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Environmental Justice

We Americans like to think of ourselves as an ethical people. For generations, our presidents have referred to America as the “shining city on a hill” and “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” We pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for “liberty and justice for all.” That word “all” is key. If our lofty declarations are to have any meaning, then justice must be available for everyone, including the vulnerable and the oppressed.
by Rob Peeler Oct 27, 2016

We Americans like to think of ourselves as an ethical people. For generations, our presidents have referred to America as the “shining city on a hill” and “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” We pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for “liberty and justice for all.”

That word “all” is key. If our lofty declarations are to have any meaning, then justice must be available for everyone, including the vulnerable and the oppressed.

The difficulty is not with the principle of the thing – pretty much everyone I know would move quickly to correct an injustice if, say, they accidentally mowed over a neighbor’s prized peonies. The difficulty is in the fact that acts of injustice often happen out of sight.

Whatever else the Black Lives Matter movement has accomplished, it has clearly shown how hard it is to see injustice happening in our own country.

For example, in almost 30 years of driving, I’ve hardly ever been pulled over by a police officer, and I’ve certainly never had one pull a gun on me. That’s why I found the video of Walter Scott being shot in the back while running away from officer Michael Slager so shocking. As a middle-aged white man, I’ve never seen anything like this. I could hardly believe it was real.

Black Lives Matter helps us to see systemic racism, discriminatory actions that are simply built into the system. Now that I know, I must respond, because I’m willing to work hard to ensure that ours is a moral society. But other forms of injustice are just as hard to see.

Like most Americans, I am an energy hog. Just in living out my normal life of heating my house, driving my car, and flying out to visit my elderly parents, I pollute the atmosphere. No big deal, right? Everyone does it, right?

Well, not exactly. Fact is that each American, on average, puts more than twice the carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere as the average Chinese – ten times as much as the average Indian. Moreover, scientists have told us for more than thirty years that this CO2 is warming the planet, meaning more drought and more torrential rainfall.

But here’s the injustice: the people producing the least CO2 are the ones likely to suffer the most from climate change. At 1,150 feet above sea level, I’m unlikely to feel the effects of the oceans rising a few feet, but for the island nation of the Maldives, it’s complete devastation. My father in Kentucky kind of likes climate change, because he hardly ever shovels the driveway anymore, but disappearing glaciers raise concerns about water supplies in Colorado and elsewhere.

Environmental injustice is hard to see and the effects are indirect. My furnace alone does not cause glaciers to melt. Rather, it’s my carbon-intensive lifestyle, combined with the similar lifestyle of billions of others, that causes this problem. Slowly, inexorably, injustices built into the system forge chains that cause others to suffer.

So what to do? Well, the first step is to learn more. On Sunday, October 30, a conference on Environmental Justice is being held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in State College, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome. Workshops will offer expert information on the impacts of climate change right here in Pennsylvania. This is an outstanding opportunity to meet others working on these issues and to gain practical tools for fighting this injustice (more info at paipl.org).

The second step is to advocate for major changes in how our homes, shops, and industries use energy. There are alternatives, and America can be a leader in showing the way toward building a more just future for all.

A third step is to stand in solidarity against obviously unethical positions, such as refusing to recognize the imminent threat of our changing climate. Given the science, the risks, and the possible consequences, it is simply unacceptable.

The road toward justice is not easy; we need everyone - Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers and Socialists – to join in crafting just solutions. We need to honor those who have labored in the fossil fuel industry and help them in the transition to a greener economy.

We have a lot to learn about systemic injustice from people of color. In fact, twenty-five years ago today the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit adopted Principles of Environmental Justice, pressing us all to make a “conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.”

Jonathan Brockopp directs the Initiative on Religion and Ethics for the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State.

These articles present and articulate the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar, and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University.