Naturalist Diane Ackerman narrates the fate of a Yup’ik settlement on the western coast of Alaska: “Any day now the whole village and neighboring indigenous communities could begin sinking into the melting permafrost, as if it were white quicksand.” Their options? Well, U.S. and international laws define refugees as “fleeing violence, war or persecution;” federal disaster relief grants money to repair infrastructure in place, not to relieve personal suffering. The state? In 1958 the Alaskan government mandated that to build a school the Yup’ik had to choose a site at “the farthest point upriver that a Bureau of Indian Affairs barge could navigate.” Now the Yup’ik must find somewhere to go with only vague state assistance in building a new community. Otherwise, as Ackerman writes, they will “join the realm of polar bears and narwhals in rich seams of Eskimo lore,” absorbed into towns and cities, economically disenfranchised, enduring traumatic cultural adjustment.
The winters of 2014 and 2015 brought unseasonable warmth to Alaska. With ice forming later and melting earlier, fishing and hunting may be very lean again this year.
Ackerman’s imagery stirred to memory words from Dr. Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: “Slow violence – a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence typically not viewed as violence at all. It shapes our inattention to calamities that are slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans -- and outside the purview of a spectacle-driven corporate media.”
Slow violence – climate change.
Perhaps we do not imagine the looming future. We’re facing intersections of ecological and climate justice -- communities shaped in “the human age” as we lurch down one of two paths: one continuing to hurtle through such intersections, the other those caught in the middle -- people, plants and animals “…who have done the least to contribute to our surging crisis, facing the most threatening consequences.”
In bed tonight, lie very still and listen carefully. Murmurs of slow violence creep across the night air. Waking to this truth and engaging it is, to me, at the core of being Unitarian Universalist.
Yes, it’s complicated and challenging. News flickers around us about changes unfolding in Earth’s environment: Antarctic ice sheets melting, Siberian methane potholes forming, atmospheric CO2 topping 400 and on and on. What are we slouching towards and will we survive?
To begin to understand our world, let’s unpack slow violence.
First, climate change outsources violence on a vast scale -- temporal and geographical. Shredding our planet’s life-sustaining envelope, it’s mitigated only through deep commitment to safeguarding Earth remote from us in both space and time. We’re called to actively value all life forms 30, 50, 100, even 1,000 years from now.
Second, what does it mean to re-imagine humanity as a force powerful enough to transform Earth’s very strata? Asking that question might reframe our understanding of human responsibility not only towards our own species, but the whole planet. Climate change is a critical indicator of our alarming, often reckless morphological power.
Third, this incubus has been haunting us for over two generations as most so-called leaders run the other way. Yes, we’re called to confront the foundations of modern industrial society. Unnoticed, slow violence steers the back edges of a host of environmental crises underway: species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the ocean, and on and on. Might we find ways to reshape these facts, to begin reimagining and restoring this fragile planet?
Fourth, it is customary to speak about problems with “the environment” and economic inequality as if they were abstract issues separate from us. But these problems are deep inside us -- in how we relate to the non-human world, to each other, and how we structure institutions -- all notes threaded through our 7th Principle.
Fifth, environmental stresses sharpen as food prices rise and production falters -- added challenges given widespread hunger on a hemorrhaging Earth, much of it due to either wars or distribution systems. And current climate models are not encouraging.
And sixth, from global marketing experience, some will revolt against the same things they have revolted against in the past: injustices in the system. Roman Catholic Pope Francis recently told a meeting of Latin American landless peasants: “Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysm you are suffering.” Affected by higher temperatures, long droughts punctuated by intense rainfall, more resilient pests and plant diseases -- events tied to a one degree average temperature rise in coffee growing areas -- barren trees have put people out of work and led to many of the parentless children crossing our border with Mexico.
Responses to such events typically focus on authoritarianism and threats against the poor, but they’re only attempts to keep a lid on what's already boiling over. The more humane answer: find ways to turn down the heat. To quote editorialist Bill Maxwell: “To start, we must care about one another.”
In Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor writes, “…religious liberals have been influential advocates for social reform at least since … the early nineteenth century.” Given that the world we are already facing must be met head-on, we should acknowledge Rasor’s language that we are called to be influential advocates, urged to step into the public square.
Grounding this idea is Jeffrey Lockwood of the University of Wyoming in his article Less More, Please at uuworld.org: “Solutions to the world’s environmental problems may not require more of us, but less. We may be required to ask deeper questions rather than seek wider answers…but there is more of one thing that could solve many problems -- humility.”
