Democracy at its best is a social contract, a mutual commitment to take care of each other, to pool resources of wealth and power to ensure that we are together protected from threats, both external and internal. Internal threats include poverty, disease, injustice, exclusion. It is government’s purpose, not merely to create conditions for economic growth and “stay out of the way,” but to make sure none of us are left behind or left out.
This is not about partisanship or politics. It’s about survival … both of our most vulnerable compatriots and of our democratic ideals.
A leading member of the environmental justice arm of the EPA, a twenty-year public servant under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, Mustafa Ali, has resigned. Here is his explanation:
I never saw in the past a concerted effort to roll back the positive steps that many, many people have worked on through all the previous administrations … I can’t be a part of anything that would hurt those [disadvantaged] communities. I just couldn’t sign off on those types of things.
In his letter of resignation to EPA director Scott Pruitt, Ali wrote:
When I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most. I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.
This is our home, the home we share, the home given us as a gift and a blessing by our Creator, the home entrusted to us to preserve and protect and enjoy.
This is our home! — the home we bequeath to our children and our grandchildren and to generations of children of God to come. And this home will feed them and enthrall them and delight them, too … if we care for it.
The new administration is proposing and enacting dramatic changes in governance on many fronts: a travel ban on immigrants and refugees from a few particular Muslim-majority nations, expanded deportation of undocumented residents, repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, removing protections for transgender youth, ramping up the nuclear arms race, a budget that sharply increases defense spending and makes radical cuts to program and agencies that are intended to serve and protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.
But of all the newly implemented policies, one of the most disturbing to me is the virtual abandonment of environmental stewardship. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times op-ed by William Ruckelshaus, who served as the first administrator of the newly-created Environmental Protection Agency from 1970-1973 and again as EPA administrator under Ronald Reagan from 1983-1985:
One of the factors leading to the creation of E.P.A. was the recognition that without a set of federal standards to protect public health from environmental pollution, states would continue to compete for industrial development by taking short cuts on environmental protection. The laws that the E.P.A. administers create a strong federal-state partnership that has worked well for over 40 years. The federal government sets the standards and the states enforce them, with the E.P.A. stepping in only if the states default on their responsibilities.
Budget cuts that hurt programs that states now have in place to meet those duties run the risk of returning us to a time when some states offered industries a free lunch, creating havens for polluters. This could leave states with strong environmental programs supported by the public at a competitive disadvantage compared to states with weak programs. In other words, it could lead to a race to the bottom.
A race to the bottom is a race to a despoiled home, a ruined planet. Environmental protection is not a partisan issue. Ruckelshaus is a Republican, a Reagan Republican. If you pit business against environment, both lose. Both lose! Gutting the EPA serves no useful purpose, no purpose at all, except for some small short term profit for a few resource-exploitive industries at the expense of long term disaster.
And gutting the EPA seems to be the goal. Here is a sampling of proposed cuts in the fiscal 2018 Trump budget taken from a OregonLive report:
In other words, the government of the people, by the people and for the people has no interest in cleaning up polluted swimming beaches, dirty air, and poisoned homes, and has no interest in preserving some of our nation’s natural gems like Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, and the Great Lakes which account for 1/5 of the freshwater surface on the planet. There is no needed federal investment in preparing the next generation of good stewards of our precious natural resources and no interest in pursuing environmental justice, no interest in addressing the unbalanced impact of environmental degradation on vulnerable populations.
And climate change? The greatest looming threat to life in earth as we know it, undisputed by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists? We don’t need to worry about that. Making a few more bucks matters more. Right?
I pray that the administration will heed wise counselors like William Ruckelshaus and the will of the American people, the majority of whom who do care about preserving the environment (Gallup polling) even if the economy is adversely impacted, and do the right thing. This is our home!
“We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have … because you have these incredible kids, in many cases.” (Donald Trump)
Heart. Heart, indeed! I do hope “we” — “we” the American people and “we” the government elected to represent us does show great heart! It is an encouraging statement. I will pray that heart does hold sway over fear and suspicion and prejudice and pride, and that the virtues the president sees in such children he will also recognize in their parents and those like them.
“We’re issuing a new executive action next week that will comprehensively protect our country.”
(Donald Trump at a February 16 news conference)
I was glad, so glad that the judicial system stayed the first executive order on immigration and refugees, so glad that our system is still capable of exercising checks and balances, so glad that such an ill-conceived and ill-intended and, frankly, cruel blanket ban was seen for was it is, or rather for what it is not — not us, not who we are at our best, not who, it is my hope, most of us want to be.
But this administration is determined to get its way, which means that advocates for refugees and advocates for a just America and advocates of compassion must remain vigilant and vocal! We must protest, not stand by quietly while people’s lives are disrupted and upended. We must continue to stand not against, but stand for — stand for compassion, stand for the protection of people at risk, stand for welcome and acceptance and affirmation of people not like us. Or better, stand for defining “us” to include people who are not just like “me!”
It is difficult to keep on speaking up, difficult to keep on protesting, difficult to sustain energy and will and engagement, especially when protest seems futile, when it seems not to make a difference. I do believe voices of justice and compassion can make a difference, but I was reminded that protest is not merely about effecting change, but also and especially about integrity and about faithfulness, faithfulness to the core values that make us who we are. I was reminded by this quote from Wendell Berry headlining the current edition of the The Weekly Sift:
Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Except no more. No more the “mother of exiles.” No more a world-wide welcome. The lamp has been set down and the gates closed. If you are from Syria or Iran or Libya or Yemen or Iraq or Somalia or Sudan – stay away! We don’t want you! We won’t welcome you!
We are not turning away terrorists. We are turning away their victims. And we are betraying our nation’s heritage.
We need to speak up. We need to object. We need to say: “This is not who we are!”
This is not right. There are no explanations or caveats or excuses that can make this right. But it is not the fault of eight people. It is our fault. It is our fault for letting such a world exist and for not questioning and not challenging the systems that allow such a world to exist.