The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Labor Day and Eco-Justice
I recall a photo from 2001 or 2002 which shows a National Park Service ranger staffing an entry booth at Yellowstone National Park. This is not a charming promotional image, showing the smiling ranger in a Smokey Bear hat with beautiful scenery in the background. The startling detail is that the ranger is wearing a gas mask, needed to protect him from thick clouds of exhaust from the snowmobiles swarming into the park.
The image was a shocking illustration of the dangers faced by park staff -- and the entire Yellowstone environment -- from the dirty emissions put out by snowmobile engines. It was a picture that helped to catalyze a heated debate about winter access to the nation's first park.
Even with Google, I can't locate a copy of that particular photo, but I did find similar graphics and first person accounts from park staff about the health effects of pollution at Yellowstone. Ranger Rick Bennett wrote, "The West entrance area was enveloped in a blue haze cloud of snowmobile exhaust for most of the morning…After 45 minutes I found that I couldn't talk and again had developed a sore throat."
So much for the mystique of park employees working in a pristine wilderness.
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The Yellowstone picture came to mind during a meeting I had with a seminary student working on a summer internship. She painted a strikingly similar mental picture for me.
The scene she described has not been spread by the wire services, or published in countless newspapers, and it hasn't ignited political controversy. It is likely, though, that each of us can fill in the details of the picture from our routine personal experience.
Jinnie described a booth with the same function as the one staffed by the Park Service employee -- although this one is smaller and less well equipped. It is a booth at a highway toll plaza, or at the exit to a parking garage. A small, glass-walled box with a cash register and an always-open window. Just like the Yellowstone entrance station, a stream of vehicles rolls by the booth, producing a constant cloud of exhaust fumes.
And just like the Park Service ranger quoted above, the service workers are affected by the pollution. Unlike the ranger, though, their job puts them in a location permeated by auto and truck exhaust 40 hours a week throughout the year. Day after day, they receive high levels of exposures to the multiple carcinogens contained in exhaust fumes. Many of these small booths have inadequate heating and air conditioning systems for moderating either the weather or vehicular pollution, and some have no ventilation systems at all.
Bad air is only one of the workplace problems suffered by these folk. They are generally poorly paid, and the jobs tend to have poor health care benefits. Many of these toll booth workers are not represented by unions, and have little power to negotiate about workplace conditions.
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Jinnie, the summer intern, met with me as part of an outreach program from the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. She also told me about some of the other categories of workers whose jobs subject them to environmental hazards.
These examples from the workplace demonstrate the truth of an eco-justice perspective.
It is not possible to separate "environmental" concerns from "justice" matters. Caring for the environment (with reduced vehicle emissions, safer cleaning products, and less use of agricultural chemicals) will also care for workers at the bottom end of the economy. And, to look at it from the other side, providing safe and just working conditions will be good for the earth.
Eco-justice concerns are present in parks and suburbs, in parking garages and farms, office buildings and churches. The are present in all of our communities, and should be addressed by all of our congregations -- both practically and in moral witness.
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The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice "calls upon our religious values in order to educate, organize and mobilize the religious community in the US on issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers."
Labor Day weekend is an excellent time to reflect on eco-justice themes in relation to labor issues. Thanks to NICWJ for their leadership and guidance in this cause.
A variation on this topic, Justice at the Tollbooth was distributed August 2, 2002.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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