June 24, 2021

Environmental justice is a critical Ukrainian issue


As much of the Ukrainian American establishment is rightfully hand wringing over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, another coalition is rallying against other proposed pipelines closer to North American soil.

At least a hundred people have been arrested so far this year in an indigenous-led movement to block the construction of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which is planned to take bitumen from the oil sands of Western Canada into Minnesota, through sovereign Ojibwe territory, to the international port in Superior, Wis., for transit to the Great Lakes. A similar project called Enbridge Line 5, which takes Western Canadian bitumen through Michigan to refineries in Ontario, was temporarily blocked by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after years of similar protest.

Like the activists of the Ukrainian Student Association of Mykola Michnowsky (known by the organization’s Ukrainian acronym TUSM) whose arrests filled the pages of The Ukrainian Weekly in the 1970s and 1980s, a young generation of activists are using radical means to stop actions that they perceive to be violating their right to self-determination – either because those actions violently infringe on their nations’ ability to govern themselves, or because of the environmental costs downstream.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the diplomatic maneuvers to prevent Nord Stream 2 from getting built haven’t been so successful. Many Ukrainians fear this pipeline violates Ukraine’s ability to defend its sovereignty and self-determination in the midst of Russian belligerence, too. Among the Ukrainian diaspora, though, it sure would appear that it is no longer the 1970s and 1980s.

One might wonder why raise this comparison at all. One might say that the indigenous land and water defenders have their issues they care about, and we Ukrainians have our issues that we care about. It’s a sort of identity politics many in the diaspora recognize; it doesn’t matter that the fundamental politics of a fossil fuel pipeline are more similar than they are different. But there is an important lesson about priorities, partnerships, tactics and discourse that our community leaders seem to have forgotten since Ukraine declared independence.

The fundamental differences between the Enbridge protests and the organized effort against Nord Stream 2 boil down to the separation of two realms: the political and the personal. Appeals to stop Nord Stream 2 invoked dense international law, vague notions of sanctions and bizarre English-Ukrainianisms like “aggression” to describe Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders simply failed to make the Nord Stream 2 issue relatable to the broader public. Meanwhile, as non-militant indigenous people join hands with Catholic priests, environmentalists, peace activists and antiracists to chain themselves to construction equipment and get hosed by water cannons, struck by rubber bullets and sprayed with tear gas, a more systemic issue becomes apparent. The solidarity of human beings who care so much about their personal causes that they’re willing to suffer together for a common goal is stronger than any rhetorical appeal.

The type of solidarity that has played out on construction sites in the rural Upper Midwest is called environmental justice, and it’s one of many contemporary justice paradigms our Ukrainian American communities could stand to adopt in order to bring peace to Ukraine.

Don’t let the word “environmental” scare you. The primary concern with the Enbridge pipelines doesn’t have much to do with conserving polar bear and penguin habitats, though there are certainly people who care about that. Rather, the indigenous communities looked systemically at all of the social, economic and political implications of the pipelines they opposed, including climate change, and they invited stakeholders from various groups opposed to what the pipeline represents to join their cause.

From their position of relative disenfranchisement, indigenous leaders called on likewise disenfranchised Black leaders from places like New Orleans, where flooding also impacted that community. Latino immigrant groups joined in the struggle, as drought ravages the west coast of the U.S., wiping out critical agricultural jobs. Meanwhile, those who fish in and depend on clean drinking water from the Great Lakes Basin are also concerned about leaks from the pipeline. Suddenly, all of these disparate groups have an interest in preventing the pipeline’s construction.

For many people who oppose pipelines, peace and sustained local prosperity are the primary goals, though preventing long-term climate change is an added benefit. Doing anything to prevent climate change, though, has the ultimate effect of sustaining global peace. Several institutions, from the United Nations to NASA and the Center for Climate Security, have noted that climate-change-caused drought is the single biggest predictor of armed conflict in a given region. After the fall of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. troops there, the rise of ISIS was not inevitable. Research from the National Academy of Sciences showed a correlation between persistent crop failure at 75 percent of Syrian farms with the radicalization of erstwhile agriculturally-employed young men, whose latent anger was easily redirected at the West. Conflicts in Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Turkey and Yemen, among others, have been tied to drought. The U.S. military has called climate change a “threat multiplier.” Nearly 20 years ago, U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan prophetically said that the 21st century’s wars will amount to a “fierce competition for fresh water.”

This brings us back to the issue of Ukraine and the war in Donbas. According to data released by the World Resources Institute in 2019, Ukraine is among the top two countries in the world at highest risk of drought, second only to Moldova (including, presumably, the Russian-controlled Transnistria region). Following the trends set in other countries, one could assume that future combat in Donbas and Crimea (which is already facing a water crisis) will be driven by environmental factors and their negative effect on the social, economic and political realities experienced by people on the ground.

Just as Syria’s Fertile Crescent became a barren desert, there is nothing to say that the Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, won’t soon become the next dustbowl. The Dnipro roars, but so did the Euphrates and Mississippi rivers.

So, whereas the environmental analysis didn’t exist in the Ukrainian diaspora’s case against Nord Stream 2, the logic that increased gas consumption in Western Europe will lead to further war is true in more ways than just enabling Russia’s economy. It’s fair to say that environmental justice alone won’t end the war in Ukraine, but it might help prevent it from going on longer than it should. More importantly, perhaps, is that there is an entire army of zealous and engaged organizers waiting to be activated for this cause.

Ukrainian Americans must tap into this kind of grassroots solidarity by tapping into other identity and interest-based groups in order to begin fostering peace and justice in Ukraine.

American Ukrainian community groups have no formal ties with any environmental organizations, despite the fact that Ukraine, perhaps, has the most to benefit from environmental action in the coming years. Ukrainian flags should be waving at Sunrise Movement rallies. Perhaps a conference between 350.org and the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America is in order. People need not get arrested.

Perhaps environmental issues are perceived to be “too political.” Most issues regarding war and peace in Ukraine are inherently political anyway. Forging new modes of cross-ideological solidarity can only help Ukraine, not hurt it. Our lobbying efforts shouldn’t be simply directed at Congress; they must also be engaged in social change and multi-faceted awareness, since that’s what members of Congress pay attention to!

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church has an active Patriarchal Ecology Bureau in Ukraine, but there haven’t been any efforts to put their work into practice here in the United States. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A. is administered by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has written more encyclicals on environmentalism than even the Pope of Rome, earning him the moniker “the Green Patriarch,” and yet the Church seems not to engage in any of it in any formal way. The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton is perhaps the only major institution that has engaged with environmental justice advocates in North America, which is somewhat ironic given the source of most oil piping through Enbridge’s lines. Why is this fundamentally Ukrainian cause so overlooked today?

The only way to bring peace to Ukraine is to work with other groups who want to advance peace in different ways. Though perhaps the most powerful framework, environmental justice is but one avenue Ukrainians could utilize. Recent events in Israel and Palestine have inspired grassroots peace activism from people completely unrelated to Jews and Arabs. Global movements against inequality, including groups like Oxfam, foster empowerment among communities around the world precisely because the kinds of oligarchic systems perfected in Ukraine are unjust. Solidarity with disparate groups who seek to fight injustice will not only help Ukraine survive, it will help the country thrive.