While not often recognized as political theology proper, environmental justice movements have for decades been sites of normative creativity. Sometimes overlooked as conventional rights-based complaints against locally unwanted land uses, these movements have in fact depicted ecologies of white supremacy while deploying rights, sacralizing land, and reimagining the human in ways that would utterly reconstruct the basis of politics.

“Any support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is support for systemic racism,” thundered Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. In a packed high school gymnasium near rural Union Hill, Virginia, Barber was addressing a mass meeting convened in protest against a decision to locate a pipeline compressor station in the mostly black community. That decision, and the state of Virginia’s failure to follow protocols in assessing disproportionate risks to the community, repeated a well-known pattern of environmental racism: risks and burdens of energy projects are serially imposed on people of color, while benefits flow to white-owned corporations. Failing to oppose this pipeline, Barber warned Virginia’s scandal-enmired governor, would be akin to failing to oppose slavery. 

With that sharp analogy, Barber made the particular site decision represent a broader violence, and he incorporated the community’s protest into the long history of resistance to white supremacy. Dominion Energy (a major partner of the pipeline) perverts the biblical source of its name, said Barber, by “destroying creation rather than stewarding it.” Even had there been a less racist process for locating this particular compressor station, the pipeline would remain complicit in violence because of the way the climate crisis imposes risks and burdens on poor people and people of color. Building new fossil fuel pipelines “practices sin,” said Barber; they have become instruments of dehumanizing violence.

By associating dehumanization with the fossil fuel industry Barber comes near the position of Henry Shue, the eminent philosopher of human rights, who has, over three decades of essays, described failures to respond to climate change as a human rights violation. Considering how the basic interests of some people are at the mercy of others, Shue explains why preventing climate-mediated vulnerabilities requires building adequate institutions of rights protection. Because fossil fuel interests conspire to prevent formation of political institutions that would protect human persons, Shue writes: “the friends of fossil fuel – the carbon peddlers – have joined the enemies of humanity” (277). From a philosopher of human rights, that amounts to saying that fossil fuel interests are guilty of crimes against humanity. 

Depicting fossil fuel interests as “enemies of humanity” works in three Depicting fossil fuel interests as “enemies of humanity” works in three senses – with some tension among them. First, if climate change poses massive avoidable threats to humans, and a relatively discrete set of agents has knowingly caused that violence, then climate ethics takes place within an active crime scene. “Enemies of humanity” thus reorients normative engagement with the climate crisis. Rather than focus on the unprecedented complexity of the challenge, or on building consensus from differing interpretations, it locates the heart of the crisis in confronting a syndicate of dehumanizing violence.

The crime against humanity is not simply that fossil fuels cause climate change. Evidence made public in recent years shows that cultural engineers in the pay of fossil fuel interests have been building denial machines. They have intentionally manipulated the processes through which communities make responsibilities for new problems by integrating them into their traditions. In fact, one campaign targeted black political theology in particular by holding gospel music festivals in which speakers were paid to associate renewable energy with white elitism – seeking to counter-program precisely the kind of civil rights arguments made by Barber. From myriad other instances, it is now clear that fossil fuel interests have intervened in cultural channels to discredit climate change as a problem and to undermine public institutions of responsibility for it, even while themselves creating private plans to deal with the warmer temperatures and rising seas predicted by their own research.  

Carbon peddlers have thereby become enemies of humanity in a second sense: they undermine the practices through which people enact and realize moral agency. By poisoning the practices through which people collectively interpret and create responsibilities for new threats, they diminish capacities of humanity necessary for dealing with the climate crisis. That includes their (successful) efforts to channel discussions of responsibility toward personal actions. Insofar as we focus on what individual choices people could make to reduce carbon impact, or shame the everyday hypocrisies of people concerned about the crisis, responsibility is offloaded from the carbon peddlers causing the problem and from political institutions capable of constraining them, onto individuals without that power. As anxiety and fear about climate change rise, people experience themselves even less capable of doing anything about it.

In fact, the carbon peddlers have been so successful in this that leaders find themselves now caught in a perverse tension: how to be accurately dark about the dangers of this unfolding crisis without overwhelming capacities to respond? The recent fashion for climate catastrophism among white male authors writing for some of the most empowered populations in the world (Wallace-Wells, Kingsnorth, Franzen) shows the issue: acknowledging the threats made by fossil fuels threatens to overwhelm the moral immune system of those best placed to do something about it. For their immune system has been deliberately sickened by the peddlers of those fuels, who, for their part, are content to sell their product to those who believe themselves fated to have no other alternative.

