The River of the Water of Life
“Let the sea and its fish give a round of applause ...
Let ocean breakers call out, “Encore!” and mountains harmonize the finale.” (Ps 98:7-8 MSG)
Five lakes are suing the State of Florida. The problem is they’re tired of being raped, abused and now threaten with death at the hand of real estate developers. But that’s not the real question. The question is whether Mother Nature is a “person” and has the standing necessary to bring suit in a U.S. court of law.
One should not confuse the legal notion of “personhood” with the idea of being a human being. Corporations, for example, are “persons” under the law. Women, Black and Indigenous Ameri-cans have not been “persons” for most of U.S. history. Despite a woman’s right to vote granted in 1920, it was not until 1975 that even one state denied a man’s right to rape his wife. Thus the “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” movements have surged to demonstrate the ‘quasi-personhood’ of so many in the U.S.
And what of Nature? Is She a “person?” Do rivers have rights? Colonialism brought with it a notion that those who aren’t “me” are simply resources for my use and convenience. This has applied equally to Nature, slaves, Native Americans and women – and now even the water surges in rebellion. Water is melting, rising, acidifying and suing. We cannot fully understand Water’s rebellion with considering its intersections with Racial Injustice and rampant sexism. This month let’s talk water, conscious of the whole conversation.
What would it take for the ocean breakers to once again call out “Encore!” in the face of Divine beauty and mutual respect?
Dave Brauer-Rieke, editor
Water Water Everywhere
Ray Shjerven is a career firefighter and VOAD representative for the three ELCA Synods of Washington State. The following article references a recent blog post Ray authored for our Lutheran Disaster Response Western Region. Thank you, Ray, for your work!
“Water water everywhere . . .”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“Water is central to human survival.” writes Ray Shjerven. “Yet we all know the tragic story of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Closer to home, outside Spokane, WA, the aquifer is being polluted by firefighting foam, the result of military training and uncontrolled run-off. Water pollution is not limited to waterways and ground water. Rising water temperatures in rivers, lakes, bays, harbors and the ocean threaten the creatures who live there!”
Such realities concern us all, and rightly so. When it is your drinking water that is dangerous the issue cannot be avoided. Or, when it is your community that floods, tears flow and fears rise.
Ray’s work with WAVOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and Lutheran Disaster Response placed him right in the middle of this past December and January’s Clallam, Skagit and Whatcom County floods in Washington State. “The National Weather Service created
a new phrase to describe the phenomenon of huge amounts of rain without high winds,” says Ray. They’re called “atmospheric rivers.”
NOAA reports that, “Not all atmospheric rivers cause damage; most are weak systems that often provide beneficial rain or snow that is crucial to the water supply. Atmospheric rivers are a key feature in the global water cycle and are closely tied to both water supply and flood risks — particularly in the western United States.”
This year’s flooding in Washington State did cause significant damage, though. Yet, FEMA chose to treat this series of floods as separate events, none of which alone were severe enough to warrant FEMA aid. Long term recovery needs, therefore, are left to others. State and local governments, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and the work of people like Ray Shjerven through WAVOAD and Lutheran Disaster Response are doing their best to meet the need. Thank you, Ray. The question is “Are these atmospheric river floods an anomaly or an indicator of things to come?”
... And Not a Drop to Drink
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“There have been brief moments of reprieve in the drought that has stretched on since 2000 in the western United States—a water-rich 2011, a snow-laden 2019—but those breaks have only highlighted the more dramatic feature of the last few decades: unrelenting dryness.
Without human-driven climate change forcing Earth’s temperatures up, the ongoing drought would still be painful and parched. But it would be unexceptional in the grand scheme of the past 1,200 years. A new study in Nature Climate Change shows that Earth’s warming climate has made the western drought about 40 percent more severe, making it the region’s driest stretch since A.D. 800. And there’s a very strong chance the drought will continue through 2030.” So writes Alejandra Borunda in the February 14, 2022 issue of National Geographic.
Drought conditions continue all up and down the West Coast of the United States. The PBS Newshour reports that “the world now has climate change, and as a result the surface of Lake Mead has dropped more than 170 feet (52 meters) since 1983. The lake that slakes the thirst of 40 million people in cities, farms and tribes across seven Southwestern states is down to about 30% of capacity.”
Of course, the dropping levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell further upstream are also due to increased demand for water. Nonetheless, the news is not good. California has already enacted deep water restrictions affecting over 19 million people. Water rationing is also being considered in some Arizona cities. This would be a first. Experts realize that current trends may well make difficult decision between water or power a next step. Nothing is simple here.
