Month: November 2020

NY Times Book Review of ‘Waste’

Excerpt from The New York Times online. Originally published Nov 17, 2020. Read the complete review here.

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Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page. “Waste” is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.

As eye-opening as it is as a chronicle of the rural sanitation crisis, “Waste” is at least as much the autobiography of an environmental justice advocate. Flowers shares the extraordinary story of her own life, in all its detours, leaps of faith, luck, strange turns, hard work and her ever-rising social consciousness.

Flowers’s parents were activists, and her childhood home in Lowndes County was a haven for civil rights leaders. She eavesdropped on front-porch strategy sessions with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Bob Mants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “At the time, I did not realize I was not among common men,” she writes.

Her own organizing skills were first put to use when she campaigned against terrible educators at her high school, leading to the removal of her principal and superintendent. In college, she learned to mobilize large groups, especially in the fight to protect Alabama State University, a historically Black college, from a merger. She left school for the Air Force, and then returned to her studies as a newlywed at Fort Sill. On her first day of class, her husband of two months was injured in a freak accident during field training. His head injury resulted in amnesia, which pushed Flowers into her next great battle: agitating for health care and occupational rights on behalf of her husband, while simultaneously reintroducing herself to him. This proved taxing.

She finished her studies while advocating and caring for her husband in the hospital. “I had finished my degree program,” Flowers writes. “I also had learned an unforgettable lesson about the audacity needed to challenge structural racism no matter where it appears.” As she moves through Washington, D.C., Fayetteville, Detroit and finally returns to rural Alabama, Flowers has far more adventures than can be described here. But her growing vision for a more just future is always rooted in history, from her attunement to the ghosts in place names to the annual march from Selma to Montgomery that becomes a recurring site of connection and mobilization for her.

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Read the complete Book Review by Author, Anna Clarke, at The New York Times online…

Catherine Coleman Flowers, NY Times Opinion

Mold, Possums and Pools of Sewage: No One Should Have to Live Like This

Before she died of Covid-19, Pamela Rush opened her home to show the world what poverty looks like.

Ms. Flowers is the author of the forthcoming “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” from which this essay is adapted.

My story starts in Lowndes County, Ala., a place that’s been called Bloody Lowndes because of its violent, racist history. It’s part of Alabama’s Black Belt, a broad strip of rich, dark soil worked and inhabited largely by poor Black people who, like me, are descendants of slaves. Our ancestors were ripped from their homes and brought here to pick the cotton that thrived in the fertile earth.

I grew up here, left to get an education and followed a range of professional opportunities. But something about that soil gets in your blood. I came back hoping to help good, hard-working people rise up out of the poverty that bogs them down like Alabama mud.

A big part of my work now is educating people about rural poverty and environmental injustice — about how poor people around the United States are trapped in conditions no one else would put up with. Those conditions — polluted air, tainted water, untreated sewage — make people sick.

I take activists, donors and politicians to see such conditions for themselves. We visit families crowded into run-down homes that lack heat in the winter and plumbing in all seasons. We visit homes with no means of wastewater treatment, because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil. Families cope the best they can, mainly by jury-rigging PVC pipe to drain their toilet’s sewage into cesspools in the woods or yard outside, where they breed parasites and disease right by where children and pets play.

An estimated 90 percent of Lowndes households have failing or inadequate wastewater systems, although no one took the time to count until my organization, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, conducted a door-to-door survey in 2011 and 2012.
The head of one of those households for years was Pamela Rush. Pam, who was a 42-year-old mother with a cautious smile when I met her in 2018, greeted visitors at the door of the faded blue, single-wide trailer she shared with her two children. Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as famous activists like Jane Fonda and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, traveled down the dusty road to Pam’s home, where they saw a picture that was hard to shake.

Sewage is still ‘America’s dirty secret’ – Catherine Flowers is fighting to change that -The Verge

By

Doctors couldn’t diagnose the rash spreading across Catherine Flowers’ legs and body. But the activist thought it had to do with the day she wore a dress during a visit to a family whose yard featured “a hole in the ground full of raw sewage.” “I began to wonder if third-world conditions might be bringing third-world diseases to our region,” Flowers writes in her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.

