Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a revised version of a review that appeared in a recent issue of The Irish Edition, a publication based in Philadelphia, and in the newsletters of several groups I belong to. I seem to have forgotten to post it here.

Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.

In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes Pope Francis’smessage a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic container and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.

 

 

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Would Jesus Condition His Hair?

February 4, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 2 Comments
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If you read my previous post, the review of  Bryant Holsenbeck’s book on how to give up disposable plastics, you might have gotten the impression that my interest in the topic was theoretical.

Actually, it’s personal.

After the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last October, which clarified the dire climate situation we are in if we don’t change our ways, I decided that writing about all this isn’t enough. First of all, I decided to eat way less meat. That hasn’t been so hard. Our food co-op sells all kinds of bean burgers and tofu turkey. Some of it actually tastes good.

The other area that I decided demands behavior change was—you guessed it—plastics. For years I believed that since New York City picks up and “recycles” plastics, my extensive use of them didn’t really matter. Then I learned that a lot of the “recycled” plastics were being shipped to and landfilled in other countries, not recycled. And only 9% of disposable plastics ever get recycled in any case.

Some of the changes I undertook weren’t terribly hard: I stopped buying a tub of pre-washed mixed lettuces once or twice a week and instead bought, washed and sliced heads of lettuce. When I couldn’t find the salad dressing I wanted in glass, I made it myself. We began buying locally produced milk in glass bottles at the green market, though they cost twice as much as the milk in plastic bottles at the supermarket. The challenge with all of this, of course, is the inconvenience. How much time do I want to spend washing lettuce or making my own salad dressing? Notre Dame Philosopher Ken Sayre targets our obsession with convenience as a major cause of the environmental crisis.

The dimension of disposable plastic that’s more challenging has to do with health care, especially as a person gets older. My prescription medications all come in plastic bottles, and I have a hunch CVS isn’t likely to be switching to non-plastic containers any time soon. My receding gums require cleaning out with dental tape and an electric toothbrush, available only in plastic, and the mouthwash for my dry mouth doesn’t come in glass either.

Then there’s personal appearance. I was a fat, homely young person, and my appearance is important to me. I did stop buying make-up, but as for my hair…a friend in Australia l suggested that I wash my hair with bicarbonate of soda and condition it with cider vinegar. I freaked out at the very idea. I need my conditioner! As a Christian, I was ashamed: would Jesus condition his hair? In the midst of this ethical conundrum, I made the wonderful discovery of a company called Lush that produces shampoo, conditioner, and other personal care products in bar form. And they have four stores in Manhattan!!!

Bryant Holsenbeck’s advice in The Last Straw was a great help to me as I waded through all this: do what you can, she writes. Just keep at it.

But I then read something that took me a step farther than Holsenbeck’s sensible advice about reducing my use of disposable plastic. A January 21 article in The Guardian reported on a new global alliance of businesses that, in the face of the growing crisis of plastic waste around the world, has committed $1 billion over the next five years to reduce the amount of such waste and improve recycling. The largest signatories to the agreement, however, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Saudi Aramco and others, are at the same time investing multi-billions of dollars to build plastic production factories around the world, as fracked gas production cuts into crude oil profits. About 8 million tons of plastic waste continues to be dumped into the sea annually, “choking fish, destroying marine habitats, and entering the food chain.” The head of an environmental NGO focused on plastics said, “river and beach cleanups would not work” as long as there is a steady stream of new plastics being produced.

Neither, in and of themselves, will my efforts and those of Bryant Holsenbeck. Or as a logic professor once explained to be, these actions are “necessary but not sufficient.” Along with cutting back on our use of disposable plastics, we have to turn out onto the streets, and at politicians’ offices, and at board meetings, to demand real changes in the profit-making system that is driving the climate crisis. Jesus may not condition his hair, but I am fairly certain he expects strong political action from us on behalf of God’s threatened creation.

This blog post is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the February issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US, the women’s movement I’ve been involved in for fifty-four years.

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