+quot;What Do You Mean, Environmental Justice?+quot; Sermon Delivered by the Rev. Ned Wigh
"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?
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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:
Eliminating styrofoam cups
Enlisting our participation in environmental action projects
Brainstorming practical ways of reducing household consumption
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
Conducting worship services focused on creation and the human spirit
Broadening our horizons to include diverse religious traditions and
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
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All other permission must be sought from the author through the
the Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in La Mesa/El Cajon,
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank