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Activist sees consumerism in tar sands mining

Why I became a priest: ‘My heart was restless and longing for something else’

Diocese offers free, dignified committal of uninterred cremains

Ethicist urges caution after study on brain activity of ‘vegetative’ patients

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placeholder March 8, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 5   •   Oakland, CA
Activist sees consumerism in tar sands mining

Anne Symens-Bucher

Anne Symens-Bucher knew in advance that her visit to the Alberta Tar Sands oil extraction site in Fort McMurray, Canada, would be an exercise in self-inflicted agony, and it was.

As Symens-Bucher viewed the dead gray landscape from the air, she wept. For thousands of years, the area had been a lush green boreal forest. Now the earth was being ripped apart by vast three-stories tall yellow machines used to get to the oil beneath.

Oil sands infringe
on morality


By Sharon Abercrombie
Staff writer


Canadian tar sand removal has come under the scrutiny of the Canadian Catholic Bishops as well as Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and local indigenous groups.

Four months prior to St. Elizabeth parishioner Anne Symens-Bucher’s tour of the Alberta Tar Sands site, Bishop Luc Bouchard of the St. Paul Diocese in Alberta wrote a pastoral letter on “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands.”

The Canadian Religious Conference, headed by Dominican Yvon Pomerleau, quickly supported his critique of the project, saying, “The letter clearly represents the ongoing teaching of the Catholic Church and its concern for the environment and our responsibility toward caring for creation.”

Bishop Bouchard described oil sand extraction as the cause for significant environmental liabilities. The destruction of boreal forests reduces the earth’s capacity to store carbon and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, he said.

“For every barrel of oil produced, approximately one barrel of water is contaminated in the process and deposited into a tailings pond. Over the long term, a water shortage could threaten fish, wildlife, and the downstream community.”

The bishop made it clear that he was not directing his critical points to the “good people” of Fort McMurray who work for the oil companies but rather to “oil company executives in Calgary and Houston, to government leaders in Edmonton and to the general public whose excessiv

“What is urgently required are moral vision and leadership,” he continued, saying that the future development of the oil sands “is a serious moral problem to environmentalists and members of First Nations and Métis communities who are challenging the oil industry to adequately safeguard the air, water and boreal forest eco-systems of the Athabasca River.”

The bishop concluded that “the present pace and scale of developing the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified.”

Referencing Catholic theological principles supporting environmental ethics, the bishop pointed to the continuous unfolding of Earth’s creation as sharing in the fulfillment of Christ’s redemption. “That is what we pray for when we say, ‘thy kingdom come.’ To abuse creation, therefore, constitutes a lack of faith, a type of despair, or even a blasphemy.”

Bishop Bouchard referred to Pope Benedict XVI words: “Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence and vice versa.”

He said Jesus is a primary example of ecological consciousness. “His many references to flowers, birds, crops, the seasons and the weather reveal that nature has for him a revelatory significance.”
 
Taking a deep breath, she remembered the 500 migrating ducks that died when they landed on a pond poisoned by chemicals. Symens-Bucher could understand why her colleague, Buddhist author Joanna Macy, dubbed this particular strip mining site as “the landscape from hell.”

But there was no room in her heart for smugly righteous anger at “those people” within the multinational oil companies who have created what some critics call “the worst environmental disaster on the planet.” Because, for Symens-Bucher, the interconnectedness of all creation was all too obvious.

“I knew I was a part of it (the destruction) because my life style is based on cheap oil,” said Symens-Bucher, a member of St. Elizabeth Parish in Oakland. Human beings are not separate from the Earth, she added.

Symens-Bucher’s activism reaches back decades. While a high school student at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd, she often wondered why there seemed to be a disconnect between what she was being taught in religion classes regarding peacemaking and how most Christians were living it out.

After studying for three years at UC Santa Cruz, she decided to volunteer at Dorothy Day’s New York Catholic Worker House.

When she returned to Oakland three years later in 1980 to complete her religious studies major at Holy Names University, she and a group of friends founded their own Catholic Worker house dedicated to sheltering refugees from Central America.
That mission continues today on International Boulevard and is known as the Oakland Catholic Worker.

These experiences set the stage for her future work. In 1981, she became secretary to Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, then provincial minister of the Saint Barbara Province of the Franciscans.

Together with GTU student Michael Affleck, they organized a prayer vigil at the U.S. nuclear testing facility 40 miles from Las Vegas to celebrate the 800th birthday of St. Francis of Assisi. They planned it as a witness against ongoing nuclear and ecological violence stemming from bomb testing on the homeland of the Shoshone Indians. (She met her future husband, Terry Symens, at the vigil.)

The anti-nuclear event grew into the Nevada Desert Experience, an organization which continues to draw thousands of pacifists each year to pray and protest U.S. involvement in nuclear testing.

In 1998, Symens-Bucher’s social activism expanded into earth advocacy. While co-directing the Franciscan Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation office, this mother of five secured enough grants to start the Garden of Learning at St. Elizabeth School, her alma mater.

A hands-on curriculum

The garden is a hands-on curriculum in which students culture seeds, care for the plants as they grow, wash the harvested vegetables and fruits, bag them and take their produce to the parish food bank.

In 2008, Catholic Charities of the East Bay named her Catholic Woman of the Year.
For the past five years, Symens-Bucher has worked as personal assistant to Joanna Macy, Berkeley-based Buddhist environmentalist, anti-nuclear activist, author and teacher.

Last May, Symens-Bucher accompanied Macy to Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, where she and Jennifer Berezan had several speaking engagements. Berezan, an environmental songwriter who teaches at Holy Names University’s Sophia Center, hails from Alberta, the location for the Tar Sands oil extraction site.

There are six mines in the Fort MacKay and Fort McMurray areas about 270 miles northeast of Edmonton. It is the homeland to First Nation reserves on the Athabasca River. The area used to be a bountiful area for moose and bison, walleye and whitefish, mink, beaver, cranberries and blueberries. That all began to change in the 1970s and 80s when Syncrude, Canada’s largest oil producer, began strip mining for oil in the land’s tar sands.

It is the world’s biggest oil deposit after Saudi Arabia, according to a March 2009 National Geographic article. The U.S. Energy Information Administration identifies it as “consistently the top supplier of U.S. oil imports.”

‘We could smell the destruction’

Macy and Berezan used one of their speaking honorariums from Edmonton to hire a small plane so they could view the tar sands site at Fort McMurray. As they waited to board their flight, “we could smell the destruction (from the chemicals) in the air, we could taste it in our mouths,” said Symens-Bucher. During their 90-minute flight, “I was aware that I was not separate from the destruction.”

The ironies were right there. “We were using gasoline in the plane, gasoline which could have come from the tar sands themselves,” she said. During their stay in Fort McMurray, a family offered them hospitality in their home, which “was constructed of plastics made to look like wood. The plastics were derived from oil,” said Symens-Bucher.

One young indigenous activist told the visitors about the high rate of alcoholism and drugs around Fort McMurray. Cancer caused from the mining chemicals is rampant among both people and animals, he said.

Most of the people Symens-Bucher saw in the town “did not look happy” even though they are earning good money. “I believe everyone knows at some level what is happening to their environment,” she said.

Symens-Bucher’s reaction to the situation is to eschew anger in favor of compassionate listening. Indignant confrontational tactics will only bring up defensiveness reactions, “whether you are talking to one person, marching in a demonstration, or attending a stockholders’ meeting,” she said.

“There have been a lot of enemy images out there, but that kind of energy divides us. Instead, when someone is fully heard, they then have the space in them to hear my perspective. When it is all said and done, it is going to take everyone working together on the same thing, — environmentally sustainable energy sources — in a non-confrontational way,” she said.

As an example, she recalled the story of St. Francis who risked his life during the Fifth Crusade to travel to Egypt to speak with the Muslim Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The website for the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi explains that Francis wanted to preach the Gospel and become a martyr. Historians report, however, that Malik al-Kamil was deeply moved by the saint’s words and listened to him very willingly.

The Sultan was so taken with Francis’ goodness and gentleness that he placed the holy man under his personal protection and arranged for him to be safely conducted through several Muslim states so he could go back home to Italy.

Darvish, a Sufi web site, notes that “meeting the Sultan confirmed to Francis that we are all brothers and sisters. Neither converted the other and yet they met each other as men of God.”

Iconography of the eastern world shows the meeting of Francis with the Sultan. Darvish also reports that one of the Sultan’s Sufi spiritual counselors had engraved on his own tomb “that what changed his life was the meeting between a Christian monk and the sultan in his tent.”

Anne Symens-Bucher and her husband, Terry, will present an environmental workshop on Franciscan spirituality and Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” on May 21-23 at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville.

“A paradigm shift is underway as we wake up to the realization that our needs can be met without destroying our world,” said Symens-Bucher. “At the workshop we will explore our ecological selves through the lens of the Body of Christ in creation, using both new and traditional forms of prayer.”

 
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