Environmental Justice in Faith Communities
By Rachel Lea Scott
People of faith have an important role to play in advancing environmental and climate justice in their local communities. One recent example can be seen in Los Angeles, California, where faith leaders and other people of faith recently stood in solidarity with frontline community members in calling on the city to enforce the same health and safety protections for people living near the Murphy Drill Site in south LA that they do for residents in other, wealthier areas of the city.
When thinking about why it was important that people of faith joined a community event like a teach-in, Richard Parks, president and founder of Redeemer Community Partnership in Los Angeles, thought of the prophet Jeremiah. Richard conceptualized part of the message of Jeremiah is that “God is looking for people to stand in the gaps; those places of vulnerability.” He elaborated that showing up to stand in a place of vulnerability, in solidarity with residents in south LA, is a powerful witness. It is a concrete way to show love for our neighbors.
In Los Angeles, the city has been enforcing health and safety protections for folks in the whiter, wealthier area of west LA for decades. Yet, residents of south LA have faced continual exclusion from protection. For many years, concerned residents, community groups, and environmental justice leaders (such as those from Redeemer Community Partnership and others in the Stand-LA coalition) have been advocating for the wellbeing of their neighbors by urging the city to enforce protections from harm equitably. They have called on the city to update the permit for the Murphy Drill Site to require enclosure of the site, the use of electric workover rigs rather than diesel, and the use of electric utility power instead of burning methane onsite for their generator. These are provisions already in place in other areas of the city.
On February 28, residents received great news from the city. In their notice of determination, the city ordered the drilling company to enclose and electrify the Murphy Drill Site! This is a tremendous step towards better health outcomes and reducing harmful emissions. The concerns and demands of local residents were finally heeded.
We join with the community of south LA in celebrating this decision from the City of Los Angeles. We also know that there are other communities across the country that continue to suffer from the harmful impacts of fossil fuel extraction and environmental racism.
Here are a few ways we can think about working for environmental justice from the lens and values of religious traditions. First, we can lean into a call to speak out against injustice. It is unjust that the City of LA was not enforcing the same protections and safety measures for residents who are breathing the air near the Murphy Drill Site that they do for residents in west LA. Kids playing on playgrounds in south LA deserve to breathe clean air, just like kids in any other part of the city.
When we ground ourselves in the moral truths and courage of a faith tradition, we can infuse the lenses of love and justice into policy conversations. We can help decision makers to keep justice, community participation, and human dignity at the center of their discussions. We can raise important questions such as: “who is being harmed by this decision and how can we protect those folks from harm?”, “who is being left out?”, “who should be at the table to collaborate in order to find an equitable solution that protects human health and rights?”
We should question why is it that fossil fuel infrastructure continues to be sited in low-income communities and communities of color. Why do these communities get left out of enforcement of existing requirements and laws that are intended to reduce the harmful impacts of polluting infrastructure? As people of faith, we can, and must, call this injustice out clearly and courageously.
If you live in a community that is not plagued by high levels of air pollution, your voice is needed in a unique way: your community may be benefiting from the power that is generated in an overburdened community, or your trash might be incinerated in a low-income community on the other end of your state. You can tell your state and local lawmakers why you believe that the inequitable distribution of risks and benefits must be addressed. If you are white or benefit from some other privilege, your voice is needed in a unique way too: you can leverage the safety and access that your whiteness or other privilege affords you to call out those acting unjustly, and to demand protections and rights for vulnerable members of your community or state. Look for opportunities to listen directly to folks who are most impacted by environmental racism, and then use your platform to amplify their asks of decision makers or turn your platform over to someone to share their own story.
Second, the Catholic Social Teaching principle of preferential option for the poor is a useful framework for thinking about a faithful response to injustice, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This is the principle that says that God loves everyone – all of creation – but has a special love for and commitment to those who are poor and most vulnerable. We can follow this example by embracing a commitment to stand in solidarity with communities most impacted by environmental injustice, affirming their humanity or the importance of their health, and doing what we can to amplify their voices so that decision makers hear their concerns, ideas, and wisdom.
A third helpful framework for a faithful response to environmental injustice is “prophetic imagination,” a concept from theologian Walter Brueggemann. People of faith can articulate a vision of justice, of wholeness, of a society in which people have what they need to live a healthy and safe life, in a really profound way. This type of prophetic visioning is critically important in our journey to justly transition to renewable energy and meet US and global climate goals. What would a truly just transition look like to you? Share that vision with your local leaders. Imagining a healthier, more equitable way forward is the first step to creating a world in which everyone can thrive.
Think about what steps your faith community can take to move closer to the vision of a more just world and talk to the leaders in your house of worship about what you could help implement within your own community. Is there a local environmental justice group organizing a teach-in, like in Los Angeles about the Murphy Drill Site, that you could support? What issues are currently being discussed by your city council?
Common within many faith traditions is a call to care for creation. Caring for creation includes caring for both ecological and human health. It is about protecting the quality of air, water, and soil that is needed for human survival and flourishing. It means standing firm in our love for and commitment to those who are most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities, and working for the protection of their rights and overall wellbeing. Out of our belief that every person has inherent worth and dignity, let’s join with others in standing up for the basic human rights to breathe clean air, drink clean water and have a safe, healthy, stable place to live.