Has organized religion neglected its work? Critics
accuse it of complacency in the face of social, economic, and
ecological problems, of speaking in a voice that is timid or narrowly
sectarian. Worse, they point out, in regions as different as the
Balkans and south Asia, organized religion has openly incited its
followers to violence.
But a new ecumenism is afoot that may well prove the critics wrong. A burgeoning worldwide interfaith movement has begun to speak out in a brave, nonviolent voice on behalf of all life.
Two flagship events at year's end signaled the growth of common cause among the world's spiritual traditions. The first was the Parliament of World Religions, which met in Cape Town, South Africa, during the first week of December. More than 7,000 people from 80 countries gathered, representing a broad spectrum of religious and spiritual traditions worldwide. Jim Kenney, international director of the Council for the Parliament of World Religions, describes it as the “largest, most complex interreligious event ever.”
When it last met in 1993, after a 100-year hiatus, the Parliament endorsed a statement remarkable for its boldness. It condemned, in unmistakable terms, “the poverty that stifles life's potential” and “the economic disparities that threaten so many families with ruin.” But it saved its strongest language for religion-based violence: “Religion is often misused for purely power-political goals, including war. We are filled with disgust.” It also endorsed an inspiring, life-affirming ethic.
At the 1999 session, the Parliament issued a new document with softer language, offering “invitations rather than sweeping declarations or hectoring injunctions.” Entitled A Call to Our Guiding Institutions, it invited each of the world's social and cultural institutions – including commerce, government, labor, agriculture, and religion itself – to “reassess and redefine its role for a new century toward the realization of a just, peaceful, and sustainable future.”
Beyond the Call itself is an invitation to practical, grassroots action on hundreds of fronts. Individuals and organizations are invited to offer Gifts of Service to the World. On the list of suggested gifts are working for reconciliation in a troubled community, resolving conflicts within one's own family, offering personal prayer or meditation, promoting social justice. To kick off the program, the Council presented 400 gift projects already under way in countries around the globe and, during the conference, created 250 new projects.
A second major interfaith initiative took place during the turn of the millennium, in 400 locations scattered across 42 countries. Called the 72 Hours Project, this initiative, coordinated by a staff of two people at United Religions International (URI), involved more than a million participants worldwide. They marched, sang, and prayed in 160 separate, locally organized events, with the URI acting as international clearing house. “We just invited people to imagine what they could do in their own community,” said 72 Hours Project director Paul Andrews. The response was enormous.
In Pakistan, a peace caravan calling for interreligious understanding traveled across the entire country, drawing assurances of government support and enormous enthusiasm from the tens of thousands of Pakistanis that gathered in cities along the way.
Death row inmates at San Quentin Prison in Northern California each prayed for peace in 90-minute shifts for 72 hours, creating an unbroken chain of prayer.
In the joint security area between North and South Korea, about 200 people from various denominations gathered to pray for the reunification of Korea.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a peace pole was dedicated by Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic,
and Protestant leaders.
Andrews says the 72 Hours Project taught him that people around the globe are ready to act on their longing for peace. It's simply a matter of inviting people to engage their own intelligence and creativity around a central idea.
Mother Nature is not entirely to blame for the recent devastation in Venezuela. Human activities magnified the impact of the flooding, turning it into one of the worst social and economic disasters in Latin American history.
In December, the heaviest rainfall in 200 years hit Caracas and the northern states of Venezuela, causing floods and mudslides that left 30,000 people dead, 200,000 homeless, and more than 1 million stranded along the coast.
Climate change, clear-cutting of hillside forests, and the resulting destabilization of soils worsened the devastation, according to the Gallon Environment Letter.
“The Venezuelan Ministry of Environment has a great deal of information on the dangers of flooding in the areas that were the most damaged,” commented Luis Oswaldo B'ez of the United Nations Disaster Office in Caracas, “yet the population is allowed to grow there.”
Feeling the heat
In January an 11-member panel of scientists organized by the National Academy of Sciences reported that a world-wide rise in temperatures at the Earth's surface is “undoubtedly real” and appears
to have accelerated in recent decades. The panel, including two former global warming nay-sayers, estimated an increase of 0.7°F to 1.4°F over the last 100 years – a 3 percent increase from earlier predictions.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Company has withdrawn from the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a corporate lobby that opposes government action to curb carbon emissions. Shell Oil, United Technologies, and BP Amoco had already left the GCC to join the Business Environmental Leadership Council, a group working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop more efficient products.
Exxon Mobil will soon feel pressure to withdraw from the GCC as well. A coalition of 42 religious and environmental groups has targeted the company, urging its shareholders to support a resolution calling for more investment in renewable energy.
Bill Clinton also climbed aboard the anti-warming bandwagon in January, unveiling rules to sharply reduce sulfur in gasoline, a change he said could lead to “overnight emission reductions.” Though sulfur is itself not a greenhouse gas, reducing sulfur levels improves the efficiency of existing pollution controls in vehicles. The effect of the reduction will be dramatic – the equivalent of removing 54 million cars from the road. Also on Clinton's agenda is requiring SUVs, pickups, and minivans to meet the same emission standards as cars, beginning in 2004. Though new cars are 95 percent cleaner than those made in 1970, nearly half of all new vehicles are in the light truck category and produce three to five times the emissions of cars.