In a third, more ambivalent sense, fossil fuel interests have become enemies of humanity as the climate crisis compels re-examination of the categories that organize political thought in the west. In the Anthropocene, inherited notions of “humanity” function less reliably. On one hand, humanity looms ever larger in the planetary frame, as burning fossil fuels elevates the impact of the species to something on the order of a geological force. And yet on the other hand, referring to “human-caused” climate impacts obscures the concentrated assemblages of power actually responsible. Hence Capitalocene and other alternative terms for this epoch. At the same time and by the same processes, impacts of climate change disproportionately affect those with the least responsibility for causing it and the least capacity for adapting. As the climate crisis intensifies inequalities, often piling the worse and first consequences of extractive economy back on those initially exploited by it, the phrase “human impacts” obscures distributions of vulnerability. In sum, “humanity” becomes an obscurant, power-laundering concept.

Of course, there were already critical doubts about categories in the nature/culture schema of modernity, including the way that they construct politics as something exclusive to people and personhood as something exclusive to humans. For example, in a landmark argument of Christian political theology, regularly cited in the field but rarely taken onboard, Willie Jennings shows how, from the time of the empire of Atlantic slavery through the empire of fossil fuels, moderns learned to imagine themselves as separate from nature and masters of it by developing the idea of whiteness as a way to forge political identity around colonizer bodies. “With the emergence of whiteness,” he writes, “identity was calibrated through possession of, not possession by, specific land” (59). Notions of the human still shaped by alienation from the land, and structures of politics organized by that conception of the human, runs the implication, remain constructed by white settler colonialism. Perhaps the climate crisis does not require exactly Jennings’s critique or remedy, but the consequences of fossil fuels do at least raise questions about what our politics know about humanity. 

Anti-pipeline movements are sites of creative political and religious thought, often responding to those three forms of stress on humanity. When Barber preached the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) into complicity with systemic racism, he situated the protests in a long history of environmental justice struggles, themselves part of the still longer history of resistance to white supremacy on this continent. While not often recognized as political theology proper, environmental justice movements have for decades been sites of normative creativity. Sometimes overlooked as conventional rights-based complaints against locally unwanted land uses, these movements have in fact depicted ecologies of white supremacy while deploying rights, sacralizing land, and reimagining the human in ways that would utterly reconstruct the basis of politics. 

Constructive cosmopolitical work was happening in that rural Virginia gymnasium. Participants connected the intergenerational experience of white supremacy in this community to the pipeline, and then made their protest represent broader systems of violence fueling the climate crisis. Locals recounted how Union Hill was founded by their ancestors after they were freed from slavery, and how generations of African-American families have lived on the same land. Now Dominion not only plans to build a compressor station on the site of the old plantation, which it purchased from descendants of the plantation, it wants permission to impose the most acute consequences of that station on descendants of people enslaved by the plantation. The criminal unfairness – descendants of slaveowners stand to profit from a project imposing burdens on the bodies of descendants of enslaved people – epitomizes the ongoing ecology of white supremacy.

Participants received scientific and legal briefings on what they were up against. They heard about the perverse incentives to build new fossil fuel infrastructure with public funds. They were told about what a constantly running gas-powered compressor station emits – the specific quantities of nitrogen oxide, particulates, formaldehyde and hexane – and what is known of their health impacts. As people meditated on the material embodiment of the risks the state was willing to subsidize, their rights-based complaints began filling out an ecological account of personhood, expanding how they imagine the human as they traced toxins through soils and waters and winds. They learned the local version of a bitter lesson that Shue observes worldwide: states are often more materially invested in subsidizing fossil fuels than they are in public health. It can seem hard to find a way to counter those politics.

Particularly galling to many locals was that Dominion and the State seemed to erase their presence. Dominion had filed reports attesting that there were no significant cultural resources nearby and that the population would be less affected than the average Virginia community because it was both sparse and did not demographically qualify as a minority community. Union Hill is unincorporated and hampered by loss of its records in the county courthouse. However, the presence of this long-standing, predominately African-American community is well known, as are its oral records about where their ancestors are buried in the land. Dominion sees this as a sacrifice zone, said Barber, but “this is holy ground.”

