What vision are we pursuing?
I recently had the immense pleasure of joining thousands of climate leaders in a global training to address climate change. It was truly inspiring seeing leaders from various backgrounds across the United States come together to figure out how we can all work together to address the most important issues facing humanity. But, throughout the event, I kept wondering what we were pursuing, not abstractly but concretely. Even when we pursue environmental justice, I often feel like our perceptions of justice vary greatly. Are we trying to simply mitigate acute harm, like closing a chemical plant that is poisoning humans? Does justice need to incorporate the idea of reparations for nonhuman life and the land, which conflicts with the idea of progressive economic prosperity? Is there really a “we” in the environmental movement?
Depending on our vision of the future, individuals and groups are going to prioritize certain outcomes and sacrifice others. This inconvenient truth is one of the primary challenges to a unified response to climate change even within a single nation, let alone globally. As an Appalachian who has witnessed chemical companies from around the world flooding West Virginia because West Virginians are not economically able to reject the harms that coincide with trading health for survival, I wonder about the costs of the visions we are pursuing in environmental justice. When Parkersburg WV traded jobs and a new high school to DuPont in exchange for a chemical plant that produced C8, causing birth defects and cancer for many Appalachians, was the vision of nonstick pans for wealthy communities worth the lives of Appalachians? Or conversely, are the lives of lithium miners in Chile worth a battery driven dream of carbon neutrality for individuals in the United States? I do not think so. And I do not think the miners have a fair seat at the table.
The Green New Deal, Paris Accord, and economic solutions to climate change are predicated on a vision of the future that asks far too little from wealthy nations and costs far too much for poorer people, much like the initial effects of climate change we are witnessing. And it is fundamentally incompatible with reality for individuals, like myself, in wealthy nations to believe that they can continue their current lifestyles while truly seeking climate justice. Humans might be able to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the point where we do not go extinct, while maintaining certain individuals’ lifestyles, but that process will not remotely resemble justice. Instead, it will be a continuation of long-held colonialist domination that has become hallmark modern neoliberal capitalism. In these situations, phrases like “just transition” become Orwellian double-speak because we cannot remove the reality that technology requires extraction of land, labor, and ultimately life.
On the other hand, there are real solutions to climate change and environmental justice that are truly just and do not require exploitation. Instead, they require wealthy individuals to turn away from the god of instantaneous satisfaction – the god of consumption. We do not need to wholesale reject the goods of technological advancement. There is no need to throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water. But study after study have shown that humans’ affluence-driven consumption rates are the actual barrier to addressing our ecological problems, not a lack of technology. Foundationally, our ecological crises are not simply failures or gaps in policies and resources, but they are crises in courage, sacrifice, and leadership.
Our faith communities have a long history of addressing these crises, across cultures and societies. For the environmental movement to thrive, we do not simply need faith communities to accept the scientific realities of environmental degradation. We also need our scientific and business communities to find the wisdom of our faith traditions. Solutions to problems can be found in helping folks change their actions for the benefit of the many instead of the desires of the individual. In fact, these are the only solutions that are going to work in a way that is just. I just hope we have the vision to see it.
 Taylor Sisk, “A Lasting Legacy: DuPont, C8 Contamination and the Community of Parkersburg Left to Grapple with the Consequences - EHN,” Environmental Health News, 2020, https://www.ehn.org/dupont-c8-parkersburg-2644262065/particle-6.  Amit Katwala, “The Spiralling Environmental Cost of Our Lithium Battery Addiction | WIRED UK,” Wired, May 8, 2018, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact.  Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, “Is Green Growth Possible?,” New Political Economy 25, no. 4 (June 6, 2020): 469–86, https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964; Thomas Wiedmann et al., “Scientists’ Warning on Affluence,” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (December 1, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y.