Charlie McCollester: Embracing a Blue-Green Religious Vision

Charles McCollester was a keynote speaker for our 2018 statewide Annual Conference Facing the Climate Crisis: Called to Save our Sacred Home, held on October 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh.  His expertise in the history of labor, environmentalism, and race in the area provided context for workshops rooted in the now. He generously shared his remarks with us to share with you here.


We live in an age of uncertainty and looming crisis.
Nations are retreating into xenophobic ultra-nationalist politics out of the not unreasonable fear that the future has spun out of control; they want to wrap themselves in reassuring myths of their past and prepare for a dog-eat-dog world of increased competition for global or regional dominance. The marginally wealthy are constructing walls against the desperately poor while the obscenely wealthy are investing in repression and social control on a global scale.

Thirty years ago, it became clear that the industrial proletariat being dismantled in the Monongahela Valley was no longer an effective counterweight to capitalist control of the economy and politics – let alone an effective influence on the trajectory of capital investment. Other than construction unions and their contractors, labor lost a seat at the table deciding the direction of economic policy and social investment. Despite unions, some well-run and profoundly engaged, corporations shape the values and policies of government and society
often through control of information and corruption. The trauma of industrial collapse pushed political and union leadership to embrace any new source of jobs uncritically.

While Pennsylvania may be mercifully spared the massive eastern headquarters of Amazon, for a time it seemed that Pittsburgh was ‘between a rock and a hard place.” The rock is shale gas expansion that circles a politically resistant Pittsburgh; the hard place is Amazon – a famously controlling employer whose very purpose is the automation and elimination of jobs through robotics, drones and artificial intelligence. A city, only recently released from anti-democratic budget oversight by a reactionary legislature, offered the world’s richest corporation untold millions in subsidies and long-term tax avoidance commitments without the decency to reveal what exactly was promised in the taxpayer’s name. While two thirds of workers in Pittsburgh live beyond the city limits and pay a flat dollar fee – equal for janitor and corporate executive – the weight of the city rests on its geographically restricted population base that provides uncompensated urban services like sports, culture and healthcare to the region’s suburbs.

As the shale gas extraction regime encircles Pittsburgh and pipelines are extended east and west, north and south, the twin falsehoods of the gas industry are exposed: first, that its development is environmentally benign and second, that the presence of cheap gas will spur a rebirth of manufacturing. In fact the massive escape of methane in its production, the dangers inherent in fossil fuel transportation, especially by rail and barge through the heart Pittsburgh, and the guaranteed long-term deterioration of our water supplies as earth shifts and pipelines age threatens our present life and health as well as that of generations unborn.

The terrifying reality is that rising seas triggered by global warming are making the vast oil and gas complexes of Louisiana and the Texas coast more vulnerable and less viable, so the fossil fuel industry has set its sights on Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Cancer alley is moving
north. Even more alarming than the plans to supply China, India and Europe with liquefied natural gas by pipeline and barge is the drive to make the region the prime producer of plastics. While the world is trying to curtail the massive infusion of non-degradable plastic waste into our oceans and soils, powerful interests are looking to plastics to replace steel, aluminum, electrical and mining industries of the past.

To the of injury of Bush/Cheney/Corbett’s gutting of national and state chemical right-to-know laws, plus clean air and water regulations, the Pennsylvania Republican legislature added the insult of refusing to even minimally tax the permanent alienation of irreplaceable underground resources of our pretended “commonwealth.” Thus, we become a victim of an unregulated boom instead of being a model for the right way to develop natural gas – slowly, carefully, transparently and regulated with input from workers and communities. Extremely rapid shale gas development is a vast economic bubble where the frenzy of a boom and ballooning debt propels the expansion of an industry that is drowning in its own over production.

So, Pittsburgh, the historic cradle of American industry and unionism with a proud history of concerted activity in favor of workers’ rights and organization, is faced with radical economic change in which it has little or no voice. Several years ago, I stood between many thousands of
miners and construction workers protesting Obama’s “war on coal” and hundreds of environmentalists who chanted “No earth. No jobs.” My large sign proclaimed: “As long as BLUE – union jobs – are pitted against GREEN – the health of the earth – we are all doomed.” Many coal miner families, especially the women, cheered my sign. They have seen their mountains brought low, their streams destroyed, but they are also fighting for their lives, culture and future.

