Monday, May 7, 2018

You Can't Make Me Choose! (May 6, 2018)

Solving for Pattern by Wendell Berry

Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve 7 the health of people. In a biological pattern – as in the pattern of a community – the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.

It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa. [i]

When my son was little, a popular parenting technique in the “positive parenting” movement was to give kids a choice. Instead of saying “no, you can’t stay up and play” you would say “Which pajamas would you like to wear to bed tonight?” Nick caught on to this pretty quickly. He couldn’t express what was wrong with my question, but he knew that I was limiting his choices even while asking him to choose.

For far too long, we have let false choices limit our work for social justice. All the way back in the 19th century, activists who had worked side by side on abolition and women’s suffrage were told that as a nation we had to choose between allowing African American men to vote or allowing women to vote. And we fell for it. Longtime allies fought bitterly[ii]. There is a rift between folks working for women’s rights and folks working for racial justice that persists to this day. The way we have done justice work, even in our UU communities, is to divide into committees and subgroups, each working for their own agenda.

Here at UUCAS, we finally became accredited as a Green Sanctuary Congregation just as we were beginning a congregation-wide initiative in Racial Justice. The environmental movement and the Racial Justice movements have also had a long history of tension. The early environmental movement was all about protecting swaths of pristine land for the hunting and vacationing of privileged white folks like President Teddy Roosevelt[iii], who was instrumental in establishing the National Parks. While in theory these parks are for everyone, they are disproportionately used by older white folks.[iv] While mostly-white environmental activists focused on preserving pristine places, “Toxic waste facilities are located primarily in communities of color” a 1987 report by the United Church of Christ's Committee on Racial Justice showed. But the mainstream environmental groups were not interested in cleaning up those polluted neighborhoods. And didn't consider such work to be part of the environmental movement. According to an article in High Country Times when activist Richard Moore “approached Earth Day organizers to become a part of the event. They told him that the issues he was working on -- groundwater contamination caused by feedlots and other petrochemical facilities, uranium mining, sewage plant odors, sheep and cattle grazing -- just weren't relevant.” [v]

So as a congregation, we could see this moment as a choice we have to make between our environmental work, and our totally separate racial justice work, or we could try to understand the way the two movements intersect.

This video offers a quick and cogent explanation of how we can do this:

The video offers 3 suggestions for how to move forward in an intersectional way:

1) Examine our own privileges. We, living here in the valley, have the privilege of not living near a toxic waste dump. We have the privilege of living near two beautiful rivers, with plenty of open lands to walk, to fish, to hunt, to grow gardens.

2) Listen to others. We call it environmentalism because it refers to the environment where we live. For those of us who live and work here the valley, we want to preserve our pristine waters, our maple trees, the beautiful view as we look out over the rolling green endless mountains and the places where we hike or boat or fish. But what if you lived in downtown Elmira, or New York City. There’s environment there too, right? Or what if you were part of a community of color that was barred from certain beaches and parks during the Jim Crow era?[vii]

3) Do our environmental justice work through a broader, more inclusive perspective. Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Professor at the University of Michigan, notes that “our lived experiences with environment are different. White people bring their experience to the discussion — that’s why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don’t have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches. It’s just a different frame. But overall, we want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces and sustainable, long-lasting communities.”[viii]

"Through the 1960s and 1970s the environment is framed as the forests, the trees, the beautiful birds, the perfect oceans and lakes. It didn’t include the issues that related to urban areas or to poor people. Certainly not to persons of color,” said Dr. Taylor. “Part of the pushback of communities of color was a sense that, we’re not going to come out and march to save the bald eagle when we don’t have food in the house to feed our children. We have to take care of that first."

You can see how that would be an impossible choice to make- choosing between feeding hungry children, cleaning up poisoned neighborhoods or preventing the extinction of entire species. But in today’s reading, Wendell Berry proposes that a good solution does not sacrifice one for the other. A good solution creates a pattern that is good for all.

Let’s take a look at a very specific issue that affects all of us- water. Last week Judy approached me to talk about alternatives to bottled water at fundraisers. She had been doing some research about alternatives to plastics, and was hoping we could find one that would work for us here at the church. I’m sure we’ve all see the disturbing images and statistics about the millions of tons of plastics in the oceans[ix], or the heartbreaking photos of birds or fish who died from ingesting our trash[x]. (You might check out Chris Eng’s letter to the editor on this topic- there’s a copy our bulletin board in the social hall). So thinking carefully about our use of plastics is something that would fit right into our values and ethics here at the church. Sure, we do have a plastic recycling bin in the church kitchen, but it turns out that recycling does not really solve this problem, because “most plastics can only be recycled once or twice[xi]” which means that all plastics end up in landfill, or in the ocean gyre eventually. And as plastic breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals. So Judy was curious about alternatives like glass, which “can be recycled endlessly without any degradation of quality. This means in addition to their ability to be recycled … again and again, you can personally reuse glass without worrying about it degrading and leaching chemicals into your liquids.”[xii]

I was thrilled when Judy brought this up, because back when I lived in California, I had become very passionate about water privatization, Perhaps you remember that during the drought there residents had to stop watering their lawns, had to limit their water consumption. Some farmers had to let crops die, but the Nestle Corporation’s rights to draw water from those same water sources did not waver. Companies like Nestle and Coke a Cola are buying public water rights (that’s my water and your water) and then are within their rights as private property owners to overdraw the ground water, emptying local wells which provide drinking water to local residents, and then selling our water back to us at seriously inflated prices, in plastic bottles that make us sick if we re-use them.