From Seattle to Iowa
Following up on the collaboration that began outside the WTO meeting in Seattle, a coalition of activists made its presence felt at the Iowa Caucus in January. The 70-member alliance demanded that both Republican and Democratic candidates get serious and specific about protecting workers, the environment, and human rights.
Members of organized labor, environmental leaders, clergy, farmers, small business owners, recyclers, students, party activists, and others voiced their concerns about oil drilling in wildlife refuges, mining in national forests, and other commercial uses of public lands. They also requested support for efforts in Congress, led by representatives Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia), to end commercial logging in America's national forests.
“This is the flowering of a new social movement,” said Tom Weis, a grassroots environmental organizer with National Forest Protection Alliance. “These are not people who have been traditionally considered environmentalists.”
The coalition also addressed labor and farming issues, including the threat to family farmers posed by large hog operations.
The key organizers of the peaceful demonstration were Don Kegley and David Brower, cofounders of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs & the Environment. Brower is founder of Friends of the Earth and EarthIsland Institute. Kegley is a third-generation steelworker, one of 2,100 steelworkers locked out of the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Spokane, Washington.
According to Kegley, the group will travel to other states holding primaries and caucuses, where they will be “challenging the candidates to clarify their positions on environmental, labor, and family farm issues.”
There have been two steps forward and one step back in consumers' fight to control genetically engineered food in recent weeks.
Forward: Whole Foods Markets Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc. have announced plans to eliminate all genetically modified ingredients from their private labels, making them the two largest food retailers in the
US to do so. This move, which comes in response to outcries from customers, follows similar bans by major European supermarket chains.
Forward: Six farmers, working with the National Farm Coalition and biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin, filed a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto on behalf of all farmers who bought biotech seeds. They contend that Monsanto defrauded them by telling them that the public would accept genetically modified crops and that the seeds were safe, when in fact “no nation's standards of testing are adequate to guarantee such safety.” They also claim that Monsanto violated US antitrust law by requiring farmers to license seeds instead of buying them. Monsanto, industry leader in genetic manipulation of food crops, saw a 25 percent decline in the price of its shares in 1999.
Back: At a recent news conference, Dan Glickman, US secretary of agriculture, told reporters he did not see the federal government regulating genetically engineered foods through “labelling or anything else.” Craig Winters, spokesperson for the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, called the statement disappointing but not surprising. The Campaign is working to force agencies to label experimental foods through the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, which they hope will become law this year.
For information on the debate over genetically engineered food, contact the US office of the British magazine New Scientist at 202/331-2080 or www.newscientist.com.
Contact the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods at 425/771-4049 or www.thecampaign.org.
Watching the media
Beware, buyer, when you're reading a magazine or watching news programming. Sly forms of advertising are the latest tactic in the fight for the spotlight.
According to The New York Times, cigarette manufacturers Brown & Williamson, Philip Morris, and RJ Reynolds have joined with Time, Inc., Hearst Magazines, Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, and EMAP Petersen to produce magazines that advertise tobacco products almost exclusively between their mainstream articles.
In “custom publishing” of magazines like The Art of Simple Living, Flair Unlimited, Real
Edge, and The Camel Quarterly, publishers are paid up front by tobacco companies, eliminating the financial risk of relying on subscriptions and newsstand sales. The companies skirt the usual 3 percent limit of total ad space they are allowed in American consumer magazines and circumvent the 1998 settlement limiting tobacco advertising.
The magazines have a total circulation of about 5 million, and custom publishing is expected to generate close to $1 billion in sales this year.
In another new form of advertising called technological branding, network logos are digitally inserted during live television shots to appear to be part of the background scene. For instance, as Dan Rather broadcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve, viewers should have seen the actual background scene, which includes a Budweiser billboard and the NBC Astrovision screen. Instead, they saw a digitally inserted CBS logo.
The network has been “branding the neighborhoods” behind “The Early Show” and
“48 Hours” since 1999.
Earth Day 2000
Earth Day Network, the international organization coordinating Earth Day 2000 events worldwide, is currently working with 4,000 organizations in countries around the globe to plan events in which more than 500 million people are expected to participate.
US highlights include EarthFair 2000 on the Mall in Washington, DC, hosted by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and other large EarthFairs in Los Angeles, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle, Cleveland, and elsewhere.
Earth Day events are also being planned in 168 countries outside the US. One hundred cities in Italy, including Rome, will join Tokyo and Seoul in banning cars from city streets for the day. Taipei, Warsaw, Dhaka, Istanbul, and many others are planning fairs, rallies, and concerts.
Contact Earth Day Network at 206/226-4164 or www.earthday.net.
Chew on this
Mattel, the world's largest toy maker, has announced a major push to make its plastic toys from more environmentally friendly, organic materials such as oils and starches.
