Author: Shannon M.D. Smith

Battling America’s ‘dirty secret’

Climate change raises the risk from failing sewage systems. So Catherine Coleman Flowers is working for a new way to deal with waste.

Originally published DECEMBER 17, 2020 by Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post – Climate Solutions.

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.

Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.

Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables – confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.

The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.

What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

***

Read on…

CEE December 2020 Update

Dear Friends of the Center for Earth Ethics,

Please join us along with Union Theological Seminary today, Tuesday, December 8, 12:30-2 pm Eastern time for the first of a series of important conversations with faith communities and the Biden-Harris Transition team.

For this first roundtable we’ll be talking about building bridges with multi-faith communities, climate change, police reform, anti-racism, poverty, immigration and refugees.

We’re excited to be joined by Josh Dickson (Biden-Harris Transition) with Rev. Dr. Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), Eboo Patel (Interfaith Youth Core), Dean Jonathan Walton (Wake Forest Divinity School), Rev. Liz Theoharis (Poor People’s Campaign), Tatiana Torres (Faith 2020), Rev. Frederick A. Davie (Union Theological Seminary), Karenna Gore (Center For Earth Ethics), Rev. Adam Nicholas Phillips (Faith 2020).

RSVP!


More This Week…


Engaging Orthodox Christian Theology with Today’s World

 DECEMBER 11, 2020


In the News…

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret
named one of ‘The Ten Best Science Books of 2020’
by Smithsonian Magazine

“Flowers, who has been called the “Erin Brockovich of Sewage,” puts a spotlight on long-standing issues in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest and on Native American reservations in the West. She thoughtfully weaves systemic issues of class, race and geographic prejudice into a compelling, and at times arresting, narrative. Like the issues Waste puts in focus, this book can’t be overlooked.”
Available now from The New Press

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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…

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…

CEE Update and Vote the Earth!

The Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University are launching Vote the Earth, an interactive poetry project connecting place and voice. Expanding on the Earth Stanzas community poem project launched in honor of 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, Vote the Earth draws on the inspiration of George Ella Lyons’ poem “Where I Am From,” and invites visitors to view the short videos and poems on the map and to share their own poetic voice.

Participate

As the election approaches, we invite you to help inspire voters to put their love for the Earth behind the power of their vote – to #VotefortheEarth! In a time when wildfires burn out west, tropical storms flood the Gulf Coast, and we remain in the grips of a global pandemic, many of us seek the healing experiences offered to us by the land. There is no more important time to come together for the climate, ethics, voting and justice. Let’s make our vote count for the places we love – to consider the question of positionality through an ecological lens, giving poetic voice to our forests and our watersheds, invoking their political agency through Ecological Citizenship.In the lead up to the U.S. elections on November 3rd, we offer this platform to map the creative voices of the Earth and ask your networks to help us spread the word.

Full link:  www.vote.earthstanzas.com or click below:

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.

The Wick Poetry Center, in Kent State University’s College of Arts & Sciences, is home to the award-winning Traveling Stanzas project, and is one of the premier university poetry centers in the country. It is a national leader for the range, quality, and innovative outreach in the community.

For more information please contact:

Email David Hassler, Director, WPC

Email Shannon M.D. Smith, Communications Manager, CEE


Center for Earth Ethics Director, Karenna Gore was honored to speak at the Global Vision Summit lifting up the teachings of the Dalai Lama on five concepts as keys to overcoming the climate crisis: karma, inter-dependence, universal responsibility, happiness and compassion. Listen Now.


Join CEE and the Big Shift Global Campaign in telling the World Bank to stop using public money to fund fossil fuel development projects. 



Sign the Petition here:
https://bigshiftglobal.org/world-bank


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