Art by Ricardo Levins Morales

We have become very accustomed to poison. We’re poisoning ourselves and each other; poisoning the sky, land, and water; and poisoning some communities more than others based upon their relative-wealth and skin color. Babies are exposed to industrial poisons in the wombs of their mothers before they even have their first breath of air.

 We have countless ways to poison and exploit one another, and countless ways to justify, ignore, or excuse it. It’s baked into our systems. It is taking lives every day. And we struggle to imagine other ways of being and how we might get there.

It seems to me that humanity’s widespread willingness to poison and exploit people and places regularly and discriminately is a root cause of our global social & ecological crises.

Where does this willingness come from? If we, if our ancestors, had not been so willing to poison and be poisoned — to exploit and be exploited — would the climate crisis even exist today?

This is why we need a moral revival for environmental justice.

For collective liberation, for the restoration of Life on Earth, we must end this toxic complacency, willfull ignorance, and ongoing injustice in human behavior. We must grow a spiritual discontent and unwillingness to continue poisoning this Earth and its people.

We are not fated to be this way. “Human nature” is not some tragic, monolithic, unchangeable thing — It’s highly adaptable and responsive to environmental and cultural contexts.

It’s not “human nature” to poison and be poisoned, exploit and be exploited like this… It’s cultural. It’s something we can change if we can get to the root of why we do this and dismantle those conditions.

Some folks reading this might be thinking, “Not me! Not my ancestors! This mess is on y’all…” and that might be true. Thank God, Goddess, and goodness for all of the resisters, healers, caretakers, and civilizations out there less poison-happy than mine/ours.

I suppose that the thread of each person’s ancestry, belief system, and life experience will affect the way they answer this question:

Why are people so willing to poison and be poisoned — exploit and be exploited?

It’s obviously a very complicated question. But it’s been this way for generations and generations… surely the legacies of colonial imperialism, the Doctrine of Discovery, chattel slavery, classism, racism and white supremacy have a lot to do with it. That’s a lot to uproot…

This link is starkly obvious in Cancer Alley, along the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, where communities are totally surrounded by petrochemical plants, refineries, factories, and drill sites.

Source: EJSCREEN – Green dots = drilling sites, Red dots = refineries, Pink dots = power plants

What is now Cancer Alley, or the Chemical Corridor, was all sugarcane plantations fueled by the TransAtlantic slave trade back in the day.

Source: Norman’s chart of the Lower Mississippi River by Adrien Persac (1858). Reprint by the Zoe Company (2013), Laura Plantation, Vacherie, Louisiana.

Many of the freed slaves from this era continued to live here along the river — not knowing that their descendants would be inundated with dozens of carcinogens in their air and water as many of the former plantation properties were sold to petrochemical industries.

St. James Parish is one of many predominantly Black communities in Cancer Alley. Earlier this week, I drove past many of these big, old plantation houses to attend a moral revival in St. James, hosted by Rise St. James and the New Poor People’s Campaign.

St James is rising up — they are saying “NO! We are not willing to be posioned and exploited!”

Sharon Lavigne, the founder of Rise St. James, kicked off the moral revival and told us the story of how she prayed to God for guidance — Should I sell my home? Should I leave this poisonous place? — and the voice of God in her heart said “stay and fight”. The next day, she founded Rise St. James and began bringing together her community to fight for environmental justice.

The speakers at the moral revival lamented about children playing in places in areas with astronomical rates of toxic chemicals, about a waste pit of radioactive water that may breach soon, companies refusing to admit that there’s a problem, politicians failing to help, and about a new massive Formosa Plastics facility slated to be built soon.

Rev. Dr. William Barber asked the crowd gathered “what are you willing to do if they are killing your children? It might be that you all are going to have to decide to take yourselves, go in that Statehouse, refuse to leave — if they arrest you, more come! — until there is a light put on this… on what Dr. King called a shameful condition.”

He declared “America is going to have a broken heart before she is going to have a fixed heart… People need to understand how BAD it is in cancer alley. This nation can’t be blessed truly until it mourns over what it’s doing to people.”

This nation can’t be blessed truly until it mourns over what it’s doing to people…

 I often say at Unitarian Universalist churches when I visit to speak, “we need to uproot and overcome the cultural and spiritual willingness to poison the Earth and its people” — and I’ve observed that people generally don’t know how to digest that message, sit with it, or talk about it in its totality.

Discussion tends to immediately go to talking about incremental ways people can reduce consumption-based pollution. And these small-scale choices are important, and they are absolutely linked to what I am saying! But the conversation jumps to the subject of small, quick fixes and stays on this subject at such a rate and regularity that it feels like UUs are generally avoiding the deeper moral questions and the harder, more heart-breaking conversations about what we are facing and what it will take to truly overcome our widespread and systemic environmental injustice…

And I get it, that emotionally it’s much easier to talk about improving fuel efficiency and other bite-sized solutions than it is to talk about the underlying reasons we are poisoning our relatives and destroying our planet. And I get it, that we are often told that being effective community change agents requires ending on the upbeat, being solutions-oriented, and directing people to the small and achievable changes they can make…

But, can we lean into our discomfort long enough to help each other through the grief, shame, and heartbreak of seeing and understanding what is really going on here? Isn’t that an important role of a faith community? Can we have the hard conversations? Can we collectively do the hard work required to disrupt this broken system and create bonds of community that truly embody our Unitarian Universalist moral principles?

How will we stop this flood of poison?

More resources to go deeper:

  • Stories from the residents of St. James:

Keith Hunter, the first speaker in this video, passed away on February 10, 2018. May he rest in peace and power.

  • Stories from St John the Baptist Parish, right next to St James: