Environmental Justice and the “Science” of Denial

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Only after the last tree has been cut down,
only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught,
only then will you learn that you cannot eat money
.”
— Cree Proverb

climate change protest

Protestors in Melbourne in 2009 share an important message on the climate crisis. Credit: Creative Commons/Takver

The White House recently released its National Climate Assessment that reported our global climate is, in fact, changing, and this is due primarily to human activity, in particular, the burning of fossil fuels. The Assessment investigated approximately 12,000 professional scientific journal papers on the topic of global climate change, and discovered that in the articles expressing a position on global warming, 97 percent fully authenticated both the reality of global warming and the certainty that humans are the cause.
Additional studies released since the White House report signaled the beginning of the depletion and ultimate total collapse of glaciers in Antarctica, which can continue to raise worldwide sea levels an additional 4 feet. This depletion is now irreversible.
What seems clear to the scientific community seems like science fiction to many key politicians, including Lamar Smith (R-TX), paradoxically the Chair of the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, who has been a perennial skeptic of human-produced climate change. He stated on the floor of the House:

“We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data.”

He quoted no sources, and his accusations were later proven false.

Previous Chair of the Committee, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) asserted that he does not have concerns about global warming, but, rather, he is “really more fearful of freezing,” even though, he mentioned, “I don’t have any science to prove that.” He went even further by stating that he did not “think we can control what God controls.”
Many on the anti-science political and theocratic Right (mis)quote scripture to justify human exploitation of the planet. For example, Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, questioned Barack Obama’s “theology” in an Ohio campaign stop on February 18, 2012 by asserting that Obama believes in “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”
The next day, when asked to explain his remarks on the CBS news program “Face the Nation” by moderator Bob Schieffer, Santorum responded that he was referring to “the radical environmentalists,” and by implication, placed Obama in this category. Santorum attacked the notion that “man is here to serve the Earth,” which he argued “is a phony ideal.” Santorum countered that idea, stating “We’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”
In yet another ill-conceived and executed Christian crusade, Santorum, with his publicly expressed literal biblical perspective, conjures up such passages as Genesis 1:26, which states:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'”
Also, Genesis 1:28: “God blessed [humans] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.'”
And, Genesis 9: “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.'”

And Santorum is certainly not alone among his Republican colleagues and electorate. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “A Deeper Partisan Divide over Global Warming,” found that 58 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats and 50 percent of Independents believed that global warming is mostly caused by human activity, while only 27 percent of Republicans believed this.
Among Democrats, those with higher educational levels – 75 percent with college degrees compared with 52 percent with less education – expressed the view that solid evidence has shown human activity largely as the cause of global warming. Opposed to the Democrats, however, educational levels of Republicans resulted in an inverse relationship in trusting the scientific evidence with only 19 percent of Republican college graduates compared with 31 percent with less education believing in the human connection to climate change.
Pew’s updated report in 2013 found that overall 67 percent of U.S. residents believe global warming is happening, but only 25 percent of Tea Party Republicans believe this.
How many more British Petroleum and Exxon Valdez oil spills, polluted and poisoned waterways and skies, dead lakes, clear cut forests, mine disasters, mutilated and scorched Earth, nuclear power plant accidents and meltdowns, toxic dumps and landfills, trash littered landscapes, extinct animal and plant species, encroachments on land masses by increasingly rising oceans and seas, and how many more unprecedented global climatic fluctuations will it take for the anti-science Republican party to put the health of the planet, and by extension the health of all Earth’s inhabitants, on the front burner, if you will, of policy priorities over the unquenchable lust for profits by corporate executives?
For a party claiming to stand as “pro-family,” what kind of legacy and what kind of future are they really bequeathing to our youth? For a party that claims to promote political conservatism and “traditional values,” what is more traditional and valuable than conserving and thus sustaining the Earth’s resources responsibly and equitably?
While differing marginally on specific issues, many Republicans march in lock-step to the drummer of conservative political and corporate dogma centering on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, including such tenets as reducing the size of the national government and granting more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatizing governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanently incorporating across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, advancing market driven and unfettered “free market” economics.
I ask, though, how “free” are we now as mining, oil, and lumber companies lobby to exploit the land, and as legislators grant corporations enormous tax breaks and subsidies? How “free” will we be if conservative Republicans succeed in abolishing the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Protection Agency, the US Department of Education, the US Department of Commerce, and other governmental agencies? How “free” will we be if conservative Republicans succeed in the US Congress with their threats to privatize our national parks, and to loosen environmental and consumer protections of all kinds?
In truth, the conservative Republican battle cry, seemingly coined by Sarah Palin, of “drill baby drill,” unfortunately is what the Obama administration has forwarded, resulting in significantly more domestic oil production than under the George W. Bush administration. This, however, is simply unsustainable since the US currently consumes approximately 20-25 percent of the oil produced worldwide, though we hold in the range of only 2 percent of planetary oil reserves.
Webster’s dictionary defines “Oppression” as a noun meaning “the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” on the individual/interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels. Human treatment of the environment certainly falls under this definition. As opposed to “oppression,” I define “social justice” as the concept that local, national, and global communities functioningwhere everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordination.”
This concluding phrase is of prime importance, for when humans place themselves into “hierarchical positions of domination and subordination,” environmental degradation inevitably results. This is no different in a US context from other hierarchies of power and privilege: White people over People of Color, men over women, rich over working class and poor, heterosexuals over homosexuals and bisexuals, cisgender people over transgender people, able-bodied people over people with disabilities, native-born English speakers over immigrant linguistic minorities, adults of a certain age over youth and over seniors, Christians over members of all other religious and spiritual communities as well as over non-believers, and the spokes on the oppression wheel continue to trample over people and over our environment.
A non-regulated privatized so-called “free-market” economic system lacking in environmental protections is tantamount to a social system deficient of civil and human rights protections for minorities.
If people wish to quote scripture, they would do well to heed biblical warnings, such as Isaiah 24: 4-6:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languished and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth lies under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statues, and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.”

 
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).