By Shea Howell
Sept 3 – 10 – 2011
I drove through the beginning of Hurricane Irene on my way home to Detroit from Maine. I have spent many years in the Adirondack Mountains and seen storms come up the coast and into the Hudson Valley. But I have never seen anything like the power of the water unleashed in this storm.
As I pulled onto the entrance ramp of I-90 before dawn of the day the storm I had to dodge light poles that had fallen over onto the road. The earth was simply too soggy and soft to bear their weight. A bit further down the interstate, jets of water were shooting out of the high rock face, pounding on the pavement below. Concrete crumbled opening new rivers down the mountains where there had once been roadbeds.
I was glad to get back to Detroit where the National Environmental Justice conference hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency had just concluded. Delegates there were worried about getting to their homes as the storm approached.
The Environmental Justice Task Force of the Detroit City Council had welcomed the gathering with a strong agenda for the 21st Century, including a statement of principles for guiding efforts to protect and restore our earth. The principles stated:
• The government and society are responsible to make work available to people who are willing and able to do it.
• We seek adoption and implementation of alternative economic models, based on principles of solidarity, the commons and redefining work to fulfill all of our lives, rather than to enrich a few privileged and extraordinarily empowered groups and entities.
• The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s recognition of water as a human right support our communities’ rights to live in clean, healthy, and just environments.
• Applying the precautionary principle to protect our most vulnerable from unknown, potentially severe risks is essential for our communities.
• Land use and economic development policies, programs and activities should be integrated with the principles and goals of Environmental Justice.
The gathering also honored lifelong Detroit Activist Grace Lee Boggs and University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant. Both have been central thinkers in the development of environmental justice.
While the storm was gathering power and activists met in Detroit, another group of activists had gathered at the White House for a two week long sit in to ask President Obama to stop the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The pipeline is intended to carry oil from Canada through the mid west to the Gulf of Mexico.
The potential for disastrous leaks in pipelines is all too vivid for those of us in Michigan who are still dealing with the spill along the Kalamazoo River.
These protests have received little national attention in the mainstream media. Instead the stories of Irene have dominated.
As Amy Goodman of Democracy Now points out, most of the mainstream coverage has avoided the use of two words, “global warming.” None links global warming, Hurricane Irene and issues of environmental justice together.
But they are all part of a larger connection that we can no longer avoid. We have created a way of life that is destroying the earth. Like the light pole on the road, things are toppling over. A society based on mass consumption and the exploitation of fossil fuels is not sustainable.
Each new scheme to extract more and more from the earth to meet our ever-expanding wants becomes more dangerous to life.
Those of us in cities built during the age of industry where the earth was shaped and bent for human use have the responsibility of forging new ways of living in harmony with the earth. These new ways begin with the first principle, to live more simply so that others may live.