Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

We Dont Have Another 50 Years
distributed 4/17/20 - ©2020

Just in case you hadn't heard ... next Wednesday is Earth Day. And not only that, it is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Back in 1970, when I was helping to organize events for that day at my high school, I don't think I imagined that we'd still have to be organizing and fighting 50 years later. But the fight goes on, and it is bigger and more urgent than ever.

There are a batch of (now on-line) events and activities planned for next week. I've already told you about them, and I've encouraged you to take part -- both virtually and vocally. My point for today is broader than the specific events, or a particular advocacy agenda. Let's take a moment to reflect on where we are today.

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The conventional story tells us that April 22, 1970, was the birth of the popular environmental movement in the US. 20 million people across the United States engaged in a diverse array of educational events and political action -- and that massive endeavor was accomplished without email, websites, desktop publishing, Twitter or Zoom. Wow!

As a fairly direct result of that mobilization, big laws were passed -- the clean air act, and the clean water act and the endangered species act -- and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. Many of the worst forms of pollution were curtailed. Raw sewage wasn't dumped into rivers. Big factories cleaned up their smokestacks. Cars got cleaner and more efficient.

But all of those accomplishments are now under attack, and many critical regulations have been weakened or repealed. Just yesterday, a reworking of clean air regulations changed the cost-benefit accounting standards, meaning that the operators of coal-fired power plants will be able to significantly increase the amount of mercury and other pollutants they release into the atmosphere.

Not only are historic laws being rolled back, we have "environmental problems" (the term really doesn't seem adequate) that were essentially unknown and unimaginable back in 1970. There's the climate crisis. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gone from about 325 ppm then to 417 ppm this week -- and the levels are continuing to rise, even with the current shutdown of transportation and industry. In 1970, the concern for endangered species was mostly about iconic critters like the bald eagle, and laws were designed to work on a species-by-species basis. Scientists today speak in terms of an apocalypse, with collapsing populations of whole classes of plants and animals.

Some good things have happened in the 50 years since Earth Day I, and yet we're facing vast global threats that can destabilize the entire web of life, and disrupt human civilization.

As I look at next Wednesday's golden anniversary, the thought that keeps nagging at me is that we don't have another 50 years.

The climate scientists tell us that we have ten years, until 2030, to cut global emissions of greenhouse gasses by 45% from 2010 levels. The biologists studying species extinction reported last May, "If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world's legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately."

We don't have another 50 years. We don't have 10 years to get our act together. We need to act now for dramatic transformations. We need to act now, precisely because our global society is throttled back to constrain the pandemic, and the way the economy is brought back will determine whether we have any chance at all of addressing the climate crisis.

If we come out of this slow-down with an effort to get back to business-as-usual, we're pretty well cooked. If jump-starting the economy involves increased production and use of fossil fuels, if a stimulus plan focuses on sales of SUVs and trucks, then we're locking in a path of worsening climate emissions for decades.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We have an opportunity to make a big turn. In this week's newsletter from the New Yorker, The Climate Crisis, Bill McKibben wrote:

Since we must rebuild our economies, we need to try to engineer out as much ecological havoc and inequality as we can -- as much danger as we can. That won't be easy, but there are clear and obvious steps that would help -- there are ways to structure the increased use of renewable energy that will confront inequality at the same time. Much will be written about such plans in the months to come, but at the level of deepest principle here's what's key, I think: from a society that has prized growth above all and been willing to play fast and loose with justice and ecology, we need to start emphasizing sturdiness, hardiness, resiliency. (And a big part of that is fairness.) The resulting world won't be quite as shiny, but, somehow, shininess seems less important now.

The political groundwork has already been done for a Green New Deal, connecting the dots between social equity and reduced environmental impacts. Negotiations across party lines can find common ground for an economic push that's both strong and sustainable.

We've seen that manufacturers can gear up fast to make ventilators instead of cars. With a federal mandate and economic incentives, businesses can turn out millions of high-efficiency heat pumps to replace gas-fired furnaces and water heaters, and a big pool of workers will have years of good employment installing them. There are options for millions of on-the-ground jobs in insulation, and renewable energy, and soil restoration, and reforestation.

We don't have another 50 years. We don't have another 10 years. We can, and we must, fight for big and transformative change right now. And we must fight hard, because there are powerful forces who will do anything and everything to hold onto their wealth and power.

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For those of us who are rooted in faith traditions, the hard fight for a more just and sustainable future is holy work. All of the world's major and historic faiths -- which excludes the new and powerful religion of the market -- seek some form of the eco-justice vision: the well-being of all humankind as part of a thriving Earth.

As people of faith, we can join with others who seek ecological health and social justice, and begin the rapid turn toward a society that sustains creation, not exploits it. We can bring the commitments of faith to the development of new descriptions of the good life, seeking not wealth and privilege, but community and equity.

In our churches, and in other faith communities, we need to claim the ethics and the promise of our faith, and bring those commitments to the political battleground. We need to do it now, with the possibilities for social and economic transformation that have been opened this spring. We need to do it now, because we don't have another 50 years, or even 10 years, to get this transformation under way.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a good occasion to commit to the long-haul work for this cause.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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