As government is weakened and undermined along with public service, the public interest and civil liberties, corporations drive future development with government reduced to a handmaiden. Unions must follow jobs and the workers who perform them. They have no voice in investment decisions. Only a vigorous public policy that envisions an inclusive economic transition with workers’ organizations and serious community preservation strategies can bridge the blue-green divide. We face reactionary legislation that will criminalize peaceful environmental actions.

When I wear my green hat, old retiree with five children and eight grandchildren, I’d like to see fossil fuels go away completely, however, my blue hatted union side adds that I want highly trained union crafts people who live in and love Pennsylvania to do every industrial gas job
with maximum safety, transparency, regulation and expertise. While vigorous governmental stewardship could have made Pennsylvania a model for careful, measured and accountable development, state and national government failed our people. Higher quality and more
regulated construction means more work and more demand for well trained union workers.

For decades, National Geographic and other media provide devastating accounts of collapsing reefs, rising seas, forests decimated by fire and disease, life itself threatened by chemical, nuclear and fossil fuel pollution. It has become painful to take the grandkids to the zoo to be reminded of species collapse and the expanding list of animals threatened with extinction. We witness a tremendous growth of neurological diseases and cancers associated with environmental factors. While billions of dollars are expended for a “war on cancer,” governments tied to fossil fuel interests actively block any comprehensive effort to reveal the causes of these modern plagues. Billions for the cure! Not a cent for the cause! In a system based on monetary liability, ignorance is a defense – even if that ignorance is carefully cultivated and maintained by corporate polluters. Our fractured medical insurance system makes it virtually impossible to undertake a scientific epidemiology of the health impact of fracking’s poisoned water and air.

Pacific islands, low lying coasts like Florida and river deltas like the Mississippi and Bangladesh face existential threats. All over the earth extreme heat, drought, fires threaten on one hand while on the other hand, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods join in pushing populations to desperation. Refugees from war and economic marginalization are on the move. Bubbling out of North Africa and the human disasters of Iraq, Syria and Yemen toward Europe; refugees marching north from the drug lord capitalism of Central America; everywhere social stability is
threatened.

So what is the answer to such complex and multi-layered issue as climate change? A complete answer is as complex and multi-layered as the problem, but balance is the key.

One thing I am sure, the answer doesn’t lie solely in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics STEM world that has become the uniform educational mantra. While there are many hopeful developments with wind, solar, water, geothermal and ever more efficient energy storage systems, (read Patty DeMarco’s important book!) the root problem is with political will, public policy and the human heart. The road to progress is not to treat our children like robots and artificial intelligence adjuncts, the fundamental issue is how does society cope with the massive automated production capacities that appear to be facing the next generation. The issue is what do we want the automated machines, drones and robots to do? What kind of world are we building with them for our grandchildren?

In 1960, I was a 17 year-old volunteer in the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. In September, I stood behind and to one side of the podium where JFK spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic supporters in Rochester NY’s War Memorial. We were living in shadow of the nuclear arms race and the Soviet space achievement with Sputnik, the first machine put into orbit around the earth. Kennedy said that America could be a beacon to the world “if we are building a better society here, if we are struggling constantly and earnestly…against discrimination in all parts of the United states, if we maintain in this country full employment…using our great productivity to the fullest, if we are developing the best educational system in the world, a system that will turn out not only mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, but educated men and women who can make a judgment about the world around them.” That is the true goal of education then and now.

Yes, we need technology and Patty DeMarco in her important book on sustainability highlights many areas that give us hope and deserve the support of public policy. But we also need history, poetry, literature, philosophy and religion to put technology in a human context, to make moral decisions about its use. We need to make judgments about the world around us – especially about the economic inequality that leads to violence; and especially about the repeated acts of violence against Mother Earth that Pope Francis calls “our common home…like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother that opens her arms to embrace us…We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.” Economic inequality driven by greed and the will to power feeds the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin…reflected in the…sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

Our nation, our world grows increasingly violent with nations armed to the teeth, weapons proliferating, and children being massacred in our schools and on our streets. In November 1962, two years after cheering JFK’s campaign speech in Rochester, I hitchhiked out from Boston College to Holy Cross College to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. It was only a month after the Cuban missile crisis. The night that Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on Russian ships bound for Cuba three of us social justice Catholics were in a car returning from a tutorial session in black Roxbury. Arriving back on campus we witnessed a scene of spiritual panic as hundreds of young men lined up before every available priest to confess their sins. It seemed we faced possible annihilation or imminent military mobilization.