She was right. That rash led to research that found that hookworm, a parasite thought to be pretty much dead in the US, was actually alive and well in the rural Alabama county where she grew up. Without working septic systems, residents were getting sick from raw sewage. Flowers has been on a mission to change things for her community ever since. She is now a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, and she founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ).

With her latest book, available on November 17th, Flowers is expanding that fight to places across the US which lack the basic infrastructure that many city-dwellers take for granted. Two million Americans lack access to indoor plumbing, a 2019 report found, and that has huge implications for their health. The Verge spoke with Flowers about what she’s seen and how COVID-19 and climate change are piling on top of what’s already a shitty situation.

Read On… 

Banks Gather for Finance in Common Summit on Sustainability Solutions – Will it Matter?

This week 450 public development banks (PDBs) are gathering at the Finance in Common Summit, a seminal moment in the world of banking. The banks in attendance represent nearly $2.5 trillion in annual investments ranging from local banks and projects to multilateral banks providing development assistance across the globe. The mandate is simple: reorient the financial world towards a sustainable path. 

It’s a heavy task to say the least. The era of capitalism and now neoliberal capitalism has made the unadulterated pursuit of profit sacrosanct and there are no better acolytes than those in the fossil fuel industries. Oil, gas, and coal have generated a degree of wealth and excess that has no corollary in history and has little chance of being matched in the future. It is made possible by once robust but now rapidly depleting gas and oil reserves, and a mechanistic and bureaucratic economy the facilitates its lopsidedness. The movers of loans and investments insist on control by a small number of experts who, in their diligence, require private control over the complexities of extraction, refinement, and shipment, but also the adjacent utilities such as water and electricity to insure that industry is done properly. These experts, of course, are not locals and the economic gravity sink they create pulls the cash ever Northward leaving small profits in the local orbit to be picked up by the same sort of sideways person that can be found everywhere who is willing to forgo national interests for their own. 

In 2016, the World Bank along with a number of other major multilateral development banks pledged to divest themselves from fossil fuel development projects to support the Paris Climate Goals. Despite their pledge, they have managed to provide some $10.5 billion in loans towards fossil fuel development while in that same time frame given relatively anemic funding for sustainable energy projects.

The World Bank and other PDBs have become so inured to the process that it has an inertia that is proving hard to derail. In the last two years the World Bank has surreptitiously bankrolled two coal mega projects one in Indonesia and the other in Guyana. Both are carbon bombs in their own right, the first in Indonesia which when fully operational will produce annual emissions equivalent to those of Spain and Thailand. The second supports Exxon’s endeavor to relieve Guyana of the nearly 13.6 billion barrels of oil and 32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas found off its coast. 

Enter the conversation that has started this week at the Finance in Common Summit. The question is not whether PDBs can agree to fund sustainable energy projects. Of course they can. There’s nothing more simple than giving $5 billion to Vestas instead of BP. No, the question is more existential. It’s asking whether or not this industry can willingly and fundamentally change the nature of its ultimate concern of profit no matter the costs. Can they move away from a development paradigm that is so streamlined and so disproportionately powerful and profitable for a system that is anything but? 

The problem with sustainability is that it is just that: it’s sustainable. Once the minerals are mined, the turbines up and the solar panels in place the profit margins become relatively slim as compared to fossil fuels. There is no shipping of product, no enormous subsidies from governments – estimates place them between $400 billion and $5 trillion – and no profits from service stations, downstream plants, and petrochemicals products. 

This is not to say there aren’t profits in sustainable energy. There are but a new generation of companies such as Tesla, Vestas, and countless other startups have filled the space left by legacy energy groups who have invested more in the sector’s demise than in its growth potential. As for the bank’s, their balance sheets demonstrate a stalwart commitment to fossil fuels.

What’s important to remember about PDBs is that their investment decisions are determined by a board of governors who represent the interests of their respective stakeholder nations which contribute monies to the banks. So as much as the investments reflect the banks desire to cultivate maximum return on their investments it’s also demonstration of values by the nation states, most all of which signed the Paris Climate Accord, that they are willing with one hand to support climate solutions and with the other hand support the industries fueling global warming.

