Climate change, environmental justice activists gather at Yale Divinity School

By Gustav Spohn, Director of Communications and Publications

Hope and despair were recurrent themes when activists in the climate change and environmental justice communities came together for the April 8-10 “Environmental (Dis)Locations Conference” hosted by Yale Divinity School.

ConferenceParticipants at the gathering, jointly sponsored by YDS and a number of other Yale entities, painted a bleak picture of the imminent dangers facing Planet Earth.  Descriptive phrases ranged from “a runaway train that could carry us into a wild and calamitous future,” to “the largest dislocation of the planet ever” to “catastrophes before us.”

At the same time, however, speakers noted that their distress over dangers such as global warming, dumping of toxic wastes and mountaintop removal should not be interpreted as hopelessness.  About 200 persons attended the gathering.

Early on in the three-day conference, David Orr of Oberlin College laid the groundwork for a theological approach to the environmental crisis by calling despair a “sin,” warning that despair can be a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” and challenging listeners to adopt a “hopeful” posture that can lead to action.

“If you are in despair, however, that’s a sin – can’t do it.  And despair of course can become, as all of us know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Hope, not despair

The only right action here is to be hopeful,” said Orr. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.  If you’re hopeful, you have to do something.  You cannot be passive.   Hope comes with an imperative that you must act.  It demands that you do something.”

Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer and co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, reported that a lack of action on the environmental front has lead to “frustration and unease” in the community of scientists, some of whom, she said, have “despaired of the American public waking up to the climate emergency and responding in a timely manner.”

But Tucker, who holds appointments in Divinity, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the Graduate School, noted that there is “immense possibility for change,” in part because the field of environmental ethics is “gaining traction.”

Tucker and other presenters argued that environmental problems are not simply a matter of science but, at their core, ethical and theological problems, probing the deep questions that undergird action, such as, “Why should I care about the environment if it has no direct impact on me?”

An issue of morality, ethics, justice

Dumanoski“This is not first and foremost a matter of economics, nor one of technology,” said Orr.  “As important as those may be, they are not the most important issues.  This is an issue of morality, ethics, and justice, first and foremost.”

“I would submit that the challenge of climate change is more than replacing our light bulbs or measuring our carbon footprint,” asserted Tucker.  “Climate change is at its heart a moral issue, calling into question who we are as humans and how we will survive as a species on a finite planet. ...It does not get more basic than that, and issues of justice and compassion are at the core of these moral arguments.”

Diane Dumanoski, environmental journalist and author of Our Stolen Future and The End of the Long Summer, said, “What confronts us isn’t simply an environmental dilemma.  We’re in the midst of a profound human crisis that cuts to the very heart of our civilization.  Scientific diagnosis and technological remedy may help delay physical symptoms for a time, but they’re not going to cure what ails us.”

Dumanoski suggested that  “a fundamentally different view of the world” is needed, which for her means that earth should be viewed not as passive and inanimate but alive, creative, and dynamic—and dangerous when injured.

Others, too, argued for new, more forceful, language.

Sounding an uncertain trumpet

David Kyman Kim, professor of religious studies at Connecticut College and author of Melancholic Freedom: Agency and the Spirit of Politics (Oxford 2007), said, “If we’re thinking about questions of environmental dislocations, and we’re thinking about questions of religious imagination, we want to be thinking about using different language, using stronger language, using courageous language.”  Such language, he suggested, should help “cultivate a sense of urgency where today feels like too late.”

Likewise, Orr, author of Ecological Literacy (SUNY, 1992), said, “Faced with the largest, the longest lived, and most complex challenge humans have ever faced, we dither, afraid of offending people, incapable of speaking the truth, sounding an uncertain trumpet.

Orr“We don’t much like words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘courage.’...We’ll need a good bit of courage, not the least of which is to speak the truth to a public long unused to hearing the truth.”

One aspect of that truth, for many at the conference, was the “dislocation” caused by environmental degradation that disproportionately affects poor communities.

