A coal-fired power plant stands a couple of blocks away from inhabited homes in the neighborhood where I live.
Public health researchers have connected the operations of this plant, which does not meet current emission standards, to health conditions in our community, including asthma, which affects many of the children in this area. While this plant is not the only contributor to pollution in our neighborhood, it is a key factor.
Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, would likely understand our situation. She was raised in a town in Illinois where there was an aluminum smelter. In her early 20s, she survived bladder cancer, a disease linked to harmful substances in one’s environment.
In the past several months, I’ve twice come across Steingraber’s work. Last fall I picked up a book of hers, Having Faith, detailing the effects of pollution on human health from the time in the womb. Then I opened a recent issue of The Christian Century and found an interview focusing especially on her concern for children and exploring how she is motivated by her Quaker beliefs.
Steingraber describes the global environmental condition as “a tree with two trunks.” One of these is our exposure to toxicants, often without our knowledge of it. Another is the excessive use of fossil fuels leading to harmful climate shifts. At the base of these trunks, she says, is reliance on nonrenewable energy resources, since the chemicals in our environment that are detrimental to human health are made from coal, oil and natural gas.
Further, Steingraber points out how these issues are connected to other concerns for the sanctity of human life. “Environmental destruction harms children and begets violence,” she says.
Considering the enormity of the challenge in changing our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, she emphasizes that “there were other times in human history when the situation was dire, and people were called on to do big things. I am not asking people to recycle or change their light bulbs. People get confused when we ask them to do small things because they intuitively know that the situation requires a bigger response.”
She describes moments in worship when she sits in the meetinghouse and pictures the faithful ones who have come before who have worked for peace and justice in other momentous times in history.
As many in those generations knew, tackling large problems requires neighbors and members of faith communities to join together. Such an alliance happened in the area where I live, with support from other concerned people in Chicago and the nation. Community pressure on the owner of the power plant in my neighborhood and the city government led to a deal in which the company will close its outdated power station by the end of the year. Some of my neighbors will join an advisory group to determine how to clean up and repurpose the location.
While such a victory is energizing, the work of quashing environmental threats continues in and beyond our area. The task ahead requires prayer as well as faithful action.
Yet focusing on God can be difficult in a world full of distractions. Talking with a Jewish friend about eschewing electronic devices on the Sabbath inspired me to add a similar practice to my own day of rest. Turning off my laptop and cellphone helps me to connect to creation and our Creator.
In prayer and community we can find the power to change our lives and meet the challenges of our times.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.