As prepared for delivery.
Thank you. I’m deeply honored to be here today to receive the "Steward of God's Creation" award. I thank you for the recognition, and for the knowledge that you are standing with me and all of us at EPA as we do our work. Having your support means a great deal to me because you embody a broad scope of our nation. It is wonderful to come together with Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Evangelicals, Baha’is and Buddhists in this common cause. To see that a group of people of so many different backgrounds can come together is a great example to set. It is a pleasure to be with you all – even if it is daunting to stand up and speak in front of so many preachers.
Let me begin by saying a few words about what it means to me to be honored as a “Steward of God’s Creation.” Many of the environmentalists who hear that are likely glad to see me – and my colleagues at the EPA who make everything I do possible – being recognized by faith groups for our shared work to care for the planet and protect our oceans and our wilderness. Most people also probably think how nice it is for faith groups to play a role in safeguarding our environment. Or – as some of you may have seen – they think that stewardship and environmental protection is something that faith groups and churches should leave to the rest of us. They want to see more saving of souls than saving the whales.
But there is another reason that we are all here today. Both environmentalism and creation care are about more than just oceans and climate change. This reason is at the heart of what I think of as stewardship as an environmentalist – and it is at the heart of what religion has been doing for centuries. It’s the reason that “stewardship of God’s creation” is really the stewardship of one another.
When we talk about “environmental protection for our air, water and land,” we’re really talking about protection for our people. That’s because we’re protecting the air we breathe, the water that flows through our communities and into our homes, and the land where we build those homes, where we put up schools, businesses and houses of worship. That is the work and the history of environmentalism.
Think about our water. Forty years ago, our communities had few mechanisms to protect their water. When the pollution in the Cuyahoga River caused it to literally catch fire, it was a national story. Not because it was an extraordinary, outlier event – but because it was a reminder of the hazards of polluted water flowing through communities across the country. Today, 92 percent of Americans have access to water that meets national health standards. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio is one of many waterbodies that are cleaner than they have been in generations. When you get a glass of water from the faucet, EPA makes sure that it is clean and healthy. As Administrator I have traveled to communities around the world where there is no access to clean water – and it is an environmental issue that claims lives. So when we say “stewardship of God’s creation,” we are talking about the stewardship of each other’s health and lives.
This is the same storyline when it comes to pollution in the air we breathe. It used to be that soot and smog in the air was visible in many cities. Something as simple as starting your car meant sending harmful lead emissions into the air. Today, dangerous pollution in the air we breathe is down by more than half. Lead alone has been cut by more than 90 percent from a generation ago. Each year the Clean Air Act has removes millions of tons of pollution from our skies. That progress on cleaner air has saved lives – preventing more than 200,000 premature deaths every year. It has helped us avoid more than 650,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, more than 20,000 cases of heart disease, stopped 840,000 asthma attacks and spared 18 million children from respiratory illnesses. When you look at those numbers, and consider the lives behind them, it is where we see “stewardship of our environment” as a moral issue.
This connection between environmentalism and religion is something that has been around since the first days of the environmental movement. And – as many of you know – it was not always a friendly interaction. In the 1960s – with landmark events like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill – the environmental movement began to gain widespread support. The challenges issued in that growing movement were not limited to government and businesses. They also came to our churches.
In 1966, a widely read essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” laid the blame for our many ecological problems at the feet of religion. The writer argued that, by sanctioning humanity’s dominance over the Earth, Christianity set the stage for the environmental destruction of the modern industrial age. While that essay was negative, the response to it was something positive. Many of the already developing ecological and environmental movements in the faith community began to pick up speed. Against the charges that religion was to blame for the Earth’s destruction, religious environmentalists argued that “dominion” over “all the earth” implied not ownership of God’s creation, but a fundamental responsibility for stewardship. And of course, they saw the connection between protecting our air, water and land and protecting each other.
Today many people of faith take inspiration from scripture. For example, the praise of God’s creation in the Psalms. In the same way, environmentalists write and speak with deep reverence and celebration of the natural world. When Rachel Carson said that “Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction,” she was expressing a belief that would ring true in any sanctuary.
The gospels says that “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed” like the lilies of the field. In much the same spirit, environmental design guru William McDonough – a man who has created buildings for Fortune 500 companies, discussed design at the White House, and led the field of green design – is awed by the idea of a tree. In one of his presentations, he told his audience, “Imagine this design assignment: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars in food, creates micro-climates, changes color with the seasons and self-replicates.” Mr. McDonough further reinforced the need for humility by pointing out that it took human beings 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.
Another overlap is in the pursuit of environmental justice. The effort to help communities that are overburdened by environmental and economic challenges is surely consistent with calls “to help the least of these,” or the concept of Tzedaka in Judaism, and the calls to care for the poor in the Koran. Environmental challenges have the power to deny equality of opportunity and hold back progress. It has become clearer and clearer over the years that environmental threats limit the possibilities of struggling communities. They make it harder to break free from the cycles of poverty. Religious groups have done extraordinary work over the years to relieve the burdens of poverty and fight against inequality in our society. I’m happy to see that emphasis expanding into issues of environmental justice.
One last area of overlap is perhaps the most obvious and the most urgent. It is the fact that we all share one planet. For the first time in human history we have reached a point where our everyday activities – our travel, our commerce, our agriculture – are affecting the fate of the planet. Environmentalists are deeply concerned about the rapidly changing climate and what the consequences will be for humans and the natural world. For people of faith, this is something that emphasizes the unity of all humankind. A change in the careful balances of creation will have impacts on every continent, affecting communities from Indonesia to Indiana. It brings us together into what many faiths call God’s family.
It ties us all into a community that we must make into a beloved community if we hope to save it. It moves the work on climate change and protecting our planet beyond the environmental or economic imperatives, and shows us that it is a moral obligation.
The question now is, “What we can do?” We must strengthen our collaboration on critical environmental issues: cleaning up our air, land and water, fighting for environmental justice to relieve the burdens of pollution in poor and minority communities, protecting the planet we all call home and “stewarding God’s creation.” This is a time when, without question, we need your leadership. In the history of this nation, faith communities have been instrumental in efforts to open new opportunities and improve the world we live in.
I’ve already seen great examples of this taking shape. Earlier this week I had a chance to join the Florida Avenue Baptist Church here in Washington DC as they unveiled an array of solar panels to power their building. We want to connect the talent and enthusiasm we see in faith groups like that across the nation with the work we are doing at EPA. In order to do that more effectively, we’ve started a Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Initiative.
EPA’s role in the Faith based and Neighborhood Partnerships Initiative is one piece of a larger effort that is happening throughout government. The White House Office of Faith based and Neighborhood Partnerships is forming partnerships between government at all levels and faith-based and secular non-profit organizations to serve Americans in need. We’re joining 12 other Federal agencies – from Veterans Affairs to USDA, to Health and Human Services – that are forming partnerships with faith- and community-based groups and leaders. EPA’s role in the Partnership is to diversify the voices of those calling for environmental change and broaden the tent of our coalition.
We want the environmental conversation to be talked about and acted on in all the places where people come together – in your churches, your synagogues, your mosques and your houses of worship. I ask that you bring your enthusiasm, creativity and spirit to working on all of the issues we face together. That is the race that is set before us. I look forward to running it with you. Thank you again for this recognition today.