In the conference’s opening address, Robert Bullard, the Edmund Asa Ware Distinguished Professor of Sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, laid out the connection between environmental issues, race and economic factors.  He used specific and visual examples to illustrate how small, impoverished communities like Norco, LA - home to a Shell Oil refining complex – experience severe public health problems connected with living in the shadow of facilities that supply U.S. consumers’ energy needs.

Bullard also cited the case of Perry County, AL, where millions of tons of spilled coal ash was being dumped by the Tennessee Valley Authority after a December 2008 accident 500 miles away in a mostly white part of eastern Tennessee. According to the 2000 census, Perry County is 68 percent African-American. Bullard said of the arrangement, “There’s a switcheroo going on.”

Bullard urged his audience of about 40 people to keep a vigilant eye on a resurgent nuclear power industry, one that he predicted is likely to choose areas for new construction that are predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities and poor people. “On whose backs, on whose shoulders are they trying to reinvent themselves?” he asked.

Climate change and environmental justice together

A recurring theme at the conference was that activists in the climate change community and those in the environmental justice communities need to work together.

“I was deeply troubled by the fact there was this current that went through the environmental movement that always seemed to come back to the fact that it was people of color who were on one side, and the environmental movement that was white and very self-righteous on the other side,” said Carl Anthony, acting director of the Ford Foundation unit responsible for the environment.

He argued that climate change activists “need a revised story that includes issues of race, poverty and instruction in realities of both urban and rural life,” while those in the environmental justice community “also need a new story, one that is grounded in the larger story of the evolution of planet earth.”

Mary Hunt, a feminist theologian and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, warned that consideration has to be paid not only to the content of such stories but to “the power dynamics of who tells the story,” with special attention to hearing the stories of “those who have been marginalized."  A particular irony, she noted, is that “those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those who have not caused the problem but bear the adverse effects most intensely.”

Tyra Pendergrass, a second-year master’s candidate at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she studies environmental health and justice, commented, “We really need to rethink our social governing system to foster inclusive participation...We need to recognize that not all are included, some are made invisible.

“Grassroots-based conversations about climate change really have to include environmental justice conversations.”

Complicity and confession

BullardThe terms “confession” and “complicity” also made their way into the conversation, perhaps apropos of the setting.

Orr suggested that one approach to take when talking about humans and the environment is to follow the Alcoholics Anonymous model:  “You’ve got to go publicly before different people, confess that you’ve caused suffering and pain.”  And Kim remarked, “We have to disenthrall ourselves of this notion that we are an agent of good in the world to acknowledge that we have been an imperial power, to acknowledge that we have been complicit in the catastrophes before us.”

Among the other conference highlights were a series of workshops sessions aimed at addressing practical issues; a roundtable discussion featuring an environmental journalist, an environmental lawyer, and several environmental scientists; a stirring talk by former White House green jobs advisor Van Jones; and the planting of a red oak tree on the YDS campus by YDS students, Forestry students, and New Haven high school students.

At the conclusion of the conference, Emilie Townes, a primary conference organizer and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Religion and Theology, called on all conference participants to leave with an idea of one new thing they would do to honor and protect the environment.

“I want to thank you all for your presence and your commitment and your abilities to keep hope in the midst of despair, remembering that the future is coming and it’s up to us to make it,” said Townes.  “Go in peace, go in justice, go with a little bit of ornery spirit.”

Afterwards, Townes assessed the conference’s success.  “We wanted to bring together environmental justice and climate change advocates and activists in a setting where they could be exposed to each others ideas and insights,” she said.  “Unfortunately, these two communities often do not talk with or listen to each other, and it was our feeling that perhaps using the lens of religion would be a way to begin a much-needed conversation because life and the health of the planet is at stake.

“Given many of the attendees and speakers mentioned that they were hearing new ideas and rethinking old ones, we achieved this.  Our hope is that by encouraging folks to begin to name one step they commit to and do to honor and protect the environment, we have brought together theory and practice pointed toward faithful living.”