Our environmental crisis is obvious. Ice melt, sea level rise, stronger storms, and heat waves are proof. People in the Global South suffer most through desertification in Central Africa and severe flooding in areas like Bangladesh and Indonesia. Cruelly, the worst effects are on poor people who generate almost no pollution.
Fossil fuels are terrible for Americans, too. Every year, our failed auto-based transport model seriously injures 3 million to 4 million Americans in accidents and kills 40,000 (including five Mennonites that I’ve known). Oil and gas pipelines threaten precious water supplies and native and farmers’ lands. Air pollution is lethal. When coal plants close, the chance of death “of any cause” falls by 1 percent in every county within 15 miles. We do not pay for this in our coal, oil or gas prices.
The consequences of fossil fuel use fall, tragically, along racialized lines. Most air pollutants are found in nonwhite communities, while most of the benefits go to white Americans. George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” is of course a cry for an end to endemic police violence targeting black communities, but asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and other conditions that air pollution imposes on African American communities also cruelly cut off human breath. The stakes in Mennonite areas are high: of 352 U.S. cities, Lancaster, Pa., Fresno, Calif., and Goshen/Elkhart, Ind., are three of the seven most air polluted, affecting mostly poor and diverse urban areas. Coronavirus exacerbates the crisis; those exposed to air pollution suffer far worse. If Mennonites improved our local environments, it would help us and our neighbors live longer and more healthily.
This is a moral catastrophe. Christians sometimes discuss “creation care.” I deeply respect many who promote this language, but it is too rosy for most of us. “Care” implies deep love and restoration. Reduced harm is not “care.” If someone stops pouring toxins into a river, we don’t commend them for “care.” The same principle should apply to the air. As a Christian, I believe we’re called to love God and others and to disciple others and be discipled. Environmental responsibility is far more basic; it’s a simple question of being a decent neighbor and parent.
Mennonites have many beautiful examples of sustainable living in our heritage. Local farming is and always has been in our identity. The “more with less” tradition of simplicity is prophetic. Mennonites model solidarity through MCC, Mennonite World Conference, and other institutions that work to transform global relationships.
What more could North American Mennonites do to lead in this crisis for our world? Our government and parties have failed the environment for decades and will no doubt continue to. Individual and organizational action are all we have. And we have a lot to offer!
Are you well-connected in an agricultural Mennonite community? If so, you or people you know could likely support profitable and significant solar or wind energy, whether on the roofs of agricultural buildings or in the fields. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if this topic is of interest. And all of us can push for clean energy, energy efficiency and public transit.
The largest contribution Mennonites could make is financial. Many Mennonites have built up substantial wealth. Wealth has ballooned under President Trump through massive stock market growth and tax cuts. So many Mennonites that I know dislike him, but will they turn down his money? It’s easy to talk about how bad he is, but we have not been giving away the wealth he brought us through policies that hurt the environment, the poor and the future. Could prosperous Mennonites, in addition to leaving estates to their usually financially stable or even wealthy children, also devote giving and estate funds to securing the environment?
Creation on Earth faces urgent danger. We are under threat, and we know what choices are the cause. Can we do what is right, even if it is costly and challenging?
David Lapp Jost