Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Our Children's Children
distributed 1/31/14 - ©2014

I watched the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, and I've read through the text of President Obama's speech, too. There's a lot there, with heart-warming stories and wonky policy proposals on a long list of topics. Out of the whole hour-long address -- from my perspective, and with my passions -- one long paragraph stands out.

Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. That's why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air. The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

I was glad to hear the clear statements about the reality of climate change, and the acknowledgement of already-present impacts in our own country. And, surprisingly, I haven't heard that there is much argument with "the debate is settled."

The wording of the speech reminded us of a familiar, hope-filled campaign slogan, and I do believe that "Yes, we can" act with responsibility for future generations. It is possible to act quickly and decisively to minimize the damage and dangers of climate change.

But right now -- even as I celebrate that the Obama administration has taken some very significant steps toward reducing greenhouse emissions -- I have little confidence that our children's children will believe that "we did all we could." When the citizens two generations from now look back 40 or 50 years to our time, I expect that they will lament our lack of vision, leadership and action. They will see very clearly the missed opportunities that we, today's citizens and today's leaders, should be claiming.

"When our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could" is a powerful image. It drives home, to me, the failures of our society in this time of growing peril.

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The 2014 State of the Union speech was grounded in a pervasive economic frame. Over and over again, the goal was jobs, individual opportunity, and economic growth.

The five paragraphs on energy policy (which ended with the long paragraph that I quoted above) were woven into the address' larger economic tapestry. The opening line of the energy section was, "one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy." The sentence after "yes, we did" starts with "Finally, if we are serious about economic growth ..."

The Obama administration has done, and is doing, far more than previous administrations to deal intentionally and substantially with climate change. But still, the notions of doing all that we can are tightly constrained by what the politicians feel is an even more powerful reality of serving and maintaining the economy.

A few years ago, I wrote about the importance of identifying the "subordinate clause" when people try to balance two conflicting priorities. I offered two similar sentences that yield very different outcomes:

  1. I will do what I can to preserve our way of life while I work for the health of the planet.
  2. I will do what I can to work for the health of the planet while I preserve our way of life.

Sentence #1 gives voice to the prophetic leanings of Eco-Justice Ministries. As we heed the faithful call to treat all of our neighbors justly, maintaining our way of life is of secondary importance. Our primary calling is to protect creation in service of God, and in love for people around the world, in future generations, and with respect for all species.

Sentence #2, with some shading of emphasis, gives voice to both President George W. Bush ("the American way of life is not negotiable") and President Barack Obama. Those two presidents share with countless other politicians a central commitment -- they might call it an obligation -- to work for prosperity and economic opportunity. From their perspective, maintaining a reliable supply of cheap energy and working for economic growth are unquestioned necessities.

When Mr. Obama imagines looking his descendants in the eye, and saying that we did all we could, that's the context in which he feels confident of their blessing. We did all we could -- even though it was nowhere near enough -- because we had to keep the economy going at full tilt. I find it very hard to believe that the people living in a very damaged, depleted and destabilized world two generations from now will share his evaluation.

I am immensely grateful that President Obama pushes much farther that his predecessors in that office when envisioning the range of "doing all we can" to work for a safer, more stable world. But I cannot, in good conscience, accept the assertion that an energy policy which continues our long-term dependence on fossil fuels, and that talks about natural gas as a bridge fuel without working adequately to develop the other end of that bridge, is anywhere near adequate to the challenge of our time -- and especially not when we honor the right of future generations to a livable world.

Those of us who care about health and justice for Earth community need to be vigorous in supporting the positive steps that are being taken by this administration, or in other settings. (Public comments are being accepted until March 10, 2014, on the proposed carbon pollution standards for new power plants -- they need our support.) And we need to be at least as vigorous in re-framing the debate away from business-as-usual, and toward the health and welfare of the whole Earth community.

Our children's children will care far more about a livable planet than they will about our generation's prosperity. As people of faith, we have an obligation to be voices for those future generations who have no voice now.

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As a footnote to today's Notes, and as a prelude to a theme that I may address in coming weeks, let me point to a parallel issue about the SOTU speech.

Mr. Obama spoke often and powerfully about opportunity for the middle class, he pushed for an increased minimum wage to help the poor, and touched on many other issues of economic justice. But even as he said that "inequality has deepened," his only proposals were to give a small boost to those at the bottom end of that inequality. He did not, apparently could not, challenge the enormous inequality that comes from the ultra-rich and powerful. The trade agreements that he pitched will, according to the analysis that I've seen, lead to an increase in economic inequality. On the economic side, too, "doing what we can" seems to involve small actions to minimize the worst pain, but little to address the biggest factors in an unjust system.

An eco-justice commitment often leads us toward a more challenging critique than the political system will ever generate.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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