Without question 2020 marks a crossroads for climate action. The moral and life giving choice may be obvious for many but morality and the fostering of life are tenets long forsaken by those whose Mecca is a stripped and shipped El Dorado. That’s why the Finance in Common Summit will be so interesting to watch. The rhetoric coming out of the event will undoubtedly be inspired but will there be action? And if there is, will the action be a repackaged version of a deeply exploitative economy? Or perhaps they will have their own road to Damascus moment and embark on a journey of subdued short-term margins for long-term market health and reliability.

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret out November 17th

November 17, 2020 – Official Release Date

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers

About

The MacArthur grant–winning “Erin Brockovich of Sewage” tells the riveting story of the environmental justice movement that is firing up rural America, with a foreword by the renowned author of Just Mercy

“Catherine [Flowers] is a shining example of the power individuals have to make a measurable difference by educating, advocating, and acting on environmental issues . . . [and a] firm advocate for the poor, who recognizes that the climate crisis disproportionately affects the least wealthy and powerful among us.” —Al Gore

MacArthur “genius” Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called “Bloody Lowndes” because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it’s Ground Zero for a new movement that is Flowers’s life’s work. It’s a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor, lack an affordable means of disposing cleanly of the waste from their toilets, and, as a consequence, live amid filth.

Flowers calls this America’s dirty secret. In this powerful book she tells the story of systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudice that foster Third World conditions, not just in Alabama, but across America, in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest, and on Native American reservations in the West.

Flowers’s book is the inspiring story of the evolution of an activist, from country girl to student civil rights organizer to environmental justice champion at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. It shows how sanitation is becoming too big a problem to ignore as climate change brings sewage to more backyards, and not only those of poor minorities.

– The New Press

Reviews – Order Your Copy 

World Bank invested over $10.5 billion in fossil fuels since Paris Agreement

Big Shift Global – Research Papers

Calling for an end to public financing of fossil fuels and a shift to investing in sustainable, renewable energy to provide energy access for all

  • World Bank provides assistance and finance for fossils despite climate pledge
  • Energy transition too slow to avert climate crisis
  • Ongoing fossil fuel investments push world past 1.5°C global warming

Berlin, Washington D.C. | October 12th 2020


As the World Bank conducts its digital Annual Meeting, civil society groups criticize the bank’s ongoing investments in the fossil fuel industry. Research conducted by Urgewald reveals that the World Bank Group has invested over $12 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, $10.5 billion of which were new direct fossil fuel project finance.

In order to arrest the escalating climate crisis, the world needs an urgent and just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Data shows that the energy transition is happening far too slowly. Researchers from several expert organizations, including the UN Environment Program, determined the world is currently on track to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than is compatible with a 1.5°C pathway. [1] Thus, we are already on track to miss the Paris Climate Agreement goal. In addition, according to the Economist, annual investments in wind and solar capacity need to reach about $750 billion, which requires a tripling of current investment levels. [2]

Simply put, there is far too much invested in fossil fuel production and not enough in renewable energy. Actions that slow down the energy transition result in more destabilizing climate-related consequences. The World Bank states that without urgent action, climate change will push more than 100 million people into poverty by 2030. [3]

View the Full Report 


The Big Shift Global is a multi-stakeholder, global campaign coordinated by organisations from the Global North and South. Together, we aim to make the people’s views on energy finance known to Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), their Executive Directors, as well as the Heads of State and Finance Ministers of the members countries. Learn More…

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Brings National Attention To Local Fight Against Sewage Failures

If Catherine Flowers ever received a calling to take on a career in environmental activism, it likely came in the form of mosquito bites.

In 2009, Flowers was doing economic development work in her hometown of Lowndes County, Ala., where raw sewage leaked into the yards of poor residents who lacked access to a municipal sewer system.

On one visit, she met a pregnant woman whose toilet waste flowed into a pit right outside her mobile home. The mosquitoes swarming the pit attacked Flowers.

Days later, her body had broken out in mysterious red blotches.

“I didn’t think anything of it until I broke out in a rash,” she said in an interview with Morning Edition host Noel King.

Flowers went to the doctor, who ran blood tests for infections and other diseases, which came back negative.

