Justice and the Environment

The earth mourns and fades, the world languishes and fades; both heaven and earth languish.  The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants, who have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the ancient covenant.

Isaiah 24:4-5

The designer and maker of the earth established the earth, not creating it to be a waste, but designing it to be lived in.

Isaiah 45:18

In most countries today, including our own, it is the poor and the powerless who most directly bear the burden of current environmental carelessness. Their lands and neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted or to host toxic waste dumps, their water to be undrinkable, their children to be harmed. Too often, the structure of sacrifice involved in environmental remedies seems to exact a high price from the poor and from workers.

US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.

US Environmental Protection Agency

If a community happens to be poor, black, or of color, it receives less (environmental) protection than does an affluent white community. The environmental justice framework defines “environment” as where we live, work, play, worship, and go to school, as well as the physical and natural world. Environmental justice is built on the principle that all Americans have a right to equal protection of our nation’s environmental ... laws and regulations. Environmental protection is a basic human right.

Dr. Robert Bullard, Environmental Justice Leader

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me …

Matthew 25: 34-36

In the early 1980’s, the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice commissioned a study to determine the location of all known toxic waste sites in the US.   With this data in hand, they proceeded to overlay this information onto a map with the most recent census data.  Their study – and many others that followed it – found that

  • Communities of color and poor communities are much more likely to contain or be close to toxic waste sites than whiter, wealthier communities.

  • Toxic sites in these communities take longer to be classified as toxic by regulatory authorities – meaning that it takes them longer to be cleaned up.

  • The clean-ups in these communities are often less thorough and costly than those in whiter, wealthier communities.

  • When companies are fined for polluting, fines are usually higher for polluters in whiter, wealthier communities than for polluters in minority, poorer communities.

Clearly, when it comes to pollution, all communities are not created equal.

The environmental justice movement is a grassroots response to a range of environmental

health threats. In addition to the toxic hazards described above, environmental justice communities may suffer from poor air quality due to diesel or industrial emissions, concentrations of dirty industrial sites, lead poisoning, a lack of open space or access to healthy food, and other environmental health threats.

One of the core themes of Jesus’ ministry and one of Christianity’s core elements is a commitment to compassion and justice for those who are most vulnerable.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus demonstrated a “preferential option” for those whom society marginalized – the poor, the sick, those belonging to groups outside of society’s majority culture.  The most famous New Testament passage which demonstrates Jesus’ commitment in this regard is Matthew 25: 34-37, a portion of which is quoted above.  Jesus also frequently shares God’s loving power by healing those who are sick – the Gospels are full of these stories.

Christian communities and leaders across the millennia have shared these commitments to fighting poverty and prejudice, and to healing.   It would be unthinkable for Christian communities to abandon these commitments.  They are not optional or marginal aspects of our faith.  

So now, with the knowledge that pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities, we believe that it is time for churches to assert their commitment to environmental justice – the arena where race, poverty and pollution overlap and create an ‘environmental apartheid” in which those who are least powerful breathe dirtier air, are exposed to more toxic chemicals, lack access to open space, eat nutrition-less food, and live sicker, shorter lives than their whiter, wealthier peers.  

Addressing environmental justice issues in churches can be challenging.  On their own, issues of race, poverty or pollution can be tough going.  Together, they force us to re-examine our understanding about the structures of our society, and to look carefully – and painfully – at who benefits and who is harmed by those structures.  But no matter how difficult, it is clear that this is the right thing to do.  Jesus calls us to faith that brings life not only to ourselves in the privacy of our own inner lives and homes – but to all of society, particularly those in greatest need.  Addressing environmental injustice is an important way that we can live out the public face of our faith, and help bring “abundant life” to more and more people.

We value and embrace differences; affirm, inspire and nurture faith in God