Only weeks later, Martin Luther King spoke to a packed auditorium about the dramatic voting rights struggle shaping up in the South. He asserted: “If human law is contrary to Divine Law, men have a duty to break human law.” He said we have to “hate evil actions, not the man who commits them” In a room of more than a thousand traumatized young men he declared that the choice was not “between violence and non-violence, but between non-violence and non-existence.” It seemed true then, but even truer today. Non-violent direct action remains the
foundation for positive social change.

There is no silver bullet, no single answer to our human and environmental crisis. Action must be driven from below while stimulated and supported from above. We need to actively resist the destruction of land and waters, while promoting the vision of a clean earth with humans in harmony with all life. There are important technological advances using wind, solar, wave, geo-thermal etc. Health and safety principles as well as transparency and accountability must be
strengthened and extended. Unions should be directly involved in shaping public policy and training the workforce.

Domination vs. Dominion
As we ponder the place and purpose of humankind through the study of history, religion and philosophy, it seems clear that man’s dominion over nature as asserted with biblical authority has been too often corrupted to signify domination. Intrinsic in the idea of dominion is responsibility. The word’s root points to oversight and household. Dominion entails stewardship over this beautiful blue-green-brown planet, our common home, that shines like a jewel in the vastness of our solar system – itself a minute part of a universe composed of millions of such systems. In this dominium we share “lordship” with creation. Hands and heart form the underlying material complement to mind and spirit.

We need to walk on two legs. We need science and math as tools to dig deeper and see farther. We need engineering and technology to anchor abstraction to the concrete lived world. However, the unappreciated and essential link to the natural material world is the workers – the people who grow things, build things and make things. These people rarely receive the respect, representation, engagement or compensation that they deserve. They need a voice in how artificial intelligence, robots, drones and genetic engineering develops. Will these tools be used as weapons against communities, workers, and the poor?

“Of life’s two chief prizes, beauty and truth,
I found the first in a loving heart and the second in a laborers hands.”
—Kahlil Gibran

In spite of the varied institutional and moral challenges facing Catholicism, Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about “a new and universal solidarity” that strengthens the link between social and environmental justice: “that everything is interconnected and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness with others.”

While at Boston College in 1962, I became influenced by the thinking of French Jesuit and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin was attacked by both theologians and scientists for his spiritualization of evolution in a global and cosmic sense. He saw human consciousness enveloping the globe and converging in the space between God and Earth.

The sense of earth
Opening and flowering upwards
in the sense of God,
And the sense of God
rooted and nourished from below
in the sense of earth.
The transcendent personal God
And the universe in evolution,
No longer forming two antagonistic poles of attraction,
But entering into a hierarchic conjunction
To uplift the human mass
In a single tide.

In his final and very poetic reflection whether humankind can be saved, entitled Building the Earth, Teilhard wrote: “The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the earth.” With the extraordinary advances in instant global communication and consciousness brought by the internet, it does seem possible that an deepening global environmental crisis will impose a real possibility and opportunity for humankind to organize across borders and adopt the restoration of Mother Earth as a unifying common project.

So to conclude, I believe that for us to find our way through the dangers and dilemmas facing us:
we need to balance virtual reality with organic gardens,
balance robots with workshops and hand tools,
balance Wikipedia with books in a library,
balance Twitter and Instagram with sincere conversation about the wonders of the world and the dangers we face.
Fundamentally, we need to balance individual freedom and collective
responsibility; we need to balance selfhood and solidarity.

Finally, we need to gather together and build beloved communities that nurture children to grow, learn and dream in a restored earth where the air is fresh, the water pure and life abounds. However we define our religious or spiritual sensibilities, the underlying perception in all religious viewpoints is that there is something greater than oneself, some greater power, some greater purpose. Bob Dylan in his great religious song “Every Grain of Sand” wrote:

In the fury of the moment I can see the master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.
I feel in today’s world that we are truly “hanging in the balance of the
reality of man,” so to Dylan – the last word.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.


Dr. McCollester’s book is The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio.