Yesterday I was leading a Sunday school discussion of environmental justice. A
social worker pointed out the high
incidence of cancer in neighbors of the industrial area known as Rubbertown
in west Louisville. Others brought up radiation
poisoning in Afghanistan from U.S. weapons, the problem of products (classically,
lead paint, asbestos, and DDT) becoming widely used before their dangers are
known, the deregulation pressure from industries that profit from pollution,
the difficulty of knowing the sources of what we purchase.
was concerned; everyone felt helpless. What we knew, based on Scripture’s many
calls to justice, was that the poor should not bear the burden of pollution in
their bodies so that consumers can enjoy cheap products and investors can increase
wealth they don’t need.
a group of caring Christians who get it. And yet, as we talked, frustrations bristled.
We know ourselves to be caught in webs of environmental injustice. We suspect that
our awareness of this only scratches the surface of our unintended compliance.
Dr. Kristen Shrader-Frechette has
become my go-to-guru on environmental toxins. She is a public health and
environmental ethicist who teaches both biology and philosophy at Notre Dame
University and directs the Center
for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health. In her 2007 book Taking
Action, Saving Lives: Our Duties to Protect Environmental and Public Health,
she lays out the daunting health statistics linked to industrial pollutants. Then
she makes the personal connection: People who enjoy benefits from what causes
illness and death to others have a moral responsibility to demand better of our
government and our corporations. We can’t think of it as charity, but as the
price we pay for the products we use.
advocates a small-wins approach: taking the time to become informed, and working
with others to plan and carry out sustained efforts for incremental change. Seeing
small successes builds resilience in citizens, confidence that we can change
the way things are, she says. Citizen groups in the past have changed both laws
and practices regarding DDT,
CFCs, and the particulate
air pollution that once engulfed our cities. We can influence the future.
graduate school long ago I read about “the anxiety of
influence”—that is, the worry among poets and other artists that their work
is derivative, not original, influenced by predecessors whose work they can
never outclass, as if anything under the sun could be truly original.
is a different anxiety of influence: how can we, individuals in a sea of seven
billion others, hope to create a world in which we can make confident choices, or
even dress ourselves and drive to buy a tube of toothpaste without fretting
over—or closing our eyes to—the sources of the clothes, the car, the petroleum,
the toothpaste and the tube? No wonder we are anxious; no wonder we throw up
our hands, block it all out, and watch TV.
thought a great deal about this problem of influence. What good does it do, on
meaningful scale, if I meticulously minimize my purchasing, recycle the
endless stream of containers, ride my bike to the store in secondhand shoes, mix
my own cleaning products, teach classes, and attend Sierra Club rallies, if I
am not at all sure I can influence those closest to me, let alone the U. S.
government and a hundred powerful corporations?
in church pondering these questions, I remembered something else from graduate
school—in fact, I had written my
dissertation on this very thing: The power in influence is not in its
exertion, but in its appropriation by others.
energy in the “influence exchange,” we might say, is not in the influencer, but
in the ones who notice what someone else is saying and doing. Humans are chronic
imitators and derivers. We are all looking for a better way, and we look to one
another for models. By the time we notice that we’ve changed, we may be unable to
trace the sources. In fact, we may not even notice that our perspective has
shifted, along with our actions, since the influence is not experienced as
pressure from without, but as inspiration from within.
why we rarely feel effective as change agents. We rarely see the extent of what
we’ve wrought in others. How many times have I heard students echoing my exact
words months later as if they had thought them up themselves? How many times
have they echoed these same words when I wasn’t there to hear them?
their book The Gardens of
Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
(whose title is almost longer than the book itself), Eric
Liu and Nick Hanauer claim that individuals possess far more influence than
we know. They say, and demonstrate, that “society becomes how you behave”:
the quantum level up, we are far more interdependent than our politics and
culture generally let us think. We are at all times both cause and effect. Our
mirror neurons and evolved social rites mean that how we behave influences how
others behave, and how they behave influences us (34).
acts, tiny everyday choices, accrue and compound into tipping points…. Tiny
acts of responsibility are replicated, scale upon scale, and thus every act is
inherently an act of leadership—either in a pro-social or anti-social way
are hopeful words. So why don’t we feel effective? I think it is because
the influence we notice is rarely what we ourselves generate. Rather, it’s what
the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, he said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me, ” as if he were surprised (Luke 8:46). Didn’t he know power was going out with every word and deed? Perhaps not. His job was only to carry out his calling with integrity. So is ours. He didn’t give up, hopeless as his tasks of healing, teaching, and leading seemed. And because of this, his influence has changed the world for another sixty generations since he last said, “It is finished.”
doubt,” said Margaret Mead so famously. “Never doubt.” It bears
repeating: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed
citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And, added Reinhold Niebuhr,
“nothing worth doing is completed in
our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.”
We don’t get to see the sequoias we plant grow old. But someone else
will. If we go ahead and plant them, that is.