What Things Are Made Of
From video game consoles to the beach ball interior of my inflatable meditation cushion, a staggering number of products are dependent on hydrocarbons. The plastic and carbon filter that makes my Akron, Ohio, water tastier and ostensibly safer to drink, IV tubes and the little pitchers that hold the ice that slakes the thirst of the hospitalized infirm, the safety glass that protects us in auto accidents and the synthetic fabric of our safety belts—all are made from chemicals derived from hydrocarbons, in processes fueled by energy derived from hydrocarbons, through the labor of people whose lives are endangered by emissions from their production.
So much of what we use not only in our daily lives but also in our work for social, economic and environmental justice depends upon the suffering of those who produce these things. And if you live in the tiny community of Mossville in southwestern Louisiana (or hundreds of other communities around the United States), this dukkha is yours for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I have been a community organizer for forty years, working with women to overcome the particular sufferings in their communal lives—poor housing, lack of income, domestic violence, the effects of war and migration. I’m always meeting contradictions. It’s one of the reasons I embraced my Buddhist meditation practice almost twenty years ago. I treasure the tools—mindfulness, patience, compassion, lovingkindness—that help keep me steadfast as we work to expose the suffering of this most pressing problem: environmental destruction caused by the activities of our daily lives.
Antebellum Karma: From Rice and Cotton Plantations to Benzene and Gasoline Plants
Mossville is a little village in Calcasieu Parish, southwest Louisiana. It was founded 140 years ago by recently freed people, who worked the rice and cotton plantations of this most prairie-like part of Louisiana. Streets are named for the families that settled Mossville—Praeter Road, Fisher Street, Edna Hardy Lane. Back in the day (meaning the 1920s and ’30s), the children, great-grandchildren and disparate relations of the founding ancestors did what African Americans in the deep south have always done: they farmed and grew their own food, raised kids, continued to work the plantations, and kept their heads down. Life was dangerous for anyone who complained.
I did not grow up with this sense of threat. I was raised in Ohio, but thirty years ago, as a young organizer, I was offered the opportunity to go to the central Louisiana sugarcane plantations to work as a farm labor organizer. My friends and coworkers discouraged me. They were pretty sure I would be maimed or killed. Plantation owners weren’t very welcoming of uppity young Black people with liberatory aspirations, so I moved to Massachusetts instead. It would be another twenty years before I went to Louisiana.
The people of Mossville working the rice and cotton plantations, like their sisters and brothers working sugarcane fields, were expected to comply with any decision the landowners made. So it’s not surprising that when those owners sold their land to oil refiners and chemical processors in the late 1930s, most residents thought it a good thing. They knew that jobs in the plants would pay better than on the plantation, that there would be shift work, a regular schedule and a paycheck.
As for the factory owners, they had access to the deep-water ports in the Gulf of Mexico, and they had low taxes. They didn’t have to worry about labor unions, sanitation (let waste effluvia flow where it will) or stringent state oversight. By the 1990s, these plants and their emissions had become a problem for the people of Mossville. Young and old, they were getting sick from strange and terrifying illnesses. Quiescence was no longer an option. It was time to organize.
In the 1990s I was still in Massachusetts working with refugee women who had escaped the civil and military strife of Asia, Haiti, Eritrea and El Salvador. My Cambodian sisters introduced me to Theravadan Buddhism. I received my first lesson in sitting still during a Dharma talk (in Khmer) from one of my eight-year-old friends. Through the refugees’ courageous struggles to find work, overcome family violence, and raise virtuous children, I learned the value of deep listening and patience, that is, mindfulness in action.
Learning Environmental Justice Organizing: Mossville Environmental Action Now
I didn’t pass up my next opportunity to work in solidarity with the African American communities of Louisiana. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I, like many northern black folk, was devastated by the images from the Gulf region and the inaction of the federal government. We had thought the scale of neglect we were witnessing was no longer possible in our country. Many of us threw ourselves into supporting those displaced by the storm while drawing attention to the environmental destruction that had helped create this “unnatural” disaster.
I went to Mossville as part of a team that was helping groups formed in the aftermath to Katrina, and there I had the good fortune to meet Dorothy Felix and the other residents who had organized Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN). They had founded one of what today are hundreds of grassroots environmental justice organizations committed to the idea that:
“No group of people, including racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local and tribal programs and policies.” (Environmental Protection Agency)
I was struck by MEAN’s perseverance, sophisticated grasp of chemistry, and the complexity of their approach to ConocoPhillips and other industries that had helped turn their community into a dangerous, toxic landscape. I was also filled with anger and a sense of hopelessness over their situation. But MEAN’s motto is, “With God all things are possible.” Their perseverance is a more helpful strategy than my anger.
There was no better model of steadfastness than Mrs. Dorothy Felix, a member of one of Mossville’s founding families, the Fishers. A MEAN founder, she has a wry sense of humor. I often reflect on her when contemplating the Ten Perfections, or paramis, taught by the Buddha, since she is a model of indefatigable energy and virtue, two of the paramis. Further, steadfastness is closely allied with the parami of resolve, exemplified by MEAN members as they set aside personal gain for the good of the community, regardless of the emotional, physical and financial cost.
This is not easy. In Spring 2010 I brought a group of health advocacy students from Sarah Lawrence College to Mossville to do groundwork for a wellness clinic. We had been conducting a health needs assessment to empirically demonstrate the ongoing harm Mossville residents were suffering from the dioxin and PCBs emanating from the fifteen chemical plants that are within half a mile of the community. My students had been taking pictures along the fenceline of the ConocoPhillips plant. Pursued by the plant manager and corralled by several carloads of sheriff-deputies, we discovered we had violated the Patriot Act and were threatened with terrorism charges. My students were terrified.
We called Mrs. Felix. She responded immediately: “Don’t worry—we’re coming! We just need to find the video camera.” There would be no better publicity than a bunch of students from a rich northern college getting arrested helping MEAN.
As it turned out, we avoided arrest, but the students were upset. They asked Mrs. Felix, “How could they do this to us?” Her response: “Well, after three or four times you get used to it.” She went on to sweetly proclaim, “We would have come to the jail and taught you some freedom songs to keep you company.”
But it is in the quiet moments, listening to MEAN members describe illnesses they have endured and the loved ones they have lost, that I have experienced the compassion the Buddha taught, the breaking open of the heart that makes a space for me to sit in solidarity with their suffering. In the summer of 2009, Mr. David Prince, a MEAN founder, died from injuries received when his home burned down. The county had let the pressure in the fire hydrants fall so low that there was no water to put out the blaze. The firefighters stood and watched the house burn.
Mr. Prince could be considered a precursor to the Occupy movement. He would not leave the most contaminated part of Mossville until the community’s needs were met. One version of compassion practice is to focus on the phrase, “May I touch this pain, may I touch this sorrow.” That is, may I not turn away but witness faithfully. I came to realize that Mr. Prince, steadfast in highlighting Mossville’s suffering, had been such a witness both in his living and his dying.
There are many who die too soon in Mossville—not always as dramatically as Mr. Prince but just as tragically. Compassion practice teaches me that if MEAN can persevere, then I can at least stand beside them, holding all the contradictions of this life—the suffering our consumption creates, the complex interaction of economic factors that makes this consumption seem essential, and the willingness of the people of Mossville, and all those in the environmental justice community, to wage their decades-long campaigns to protect their small, ignored communities with such courageous effort. In so doing, they protect us all.