At a local environmental action meeting I attended not long ago, I was surprised and encouraged by the diverse grassroots efforts at stewardship taking place all around me. There was a ten-year old boy at the podium who spoke of his passion for rescuing animals and caring for their welfare, while his mom on the same dais spoke of how their family decided to live without air conditioning in their Upper West Side Manhattan apartment as part of an effort to cut down on energy consumption—they went so far as to remove their radiators, take down walls, and renounce take out food for home cooked, healthy local meals that they ate together. None of the topics spoken about that day, however, fascinated me as much as the fact that our meeting took place at a synagogue lunch that featured a panel comprised of the Shul’s environmental action committee. The people in attendance felt that spirituality, sustainability and family time were interwoven. I’d had no idea the extent to which people’s spiritual identity could provide the bridge to their desire to live more sustainably.
Another panelist, a founder of the Shul’s Environmental Action group, was proud of the new, more efficient lighting system in the synagogue, and shared with us how he had traded in his city job to start Green Boroughs, an organization that promotes everything green in New York City, from leading walking tours to educating youth, to collaborating with businesses. For him, spiritual quest overlapped with the search for more meaningful work, and he met his wife in the process too.
At a recent conference at a local college “Nature, Ecology, and Society,” I learned about The Bronx Environmental Stewardship Program out of the environmental justice organization Sustainable South Bronx. This project is spirited and pragmatic: it offers “green collar” job training to a population that lives in the South Bronx, an area with a history of environmental and social degradation, and job placement with follow up in areas such as brownfields restoration, ecological and dwelling repairs, and horticultural testing and identification. The residents of this place will be part of an increasingly diversified and inspired social movement.
I was seeing it everywhere—how people’s spirituality, personal passions, and political commitments were converging. That convergence was affecting me in ways that were intensely personal as well. I became a scholar of literature and film that engages with environmental justice concerns after my experience of 9/11—I live a few blocks from where the World Trade Center used to stand. I have seen friends and neighbors traumatized by the aftermath, even if there is the appearance of business as usual. The experience though, has energized many of us to go beneath the surface of what happened here and what is happening all over in terms of environmental, social, spiritual, and political interconnections. It turns out that this productive connection between activism, spirit and the contested meaning of nature and commerce has a long history in the United States.
Many of our earliest “nature” writers relied on religious images to evoke the higher power of God and the universe to rouse the masses. John Muir, who led a crusade to preserve Yosemite Valley in 1871, called the diverse species of U.S. trees, “Lordly monarchs, proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles.” He described the forests of the Pacific as “towering serene through the long centuries, preaching God’s forestry fresh from heaven.”
Scottish-born, Muir came from a religious family, but his passion was in pointing out the foolishness of American destruction in the name of commerce, calling for the government to protect the forests from mismanagement of our great resources, sounding like a fire and brimstone preacher in his pulpit, but using a rhetoric I am sure would have resonated with many in his day.
For Aldo Leopold, a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast who is considered by many as the father of wildlife management, the idea of the need for a land ethic is based at least in part on the idea of the Mosaic Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, which deals with an ethical contract between humans and society, handed down by God. This land ethic, which we have failed to enact, would mean there is an obligation to care for land and that goes beyond seeing it as private property, and beyond the sense of dominion over land and animals that’s mentioned in Genesis. It is a kind of stewardship, or sense of responsibility to honor land and keep it accessible and pristine. We would need to look beyond economic motive to truly value what Henry David Thoreau called the best part of the land—that which is not private property—that which is the wildest.
Live, Work, Pray and Play
It seems many of us have wandered far from truly integrating into our lives the pristine sense of the wild and are now engaged with another type of yearning. In our cities, environmental justice activists and artists find connections to their cultural and spiritual traditions in claiming that what counts as environment is where we live, work, pray and play. Those who live in degraded urban communities, in barrios, and on reservations, are forming a social movement that is comprised of many women and people of color, who find spiritual traditions and local traditions are an important part of their activism and desire for bringing together environmental and social justice issues.
The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a grassroots environmental justice organization in the Roxbury section of Boston, made a film “Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street” about their struggles and success in eventually gaining the right to eminent domain to reclaim the vacant lots where trash had been dumped and houses burned by absentee owners seeking insurance money. Their local church was a meeting ground and minister was one of the leaders of the struggle, and although the community is African American, Latino, White and Cape Verdean, they prayed together as they cleaned up their neighborhood, holding vigils to keep out drug dealers, planting trees, and forming a youth committee to make sure the voices of the next generation were a part of the ongoing work.
Like the Dudley Street Initiative, environmental justice is often born out of personal experience or exposure to toxicity, but its heart is in a holistic sense of justice that incorporates the realities of policies, politics and compromise. Let’s hope our spiritual institutions will become places from which we can find the support to become stewards of our local areas. Charity, after all, begins at home.