Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Like Cutting Off an Arm
distributed 9/20/02 - ©2002

Amputation is not an unusual surgical procedure.

Around half of those operations are related to complications from diabetes. Injuries from an accident, frostbite, or cancer also can cause the removal of an appendage or limb.

The decisions made by a doctor and a patient in scheduling such a surgery must be agonizing, for they deal with permanent changes to a person's body, and often to their mobility and independence. But at the same time, the decision is not hard. The alternative to amputation is usually death from infection.

Few of us would volunteer to have a limb amputated. And few would refuse to undergo the procedure if conditions made it necessary. Survival and long-term health far outweigh the losses involved. Obviously, an amputation isn't something to be done lightly. We can understand, though, that such a dramatic choice can make rational and emotional sense.

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I was led to think about amputations by a news report about US regulations on the fishing industry. The e-mail publication Grist Magazine summarized the story:

Hoping to fend off the utter collapse of several groundfish populations, U.S. regulators voted on Friday to ban bottom-fishing next year on most of the continental shelf in the Pacific. Environmentalists said the rules were a long time coming and may not be tough enough, while many in the fishing industry said they now fear for their jobs. Steven Kupillas of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission said, 'The potential impacts for every fishing industry up and down the coast are pretty severe. It's like we are cutting off our arm to save our life.'

I find great hope in Kupillas' comment. He recognizes that dramatic restrictions on fishing are essential to save the life of the fishing industry, and the fish stocks on which they depend. He acknowledges that severe cutbacks in the fishing industry -- an "amputation" -- can be a rational and reasonable necessity.

The candor of Kupillas' statement startled me. Over the years, I've read many comments from threatened industries that have a very different perspective. Over and over again, industries and workers vehemently deny that their core resources are being depleted. They fight to preserve their jobs at the expense of environmental health and sustainability.

  • I think of reports from the Atlantic coast of fisherfolk who have fought restrictions on harvests to keep jobs for the fleets, even as the fish populations were plummeting.

  • I think of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest that has cut forests at non-sustainable levels, and has turned loggers who fear for their jobs against the environmentalists who fear for the forests.

  • I think of those in the oil and automotive industries who promote gas-guzzler cars and more petroleum exploitation for the sake of preserving jobs -- witness last spring's support by the Teamsters for drilling in the Arctic refuge.
Eliminating jobs is not something to be done lightly. But sometimes the long-term health of an industry, community, or the planet calls for those sorts of drastic measures. "Amputation" can be the necessary and appropriate choice.

The amputation analogy, though, hides a difficult reality about the part which is removed. A diseased foot that is cut off becomes a lifeless chunk of flesh. When severe cuts are made within the dominant industry of a community, however, workers lose their jobs. Families are thrown onto the street, and communities are devastated. Company workers feel the most immediate pain; other businesses in the community are soon hurt as the local economy contracts.

It is fairly rare that a community faces dramatic job cuts in order to regain environmental sustainability. When that happens, we can sympathize with all who are involved in making and implementing that tough decision. The difficult cuts really are a matter of saving a life and ensuring long-term health.

In many other cases, though, communities encounter those devastating impacts when large corporations shift facilities overseas to reap higher profits. Frequently, it is corporate economics, not environmental protection, that displaces workers and disrupts communities.

When jobs are cut -- whether by a business decision or an environmental policy -- those who are displaced should be able to expect and demand transitional assistance. They need financial support, job training, relocation assistance, and other essential services. In a just arrangement, the entity that caused the cuts (the corporation, or the government) should be held accountable for healing the worst of the injury to individuals and the community.

"Amputation" is sometimes a necessary action in strategies to establish sustainable communities. That option would be more palatable, and industries might fight less for short-term self interest, if appropriate support and assistance is provided to all involved.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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