The new materials will replace polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and a controversial group of chemicals called phthalates now used in soft plastic toys. Environmental and consumer groups contend that these substances have been linked to health problems such as liver and kidney damage and disruption of the endocrine system – of particular importance in the development of young children (see YES! #6, Summer 1998).
Last year, Mattel and most other major toy companies pledged to eliminate the use of phthalates in mouth toys intended for children under three, although they deny that phthalates are dangerous.
Greenpeace hailed Mattel's move, which came just as the European Union was preparing to declare an emergency ban on phthalates in mouth toys. The National Environmental Trust and several other environmental and consumer groups released a report in January indicating that phthalates are still found in most mouth toys in the US.
The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld a provision of the state constitution – dormant for
27 years – guaranteeing all Montanans a fundamental right to a “clean and healthful environment.” It protects the state's resources from potential harm as well as from actual, proven damage.
Montana's resources are clearly in need of protection, according to the Northern Plains Resource Council. The state's big skies contain some of the highest sulfur dioxide levels in the country; its legislature has consistently weakened water quality standards by exempting the worst polluters.
“Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state's rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked,” wrote Justice Terry Trieweiler.
The court decision sprang from a lawsuit brought by environmentalists challenging a state mining permit approved in 1995 by the Montana Legislature. Although business interests, legislators, and government regulators have voiced concern over the court's decision, under the new ruling the right to a clean and healthful environment will now be recognized by the state of Montana alongside such rights as equal opportunity and free speech.
Contact Northern Plains Resource Council at 406/444-2544 or www.nprcmt.org
The US Supreme Court has strongly affirmed the constitutionality of campaign spending limits as a means of deterring corruption and the appearance of corruption in the political process.
The January decision upheld a Missouri statute limiting individual contributions in statewide races to $1,075. The majority opinion also affirms that even lower limits may be constitutional as long as they do not impede a candidate's ability to amass the resources needed for effective advocacy.
This decision refutes the basic argument made by opponents of campaign finance reform: that any regulation of money in the political process is a violation of the First Amendment.
The court's decision was celebrated in Maine as well as Missouri. Maine's 1996 Clean Election Act, the nation's first full public financing law, was also upheld in two federal district court rulings in the past three months. According to John Brautigam, lead counsel for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the Supreme Court's decision “removes the cloud of uncertainty around Maine's Clean Election law.”
Arizona, Massachusetts, and Vermont have enacted clean money statutes similar to Maine's; voters in Missouri and Oregon are poised to do so this fall.
Contact Public Campaign at 202/293-0222 or www.publiccampaign.org.
A recent study by the Worldwatch Institute (WWI) reports that global consumption of wood fiber for papermaking can be cut by more than 50 percent via a combination of three actions: trimming paper consumption in industrial countries, improving papermaking efficiency, and expanding the use of recycled and non-wood materials. Although the volume of paper recycled has tripled since 1975, some 57 percent of paper is still not recycled. In the United States paper makes up nearly 40 percent of municipal solid waste.
In light of these statistics, some major US corporations are taking steps to cut paper use. Bank of America reduced its paper consumption by 25 percent in less than two years with online reports and forms, e-mail, double-sided copying, and lighter-weight papers. It also recycles over 60 percent of its paper, saving about $500,000 per year in waste-hauling fees. Proctor & Gamble, United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and the US Postal Service have taken similar steps.
The WWI report also asks papermakers themselves to significantly reduce energy use and pollution. The amount of energy used in paper making is equivalent to that used in making iron and steel; more water is used per ton of paper produced than for any other product in the world. Ashley Mattoon of WWI says that papermakers can incorporate more non-wood fibers, make use of a portion of the agricultural wastes that are now burned in many places, and reduce chemical use in the pulping process.
Contact Worldwatch Institute at
202/452-1999 or www.worldwatch.org.
Universal health care
Universal health care is back on its feet, resuscitated by a broad-based initiative called U2K – just in time for election year 2000.
U2K (U stands for universal) is the brainchild of the Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN), the National Council of Churches, and the Gray Panthers. Its purpose is to support, coordinate, and publicize the varied efforts of individuals and organizations working for health care justice
at both the state and national level. “We wanted to build the big tent and get everyone in,” says UHCAN director Diane Lardie.
The U2K coalition advocates no particular solution to universal health care. Instead, it supports experimentation. In the works is an enabling bill that would allow states to try a variety of health
care delivery systems, backed by federal matching funds.
Health care reform cannot come soon enough for the nation's 44 million uninsured. Since the failure of health reform in 1994, legislatures have enacted only timid, piecemeal reforms, refusing to deal with the basic problems of the health care system.
“It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace for the United States to be the only long-standing democracy to enter the century without a national guarantee of health care for all its people,” Lardie says.
Organizations that participate in the U2K campaign pledge to educate their members about the need for universal health care and to bring the issue to the attention of the public, especially voters and candidates for office. Although U2K is only a few months old, over 100 organizations have endorsed the initiative. According to Lardie's calculations, the members of the endorsing organizations together represent over half the population of the US.
Contact UHCAN at 800/634-4442 or www.uhcan.org.
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