Acknowledging our contrition, what might we do? Let’s begin by engaging important and effective resources.
Rooted in the calling Waitstill and Martha Sharp undertook in 1939, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, or UUSC, has for 75 years been a critical component of Unitarian Universalist life. Advancing human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures, and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies, UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights. Today is an annual UUSC advocacy and fundraising event, usually known as Justice Sunday. But, understanding the changing world we face, Earth’s dependence on water, and recognizing the inequalities and human rights challenges communities will have to deal with as slow violence marches on, today is Climate Justice Sunday.
On this planet, water is life. Without it, nothing flourishes. Even deep ecologists such as myself recognize that my beloved Florida is wholly dependent on water. Whether standing in reverence as my garden receives a gracious drink from the sky or edging through cattail north of Brahma Island, I merge with life itself. But climate change, by effecting regional rainfall amounts, creating heat stress events, and rearranging large-scale weather patterns, threatens waters I’ve always known like the back of my hand.
In this environment, UUSC works to advance the human right to safe, sufficient and affordable water in countries from the Americas and Africa to Asia -- and has significant ongoing efforts in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala. Their small staff is engaged in research to drafting law and policy, supporting civil society organizations in campaigns and litigation, and advocating with national and international human rights institutions. Their technical assistance in shareholder advocacy efforts has resulted in the first human-right-to-water policies at major U.S. corporations, including PepsiCo, Intel, Connecticut Water, and Proctor and Gamble. UUSC staff also played a key role in passage of legislation guaranteeing human water rights in California, and are actively engaged in dealing with massive water shutoff rates in Detroit, one of our most economically-challenged cities.
To me, given current projections, their work on this issue is just beginning. Many climate models suggest several western states could be entering a period of extended drought events. Meanwhile we’re witnessing overuse and depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of water for wheat belt states; and Florida – my Florida! – already has more homes platted for development than it can provide water. Meanwhile, decreasing snowfalls in the Himalayas could threaten Bangladesh, India and China – or worse, start international wars.
All of which convinces me UUSC’s commitment to responding to slow violence is critical, that it becomes more important every day, and we best help ourselves and others to become engaged in supporting this effort. Today, on “blue bucket” Climate Justice Sunday, we must stand up for this cause.
And you need to be aware UUSC is engaged in an emerging, unprecedented coalition. The most diverse array of Unitarian Universalist groups ever brought to one table has come together in Commit2Respond -- “People of faith and conscience taking action for Climate Justice.” Launched at the People's Climate March in New York City this past September, Commit2Respond unites a number of Unitarian Universalist organizations in multi-year work. We commit to join together to SHIFT to a lower carbon future, ADVANCE the human rights of affected communities, and GROW the climate justice movement. Together we will expand partnerships and deepen collective impact. We recognize the role inequality plays in current crises, where marginalized communities are often first to experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Yet never forget: no one will be untouched. As British social critic Raymond Williams put it: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” We must address our inherent challenge: to overcome cynicism and hopelessness, and to quicken many possible alternatives awaiting our creativity.
And what might we here do, personally? Well, we can further systemic changes in our communities by influencing local policy and planning. We can begin building alliances and coalitions with diverse stakeholders to help create appropriate conditions of possibility. Mindful of lurking slow violence, we can discover in both ourselves and other faith communities strength and courage to resist and begin dismantling structural elements, practices and vested interests perpetuating challenges to our water supplies. Bit by bit, relationship by relationship, we can work to put in place the building blocks of a new future, and start transforming our communities into more just and sustainable places.
We can survive what Diane Ackerman would call “understanding our rude evolutionary infancy,” growing into responsible, caring adults without losing innocence, playfulness, or a sense of wonder. But first we must recognize that we are a very young species, blessed and cursed by our prowess. Truly empowering this understanding requires we see with the widest vision, recognizing that every step forward is rooted in the ground beneath our feet -- that we and Earth are one, that this is our home, and that to continue to destroy this world digs a deep grave. Rather than filling our days with slow violence, plundering and stomping about Earth, we must root ourselves in commitment to UUSC’s vision of a world free from oppression and injustice, then begin to re-establish our natural place, working together to restore and hand forward a living, breathing planet -- a fuller, more diverse, more complete home amongst the stars.
This is holy work. It is who we are called to be. In hope and wonder, amen and blessed be.
SLOW VIOLENCE: Commit2Respond, a sermon by Robert Keim, chaplain, UU Church In The Pines, delivered at 1stUUPPB on April 3, 2015.