The Cost of Cool
The U.S. Energy Administration estimates that “in 2021, electricity use for cooling the interior of buildings (space cooling) by the U.S. residential and commercial sectors was about 389 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) which was equal to about 10% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2021.” That adds up to a lot of global warming and is one reason Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown list refrigeration as a #1action item for reversing climate change.
Ironically, the world’s love of cool is melting earth’s glaciers.
Every state in Lutheran Disaster Response’s Western Region, from Alaska to Hawaii and the coast inland to Montana and New Mexico, faces its own form of water crisis. In Alaska a U.S. Geological Survey reports that 99% of all glaciers are in retreat. The contribution to global sea level rise is considered to be significant. And, it’s not just Alaska. When President Taft created Glacier National Park in 1910, it
was home to an estimated 150 glaciers. Since then, the number has decreased significantly. The Climate Journal Grist reports, “The current glacier count is 26.”
For many the demise of glaciers may feel remote and an esthetic sadness. However, combined with the related issues of loss of sea ice and sea level rise it is anything but. Indigenous Alaska Native cultures are disappearing along with the ice. Native communities all up and down the Pacific Coast struggle with sea level rise. And in Hawaii natives suffer severe water shortages along with extreme sea level rise. (Water shortages being due in large part to the demands of tourism and a leaking U.S. military fuel tank infrastructure built on top of one of Hawaii’s major aquafers.)
Water is everybody’s issue. North or south, east or west, high or low, cold or hot, wet or dry we are all one bound together by the waters of life. Yet, we do no all suffer the injustice of water neglect equally. Read on. Water and faith belong together for everyone.
The River of the Water of Life – Reprise
Floods, droughts, atmospheric rivers, melting glaciers, sea level rise, monsoons and hurricanes are disaster related issues. They are also climate change fueled and infuriated. Disaster “response” cannot be just that. We must concern ourselves with mitigation and adaptation as well.
The weight of suffering and loss due to water realities is inequitably carried by people of color and Indigenous communities. This is an indisputable fact and the result of a long, deep history or racism and colonization all around the globe. Disaster “response” must concern itself with racial and climate equity. Who has power? Who has rights?
No faith teaches that water is a “commodity.” Yet, U.S. Christianity today often confuses itself with the western colonialism that brought it to this land. Native Americans have always seen this. Voices from the Black Community call this out. “Treating water as a commodity means privatizing the one thing that all humans need to survive.” they insist. It is the commodification of both people and Nature that is at the root of the disasters we now face.
Is Mother Nature a “person?” Do rivers have rights?
In the months to come Florida courts will undoubtedly say “No.” Nature will be granted no rights. But I am not a lawyer. I am a ”Lutheran” part of Lutheran Disaster Response, a Christian. As such I see the plight of water and the realities of racial oppression to be one in the same question. It is not only oppressed people, but Water herself who now lashes out in rebellion. Who will listen? Who will care? Who will repent?
Our calling as Christians is not to “care” for the Earth, but to allow Her to be and care for Herself. White people are not called to “fix” the plight of Black Communities, but to respect their Human agency and right to be. Green warriors are not called to a new enlightened stewardship, but an honoring of what is already Sacred. I believe Lutheran Disaster Response has a unique opportunity not only to “respond,” but lead. That is why I do this work. Today let us start by calling water “Sister” and learning to hear her voice.
“Fueled by abnormally dry, warm conditions and spread by strong winds, wildfires have burned more than 600,000 acres across New Mexico this spring — making it one of the worst fire years in the state’s recorded history. And there’s at least another month of peak fire risk ahead.”
Read more - New York Times, June 1, 2022
“Forecasters at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, are predicting above-average hurricane activity this year — which would make it the seventh consecutive above-average hurricane season. NOAA’s outlook for the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which extends from June 1 to November 30, predicts a 65% chance of an above-normal season, a 25% chance of a near-normal season and a 10% chance of a below-normal season.”
Read more - NOAA News and Features, May 24, 2022
“Long-running environmental disputes in Alaska are like the state’s volcanoes … Two of the fights flared up in recent weeks, and one of them moved closer to fizzling for the last time. That would be the dispute over the Pebble Mine, a proposal for an open-pit copper and gold mine about 200 miles from Anchorage in the watershed of Bristol Bay, home to one of the most productive wild salmon fisheries in the world.
As Coral Davenport, one of our Washington climate reporters, wrote, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a ban on the disposal of mining waste in the watershed. That would effectively kill the project, which had been put forward in one form or another since the mineral deposits were discovered in the 1980s.”
Read more – New York Times Climate Forward, May 31, 2022
“Washington: Two years after African-American George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in a Minneapolis street, President Joe Biden will on Wednesday sign an executive order further regulating federal law enforcement. The White House called the move "historic" in a press release, but the new executive order does not go as far as the major police reform Biden promised during his election campaign.”
Read more - NDTV, May 25, 2022