“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself. … Who is my neighbor? … The one who treated him with compassion” (Luke 10:27, 29. 37).
“Today, … we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (#49 Laudato Si’, Pope Francis).
Food, water and energy are central to our existence, and are not infinite. However, in the U.S. we have one of the largest ecological footprints in the world. Estimates suggest that if everyone lived like average U.S. citizens, approximately four planets would be needed to sustain our lifestyle. Creation belongs to God, not us. As human beings, created in the image of God, living in the community of the wider world, we all have a responsibility to save creation/our ecosystems so that all may have their needs met.
Therefore, when our ecological footprint places a burden on Earth and on some people in particular, then environmental justice is necessary. This justice attempts to overcome those structures that are instrumental in creating climate change and depriving especially certain groups of their needs.
In June 2015, Pope Francis released a ground-breaking and challenging letter, Laudato Si’, linking the cries of Earth with the cries of her people. In it he addresses the whole human family, drawing upon the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, commitment to society, justice for the poor, and interior peace” (LS #10). Many other Christian traditions express the same vision.
For decades, the United Church of Christ has been speaking of “environmental racism” with regard to what is happening to poor neighborhoods, often communities of Black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans, in the form of pollution and lack of environmental protections.
Anthony “Van” Jones states that “the root of the problem is the idea of disposability.” As a consumer society which promotes buying and selling for profit, we get caught in the trap of buying and disposing of things to buy more things, becoming a “disposable society.” Consequently we “trash” the planet, putting trash and recyclables in places we perceive as having no value, places which belong to people of color and of different cultures. Their neighborhoods are often burdened with pollution from industries, garbage and chemical dumps. They ingest toxic chemicals derived from oil refineries, and the production and recycling of plastic products, resulting in higher rates of respiratory illness and cancer. “Redlining” keeps them in these areas, compromising their health, while climate gentrification slowly displaces poor populations with a more affluent (usually white) population. These are injustices.
Because disposability corrupts our society, we are morally challenged to reach out beyond our comfort zones. Pope Francis says: “In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan. Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside” (#67, Fratelli Tuti)
An essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity is that we were all created by God with dignity, out of love to love. There is no love without justice. Justice with love is the foundation of all religions. Justice underlies our call to love our neighbor. So if there is injustice in the way we engage the environment in the face of certain groups of people, then there is a need to engage in environmental justice.
Source: Fratelli Tuti, Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship, Oct. 3, 2020, Pope Francis