What a perfect intersection- the desire to reduce the toxic side effects of plastics on birds, on fish, on eco-systems, intersects with the desire to make sure everyone has access to water, a fundamental human right. I had been considering the idea of selling reusable plastic sports bottles as a fundraiser so we could boycott privatized water, but that does nothing for the ocean gyre, that does nothing to reduce chemicals that are toxic to humans and other living beings. Studies show that reusable products have the lightest environmental footprint, as long as they are reused many times, so when we use the mugs and glasses in our kitchen which were here long before I arrived, we are already doing the best thing we can do. [xiii] So Judy and I have been brainstorming about maybe a glass water dispenser. And for those occasions where there is no practical way to wash dishes, paper cups with high recycled content seems to be the next best option. [xiv] If we want to do a fundraiser selling reusable GLASS mugs at events like Trivia Night, maybe finding a way to incentivize people to bring them back, so that they really would be reused.

But wait, you’re saying, we’ve just made this commitment to racial justice. Are we going to leave behind our work on racial justice to think about water bottles? Nope, instead, let’s ask ourselves, how can we look at those plastic water bottles from a racial justice perspective, or an economic justice perspective? If you are not a land owner with a private well, the ability to boycott private water depends on the presence of a safe, clean municipal water supply. So one of the best ways to both reduce our use of plastic and boycott privatized water is to support our own municipal water systems. If you don’t trust your local water enough to drink it, let’s do some research to find out what’s wrong, and lobby to protect our drinking water. Those of us here who are involved in citizen science water testing are already part of this solution.

Consider Flint Michigan; Food and Water Watch reports that, “In 1992, the Genesee Power Station first applied for a permit to build and operate a wood-burning incinerator in a predominantly low-income and African-American community in Flint. Residents promptly filed an environmental civil rights complaint with the EPA, citing concerns over the local release of toxic pollutants as well as racial discrimination and the use of intimidation tactics during Michigan’s public hearings on the proposed power plant.”

“The Reverend Philip Schmitter, who was part of the Genesee complaint from the beginning, said it was clear that Michigan was discriminating against black residents and believes that if the EPA had taken action earlier, the city's ongoing lead drinking water crisis may have been avoided. The EPA’s finding of environmental racism in the Genesee complaint references Michigan’s admitted failure to provide Flint’s African-American residents the ‘same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities’ in the water crisis... After 25 years, the EPA finally unequivocally stated that there is a “preponderance of evidence” in the Genesee case showing that Michigan engaged in discrimination “that resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than Whites.”[xv]

Now if we look at the bottled water problem form a “broader, more inclusive perspective” it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the EPA is really carrying out its mission “protect human health and the environment” including working to ensure that “Americans have clean air, land and water”[xvi] Activist LeeAnne Walters, who helped expose the Flint water crisis and recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize, encourages us to lobby the EPA about the Lead and Copper rule which requires testing for lead in water. According to Walters “instead of doing that, they're actually cheating and using loopholes to hide and minimize the lead. I want to change the rule so that the loopholes that are in the system that are not illegal are eliminated so that this way, we are testing in accordance to the way the law was written so that we don't have any more future Flints.”

The old way of looking at all these justice problems would make us choose. Choose whether to keep plastic out of the bellies of ocean birds, or whether to keep Companies like Nestle from taking local water and selling it back to us. We would have to choose between fighting racial injustice, and plugging loopholes in the lead and copper rule. We still see this kind of thinking even among our allies on Facebook- bickering about why my priorities are more important than your priorities, caught up in the lie that we have to choose. It presumes that Justice is zero sum game which must by necessity have winners and losers.

Universalism has always looked at the world a little differently. As Hosea Ballou wrote “Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82) The Universalist God’s love includes every inch of the web of life, includes even the smallest creature. Justice without women, without people of color, without the birds or the trees is not true justice.

So it would make sense that Universalists would be drawn towards a more holistic view of justice making. Intersectionality is a new way of looking at justice work that encourages people to bring all of who they are to the table. Just as KimberlĂ© Crenshaw (who conceived the idea of intersectionality) fought a legal battle so that her clients could be simultaneously recognized as women and as people of color[xvii], we are re-imagining justice work that weaves connections across categories and divisions. Such justice work requires us to examine our own privilege, to listen to each other, and to practice justice through a broader and more inclusive lens. I believe with Wendell Berry that “What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air.” The interdependent web of all existence is by its very nature intersectional, interconnected and interdependent. Let us open our minds and hearts to intersectional solutions that hold and nourish and heal us all.

[ii] this is discussed in The Woman's Hour By Elaine Weiss, a summary of some of the issues can be found here:
more about Dr. Taylor’s work is here:

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