The Sea And Hunger Are At The Doorstep of Louisiana

The link between climate change and hunger in developing countries is clear to most people. For example, a shorter rainy season can severely affect how much food a small-scale farmer in Tanzania can grow to feed her family throughout the year. Here in the United States, however, the link may not be as clear. The connection is often through the loss of homes, jobs, and livelihoods. Last month, I saw an example of this firsthand while attending the Green Faith Emerging Leaders Convergence in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The week-long conference brought together 60 faith leaders from the U.S. and Canada who are engaged in climate justice work.

New Orleans is the epitome of a North American city struggling with climate change. We heard from survivors of Hurricane Katrina. It was a powerful week, but one day stuck out the most to me.

We toured the Isle de Jean Charles, a bayou community an hour and a half outside New Orleans. We met our tour guides, David Gauthé and Coy Verdin, the night before the visit.

They spoke for less than 10 minutes, but the gravity of their words was not lost on me. I began to realize that my feet were about to walk on land that may not be around in 10 years or even less than that.

The state of Louisiana lies below sea level, and the southeastern region is flooding. Since 1955, 90 percent of the land mass of Isle de Jean Charles has disappeared. Once tall trees are now barely poking out of the water.

Every 38 minutes this area of the state loses a football field worth of land.

Isle de Jean Charles is set to become the first community in the nation to be relocated due to the effects of climate change. In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $48 million for the resettlement.

With each tropical storm, there is a risk of infrastructure being wiped out by floods. Public services, such as the police department and the elementary school, have already been relocated out of Isle de Jean Charles.

One long road with only two lanes connects people in the community to markets, stores, and other needed services. The road has been rebuilt multiple times due to flooding from tropical storms, each time repairs costing the federal government $3 million.

This is a community of hard-working people, many of whom are fishermen and whose families have lived here for generations.

They are trying to cope with the growing challenges climate change brings. As a community, they have come together to make sure they can prolong their ability to live in Isle de Jean Charles as long as possible.

We should care about the challenges facing the people of Isle de Jean Charles.

Not only does climate change jeopardize their food security and safety, but residents are emblematic of many other communities in the U.S. and abroad already affected or expected to be affected by climate change.

Without reforms, climate change will wipe out the progress the world has made in eliminating poverty and ending hunger.

Crops and land necessary for the livelihoods of smallholder farmers abroad will cease to exist, and closer to home rising waters will engulf more and more communities, shattering lives and pulling vulnerable people deeper into poverty.

Coy Verdin, one of our tour guides, is a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. Fishing is in his family’s blood and how his family has made its living. However, he does not want to teach his children how to fish.

He said he does not think the family profession can continue. The sea has been their support in the past, but now it is destroying their future.


Listening To The People of Louisiana

Last week, I had the opportunity to join 60 faith leaders in New Orleans for the GreenFaith annual Climate Convergence.

My elevator speech in the days since has been something along these lines: “It was an interfaith gathering of emerging leaders who are passionate about environmental sustainability/climate change/creation care, coming together to network, brainstorm, and learn; all interpreted through the lenses of our respective faith traditions, but united by a shared love of our common home.”

But anyone who knows me (and has given me more than 2 minutes to gush about this convergence) has gotten an earful.

Besides being one of the most intentionally constructed and well-planned conferences I’ve ever attended (thumbs up, Stacey Kennealy and company), the content and the engagement with the richly diverse people and culture of Louisiana made it a holistic experience; a far cry from conferences that take place entirely in hotels, islands wholly separated from their surrounding communities.

Speaking of islands, one of the reasons that New Orleans (and, more broadly Southern Louisiana) was chosen for this convergence is Isle de Jean Charles, the United States’ “ground zero for climate change.”

This island has sustained its inhabitants – coming from a tapestry of ancestry, made up in large part of the indigenous Biloxi-Chitamacha-Choctaw tribe – for over 100 years.

The land once (and still does, in some areas) produced sugar cane and fed grazing goats, while the water teemed with shrimp, blue crab, and too many fish for me to remember.

A house on 10m stilts in Isle de Jean Charles; Alex Price/GreenFaith But like too many global stories of fertile, utopian land, this story of Isle de Jean Charles is rapidly drawing to a close, as rising sea levels and largely unchecked coastal erosion have stolen the island, taking the form of nightmarish rapids of mud and saltwater during the stormy season and insidious erosion during moments of calm.

Since 1955, 90% of the landmass of Isle de Jean Charles has disappeared.

I heard stories, read articles, watched videos about the island. I learned about evacuation efforts, resettlements of these folks to other parts of the country.

The midwest boy in me, landlocked all of my life, pictured the vastness of the Gulf swallowing Isle de Jean Charles, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that these efforts were underway.

But when we visited the island — when we spoke to the people living there and heard stories of their lineage and their livelihood, so deeply woven into the fabric of this land, to the place, my naïveté was thrown into sharp relief and my “knowledge” of coastal Louisiana became a tiny, singular and uninformed perspective in the story of a people.

It was impressed upon me that we can’t address the specific issues troubling the folks of Louisiana from a distance; any approach we take as a country, as individuals, as people of faith, has to be informed by the carefully listened-to stories from those affected by climate change.

To be sure, action must be taken, policy must be written, injustice must be corrected and reparations made; but the first step, for grassroots activists and high-powered policymakers alike, is listening to the land and to the people that live on it.

Convergence participants holding a Laudato Si’ banner while demonstrating at the offices of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La) to push him to act on climate change; Rick Moore The convergence established the notion of people and place at the beginning, in an exercise that set the tone for the whole week (at least for me). When we introduced ourselves on the first day of the conference, we each came forward with a small vial of water.

“My name is Austin, and I bring water from the Altgeld-Sawyer community garden in Chicago, IL.” 

I poured it into a glass basin. One by one, my fellow leaders announced themselves and presented us with the water that came from sources close to their homes and their hearts.

“I bring water from the Hudson River, which has been almost irreversibly polluted.”

“I bring water from Los Angeles, which still languishes in drought.”

“I bring water from Flint, Michigan.”

“I bring water from Orlando.”

It is both a cliche and an understatement to say that our world is troubled.

When I left the people of Louisiana, — a woman who built a shrimp fishing company from the ground up, owners of a restaurant deep in the bayou who laughed and danced to traditional music with us, a priest who watches his backyard diminish with each passing year, a Katrina survivor who lost two family members to the storm and used that tragedy as a springboard to community action, a Vietnam War veteran on a park bench in the French Quarter who reminded me that “life is life and murder is murder, no matter which side you’re on” — I left with the same thing I’ll leave you with:

The problems we face as a planet cannot and should not be divorced from the people who experience them. As people of faith, we have a mandate to treat others in the way that we want to be treated, and integral to that mandate is listening to their stories. Stories highlight and reinforce our common humanity and equip us to do the most amount of good in whatever work we find ourselves in.

Great progress was made at this convergence as leaders from all over the Americas connected around common goals, shared resources, planned action together, and showed the world that faith is hollow when it neglects the planet that sustains it.

I wish you could have been there, y’all, and I wish that I could share every detail of every second with you because each one was loaded with value. But I can’t, so I have tried to give you a snapshot of what I learned in beautiful Louisiana.