Since the George H.W. Bush administration, Mustafa Ali has worked to reduce the violence that pollution and climate change wreak on marginalized, struggling communities. But last week, after 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office on Environmental Justice, he resigned. Ali said proposed deep budget cuts to EPA programs would dismantle his office, eliminate key grant programs and harm the people he serves.
“Each new administration has an opportunity to share what their priorities and values are,” Ali told Mother Jones. If the proposed cuts are an indication, the Trump administration and GOP-led Congress don’t value the safety of minority, poor and indigenous neighborhoods.
It feels hypocritical. Republican leaders tout their pro-life values, but want to kill off the Clean Water Rule that keeps children healthy. They call themselves Christians while attacking climate programs that attempt to reduce risks vulnerable populations face from extreme heat, flooding and air pollution. They prioritize pipelines above our water, our history and our livelihoods.
It’s hard to imagine Jesus putting the profits of a few above the needs of many. Why isn’t Ali’s work valued universally? How can environmentalism breach the political divide?
“I think conservation has largely failed to really capture the public imagination and to get underneath politics to something deeper,” said David Kurz, a Christian and Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, to an audience at the Religion and Ecology Summit last Friday in San Francisco.
Kurz later told me he feels like he lives in two worlds: a world of academia and a world of faith. Some of his environmental friends won’t set foot in church. Some of his Christian friends don’t understand his environmental work. There’s very little overlap in the things they discuss.
“I just rub against these broader, national political gridlock things,” he told me.
Kurz believes rooting environmentalism in Christian traditions can help breach this divide. He described the gospel’s power to transform movements. Christian social leaders, like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., invoked this power to abolish the United Kingdom’s participation in the slave trade and promote civil rights in the United States. Linking the environmental movement to Christian tradition might give it wings.
But Christian groups and religious leaders, like Pope Francis, already advocate for climate change policies, clean air and water. Almost two decades ago, Rev. Sally Bingham founded what would become the environmental nonprofit Interfaith Power and Light in San Francisco. Catholics and evangelicals strongly opposed the Dakota Access pipeline. If rooting environmentalism in Christian traditions were the only answer, Ali would still be at the EPA.
Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, a theological and social ethics professor, presented another idea at the summit. Speaking specifically about climate change, she also proposed reframing public discourse. But instead of tailoring the issue to specific groups, she advocated exposing the brutal realities of social inequality.
“The race and class dimensions are stark,” Moe-Lobeda told the audience. “Caused overwhelmingly by the world’s high-consuming people, climate change is wreaking death and destruction first and foremost on impoverished people who are, disproportionately, people of color.”
Moe-Lobeda urged us all — Trump supporters and liberal activists — to look at the way our consumption, choices and climate mitigation schemes hurt communities. She pointed to the crucial role religion plays in both exposing this truth and “igniting and sustaining hope in the face of unbearable realities that truth telling may reveal.” We need a slap in the face and a soft pillow to cry on.
But the slap doesn’t need to be hard or delivered by someone in the religious community. Simply by walking away, Ali conveyed a broader message underlying both Kurz and Moe-Lobeda’s talks. Environmentalism isn’t only about the science and burdensome regulations many Republicans distrust and hate. It’s also about children, families and neighborhoods.
Religion can certainly help the movement capture a wider audience. But environmentalists should emphasize this simple, unifying message again and again: We want to empower people.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.