“I asked her, ‘Is it possible that I have something that American doctors are not trained to look for?’ Because they don’t even acknowledge that there’s a raw sewage problem in this country,” she recalled.

Lowndes is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. Its weak sewage infrastructure, combined with poor soil drainage, has left the rural area’s predominantly Black community vulnerable to diseases and infections like hookworm.

At the time, Alabama’s public health department threatened 37 families with eviction or arrests because they couldn’t afford septic tanks. Since then, Flowers has been raising the alarm bell on the largely overlooked issue.

She negotiated with state politicians, working with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, to end such prosecutorial policies, and collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency help secure funding for septic systems.

This month, Flowers won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship – also known as a Genius Grant — for her work by “bringing attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas and its role in perpetuating health and socioeconomic disparities.” (Note: The MacArthur Foundation is a financial supporter of NPR.)

Read on…

Climate Underground – Interview with Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman hosted by CEE Director, Karenna Gore

About

Sean Sherman is one half of the founding duo that is The Sioux Chef behind Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, MN.

Indigenous Food Lab is an education and training center that will serve as the heart of NATIFS’ work establishing a new Indigenous food system that reintegrates native foods and Indigenous-focused education into tribal communities across North America. We envision a future of developing and supporting Indigenous kitchens and food enterprises in tribal communities, bringing cultural, nutritional, and economic revitalization across North America! Learn More at www.natifs.org.

 

Karenna Gore is the founder and director at the Center for Earth Ethics.

The Center for Earth Ethics is a forum for education, public discourse and movement building that draws on faith and wisdom traditions to address our ecological crisis and its root causes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Learn More at www.centerforearthethics.org.

 

With many thanks to Climate Underground 2020!

What’s at stake in the U.S. election: Catherine Flowers for The Globe and Mail

What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.

Most of the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march went through rural Lowndes County, Ala. The area was once steeped with racial terror because of the desire to control Black labour – that had once been free to plantation owners owing to slavery – and stymie their right to vote. Because of the violence used on Black and white citizens, it earned the name “Bloody Lowndes.” Today, it is the epicentre of the wastewater crisis and a poster child for policies fostering inequality in rural communities. The county residents have not received adequate funding for wastewater infrastructure, and the infrastructure in place is failing or has failed. It is also where poverty, environmental justice and climate change intersects with the lack health care access.

The population of Lowndes County is 72 per cent African-American. It has a per capita income of US$19,491, where more than a fourth of the residents live below the poverty line. Many of the residents are essential workers, employed in plants or in other jobs that have high workplace COVID-19 infection rates. It is also a food desert in a place where many people are victimized by high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory issues. There is only one doctor to provide medical services within the entire county. It also has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the state of Alabama and one of the highest death rates per capita as well, in a county of approximately 10,000 residents.

Policies supporting infrastructure funding and development – whether on the state or federal level – have long excluded places such as Lowndes County. The wealthiest populations can qualify for loans or grants, while the poor are penalized through the denial of access to funding for sanitation infrastructure. With climate change becoming even more evident through higher temperatures for longer periods of time, higher water tables and wastewater treatment failures, the pandemic has made the population of Lowndes County and many others in the United States vulnerable for illness and death. This is compounded by the discovery that COVID-19 is shed in feces.

Read on…

Catherine Coleman Flowers is the author of the forthcoming book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. She is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, a member of the board of directors for the Climate Reality Project and serves as a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

2020 Virtual Faith-in-Action Awards: Karenna Gore Keynote Address

On October 22, 2020, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) hosted its first ever Virtual Faith-in-Action Awards. Honoring Karenna Gore, Founder and Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, the event highlighted the important intersection of faith, climate, and stability. Watch ICRD President and CEO, James Patton, introduce the award and Karenna’s acceptance here!

 

About ICRD:

Empowering Peaceful Religious Communities

While not itself a religious organization, ICRD builds the skills, capacity, and ranks of women and men peacebuilders of all faiths to address the root causes of identity-based conflict and violent extremism in their communities.

Our approach works. After two decades of direct engagement, ICRD is a preferred partner among government, civil society, and grassroots organizations for conducting trainings, developing local networks, and facilitating multi-track initiatives to resolve many of the critical crises affecting the globe today.

Learn More…