, I decided to try another approach to the resolution. For the usefulness of any of our UUA resolutions depends upon the underlying spirit that they touch in us. And I was left with what seems to me the most important question: Is environmental justice something I support out of fear or out of love? My first approach was based on fear: fear of not doing enough, of being politically incorrect, of not being "liberal" enough, of living with unacceptable inconsistencies between my values and my actions. But that's not where I want my motivations to come from. I want to make my commitments out of love, for my faith and my experience tell me that love is more powerful, more effective and more satisfying than fear as a motive for action. So where do we start? For me the first question isn't "what" should we do about environmental justice or "how" should we do it. The first question is, "Why should we consider doing anything about environmental justice?" Where does our motivation come from? The answer to this question will determine our staying power--and our effectiveness. The answer can't be just "because the UUA tells us it's important." That will carry us for about a week. The answer can't be just "because it's the politically correct thing to do." That will carry us for as long as the PC wind is blowing in the same direction. The answer can't be just "because we don't have anything better to do with our time, energy, effort, money and commitment." That will carry us only until the next issue clamors for our attention. The answer must have something to do with experiencing interconnectedness. Life doesn't call us to pass resolutions. It calls us to live more fully, more abundantly. It calls us to experience getting in touch with the reality, the power, the energy that underlies the principles cited in the opening of the resolution: justice, compassion, inherent worth and dignity, interdependence, peace and liberty. Our motivation starts with and within ourselves. We must begin by staying close to our own experience. If I'm not mistaken, many of us are feeling distracted, disconnected and discouraged about our place on the planet and about our role as prophets of environmental justice. Some of us are distracted by the extreme busy-ness of our lives. We talked about this at our last board meeting, in relation to the program of this church. Are there too many things on our church calendar? Are we making too many demands on people's time? And when we add in other commitments individuals and families have, the "to do" lists that people are living with get very long. No wonder a resolution calling for us to do even more shifting and sorting of commitments tends to overwhelm us. Some of us are feeling disconnected from things we value or things we hold dear. Living as many of us do in this urban area, it's not hard to feel disconnected from creation. That's one reason I went backpacking in the Sierra's this summer: to reconnect with a world that doesn't depend upon us. Others of us may feel disconnected from distant family or friends, people we're separated from by space and time. And still others may feel disconnected from people separated by ideology or race or social class or neighborhood or nationality--a painful separation we see growing wider and feel powerless to bridge. No wonder a resolution calling for us to reclaim our connection and solidarity with creation and other people tends to overwhelm us. And then some of us are feeling discouraged by the perception of how little progress we human beings have made along the path of wisdom. We note the continuing degradation of our environment, the spread of poverty, the persistence of hunger, the omnipresence of greed, the prevalence of violence, the widespread appeal to fear, the tendency to despair. No wonder a resolution calling for us to confront and challenge these harbingers of discouragement face to face tends to overwhelm us. Distracted, disconnected and discouraged, we come together here for words of focus, connection and encouragement. That's what we can give one another through this fellowship. We can work together to focus on where to start, to rebuild connections that matter to us, and to encourage one another to find ways to deepen our love for this planet and its people Dick Gilbert's words show us the way: "Forgive me and make me whole," he said in today's reading. Distracted, disconnected and discouraged, we are not whole. We need to find a way back to wholeness--for ourselves, and for our world. He reminded us that we can't savor the world unless we we're willing to work together to save it. Summit can help focus, connect and encourage us through: Recycling Eliminating styrofoam cups Enlisting our participation in environmental action projects Brainstorming practical ways of reducing household consumption and waste Offering book discussions (such as January's sessions on Al Gore's Earth in the Balance) Challenging us to consider more radical ways of living with less: congregate housing, alternative transportation, food coops. We need to remind one another that we can't save the world unless we're willing to work together to savor it. Summit can help focus, connect and encourage us through: Planning campouts and retreats where we rediscover the wonders of the natural world Conducting worship services focused on creation and the human spirit Broadening our horizons to include diverse religious traditions and spiritual practices Observing and celebrating the cycles of the year Affirming out spiritual quest toward wholeness, toward shalom, toward healing, toward love and toward justice, the social expression of love Environmental justice is one way of merging our impulses to savor and to save the world. It is a concept, an idea, a movement and a force by which we can meet our commitments to preserve and protect our planet and to enhance the fairness of relationships among people and among all life forms and all of creation. May Summit enliven these commitments with knowledge and may inspiration by whatever name--God, wisdom, higher power--enliven these commitments with passion. Distracted, disconnected and discouraged as we sometimes feel, may we nevertheless come to further environmental justice not out of our fears, but out of our love . . . for this planet, for one another, for all of creation. Amen. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ (c) Copyright 1993 by Ned Wight So long as profit is not your motive and you always include this copyright notice, please feel free to reproduce and distribute this material in electronic form as widely as you please. All other permission must be sought from the author through the the Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in La Mesa/El Cajon, California.


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