For assemblies convened on holy ground, possibilities of resistance to daunting enemies become more likely, and new networks of moral agency may be cultivated. Receiving those briefings in the context of a mass meeting, with its praying and singing and preaching, connected this protest to the spiritual energy center of the civil rights movement. “Take heart,” exhorted Barber as the assembly sang Walk With Me Lord, “for our ancestors were up against worse than this energy company, and they overcame.” With the gymnasium packed with protestors from all over the region, who saw a chance to convene against the threats of this pipeline particularly and climate change everywhere, Union Hill’s pastor, Rev. Paul Wilson, opened the ceremony by welcoming everyone and saying that no matter their reason for coming, by doing so they had opened themselves to truth and so together could glimpse “an upside-down world turned right side up, where humankind reigns over the profit line.” The sacred character of the event thus seemed to reopen political possibility, to turn the tables on a powerful enemy by establishing the kind of community in which “humankind” could recover primacy in Virginia’s political economy.

Evident also in that gym was interaction with the politics of the sacred from the 2016-7 protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL). The slogan “Mni Wiconi / water is life,” which came to global attention from NODAPL, was invoked in multiple signs and speeches. NODAPL emerged from its own long history of political thought from Indigenous resistance and of course differs from the ACP protest – in ways perhaps not always appreciated by those affiliating with its symbols. Kyle Whyte (Potowatami) observes that non-Indigenous supporters sometimes miss that NODAPL leaders are not seeking a more sustainable settler state; they are acting to restore Indigenous sovereignty over territory. Yet just so, by connecting ACP with NODAPL, folks in Union Hill expanded their possibilities for interpreting the manifestations of white supremacy. Affiliating with NODAPL, they associated the ACP protest with questions about the state, the vision of humans carried in protests, and about the extent of relations involved in a just politics.      

Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux), concludes Our History is the Futurewhich locates NODAPL in a long history of Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism, by asking: “How can settler society, which possesses no fundamental ethical relationship to the land or its original people, imagine a future premised on justice?” That becomes a key question for the ACP protest, rooted in a critique of environmental racism while located near the epicenter of settler invasion of North America. Estes suggests that “perhaps the answers may lie within the kinship relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous and the lands we both inhabit.” He quotes Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) to the effect that politics arises from kin-making: “Making kin is to make people into familiars in order to relate” (256). 

In contrast to notions of politics arising from a friend/enemy distinction (strangely fascinating to recent political theology), politics as imagined here begins from making kin, because that is the possibility of relation. Perhaps the carbon peddlers should not then be understood as “enemies of humanity” but are better framed as destroyers of kin-making, in continuation of the premise of settler displacement. Tallbear has observed that whereas it used to be said by white people that one must “kill the Indian in order to save the man,” we now see that we need to “kill the settler in order to save us all.” In a way that seems close to Jennings’s point, defending vulnerable humans should not be done in ways that defend bad, colonial notions of humanity. One lesson from the consequences of fossil fuels is then that settler ways of being human must not survive. Tallbear’s summary lesson for a better person-making politics: “Stand with relations, both human and other-than-human who suffer across this planet from the violence that is the American dream.”[1]

A question once unthinkable for many ACP protestors has now been raised in their affiliation with “water is life:” can their politics arise from kin-making with all the relations of the land? Can it include the political expectations that water has of humans? To those who think that it seems weirdly religious to ask what water expects of humans, or suppose that asking what reciprocal responsibilities are entailed in living with this particular land may be spiritual but not political, the response should be that a politics that imagines a river as a resource rather than a relative is not necessarily less religious. It rather represents a different cosmopolitics. 

The ACP would carry not only pressurized fossil gas but flows of political theology – notions of dominion, of sovereignty, of justice among relations, and especially of humanity. The theological character of pipeline protests responds in kind. Barber’s sermon ironized dominion as enacted by Dominion, the deformation of justice in the construction of pipelines, and people as made in the image of enemies of humankind. In the assembly convened to hear that truth, a new possibility was made: to stand with all the relations suffering the violences of fossil fuels, make kin with them, and so shape together new forms of mutual responsibility. 


[1]September 26, 2019 lecture at University of Virginia.

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