Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Life-Changing Experiences
distributed 9/14/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Gloria Sawtell, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her generous support helps make this publication possible. As my mother, she shares in part of the story I tell this week.

You can't have my life-shaping experience. It is mine, all mine! You probably wouldn't want it anyway, since it wasn't any fun.

What happened in my childhood, though, was very important in forming how I see the world. Many decades later, my propensity to see the world in global, rather than local, terms can be traced back to one roadside sign.

You can't have my experience. But I hope that you are aware of events in your own life that have been important in shaping your values and perspectives.

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I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, in the heartland of the United States. In the days of my youth, and still today, that city on the Great Plains was surrounded by corn fields and cattle. In addition to that agricultural heritage, though, Omaha had a prominent next door neighbor in Offutt Air Force Base and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) -- the command center for the entire US Air Force.

In the depths of the Cold War, and especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wasn't happy about living near SAC, because it was a high-level nuclear target. Those who might have been inclined to lob a warhead in our direction would aim first at Washington, DC. The second missile would be sent toward Omaha, to incinerate SAC.

I was not the only Nebraska resident for whom that geo-political reality stirred up anxieties. In the early 1960s, there was a booming (so to speak!) construction business for fallout shelters. One of those companies had an office a few blocks from our home.

Our nerves needed to stay on edge for their business to succeed, so they used an active marketing strategy. In front of their sales office, they had a sign that displayed the day's fallout readings, a number that edged up or down depending on the prevailing winds.

In the early 60s, nuclear testing was going on in the South Pacific. The newspaper would report that a big new nuke was exploded on some island. Two days later, the numbers on that sign would spike dramatically. We could all see that -- in about 48 hours -- radioactive fallout had been carried across most of the Pacific Ocean, over the Sierras and the Rockies, and was drifting down on Omaha.

As I look back on how I learned about our fragile and interconnected world, I can see an early and indelible lesson from the sales office for that construction business. My deeply-held belief that an event can have an important impact far, far away did not grow from abstract theory. Day after day, as a 10 year old child, that sign proved to me that winds and dust are global realities.

Six years ago, while living in Denver, my Omaha lesson was confirmed even more vividly. In April, 2001, a huge wind storm in China stirred up enormous clouds of dust. Those particles were blown across the Pacific, and produced a thick haze all across the US. Dirt from Asia settled so thickly in Colorado that our normal 100-mile visibility was cut to about 10 miles. We couldn't see the mountains, because topsoil from the highland plains of China was in the way.

The fluctuating levels of radioactive fallout, thank heaven, are long gone, along with the nuclear tests which created them. The huge dust storm of 2001 was a newsworthy fluke. But again this week, I was reminded of the way that wind globalizes pollution.

I attended an excellent lecture on the horrible air pollution in China. It is a problem that will get much worse as that country builds more coal-fired power plants -- they're averaging one new power plant a week. Soot, chemical pollutants and carbon dioxide are belched from the smokestacks of factories and generators. Chinese cities have some of the worst air quality in the world, to the detriment of the health of those citizens.

The prevailing winds still blow steadily across China, and beyond, carrying much of that pollution across the Pacific to North America. On a routine basis, wind spreads Chinese emissions around the Northern Hemisphere. The lecturer told us that, in one recent estimate, up to one quarter of the particulates in the air over Los Angeles are produced by Chinese industry. Consistently -- not as a fluke -- air pollution in southern California is degraded by factories and power plants more than 6,000 miles away. I'm not even surprised by those studies, because I've seen that sort of evidence all my life.

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A life-shaping experience from my childhood makes me very aware of the stuff that blows half-way around the world. I am primed to see and understand those dramatic expressions of our interconnected global community.

But my story is not the only story. It is likely that your life story has a significant moment that allows you to experience the reality of our global community, or of ecological relationships. Your experiences are probably more hopeful and joyous than mine, too.

In the fall and spring, some parts of the world see enormous bird migrations. I remember standing on a beach in Massachusetts one fall day, and seeing an amazing stream of hawks soaring south along the coast. Maybe you have had a chance to witness those annual migrations, and you've come to treasure changing seasons and the flow of life.

Perhaps you have spent time at a lake, and have come to value the way fish eat bugs, and birds eat fish, so that you now have an intimate mental image of the ecological web. Or perhaps you have had the opportunity to soak up the billions of years of "deep time" through the silent testimony of layers of rock. Or you may have seen how a forest fire spawns dynamic new life through its flaming destruction.

Your assignment for this week -- should you choose to accept it -- is to find other examples of those deep-seated experiences that make us aware of the complex, inter-connected realities of the world. Think of your own life story, and highlight an occasion that opened your perceptions. Talk to friends, and share your stories with each other.

Our commitment to ecological sustainability and to social justice is strengthened when we remember and affirm the very personal sources for our values and understandings. I urge you to get in touch with your own story, and to be enriched by hearing the life-shaping stories of others.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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