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No Peace, No Climate or Environmental Justice

Beirut, Lebanon (2006) — Deric Gruen (left) spends time
sheltered in a hostel as jets streak overhead and drop bombs.

On July 10, 2006, I arrived in Beirut, Lebanon for the first time.  Lebanon was the “old country” of my mother’s parents, and it was a chance to connect with my heritage at its roots. I was also there for an internship at an organization called “Green Line Environmental Association” to make an intentional shift in the direction of my work toward environmental justice for both local and global impact.

It was not to be.

Two days later, Hezbollah fighters attacked armored vehicles on the Israeli side of the border killing three soldiers and capturing two. Israel then began airstrikes and fired on Lebanon, including bombing the international airport, the road to Damascus, and a ground invasion of south of the country.  Around 1,200 Lebanese people and 165 Israelis were killed, according to Wikipedia.

Pointing to Israeli planes
overhead from a Beirut rooftop
Looking for a way to evacuate

The “Green Line” Association was wordplay off the historic “Green Line” in Beirut that separated factions in the Lebanese civil war. The grassroots organization imagined a healthier Beirut and my work was to focus on sustainable transportation. The area suffered numerous environmental hazards from a country chronically misgoverned, if governed at all—among them pollution and safety from vehicles.

I never got to meet the folks from the Green Line in person that summer. Instead, I bided my time at a hostel while jets streaked overhead and dropped bombs. After about 10 days I heard about an option for U.S. passport holders to evacuate via a WWII-style beach landing boat north of the city to Cyprus.  I took that boat, walked across a demilitarized zone from Cyprus into Turkish Cyprus, and made my way home.

Evacuating Beirut
U.S. evacuation boat with evacuees
approaches larger docking vessel

Fast forward to 2024. The world is now watching another tragedy unfold on the eastern Mediterranean coast, at a significantly more devastating scale, with civilians most impacted.  The Washington Solidarity Statement, signed by the Front and Centered Community Council, calls for Washington State leaders and national leaders to use our influence and position to facilitate de-escalation in the region.  This week, Washington State voters have an unusual opportunity to have a say on whether the U.S. government is doing enough, as a campaign ramps up for voters to choose “uncommitted” on the Democratic party side of the primary election.

We must be compelled to seek peace amidst the tragedy and magnitude of lives lost and suffering, and there are also implications resulting from such violence and devastation as it exacerbates the deadly, slower moving forces of climate change and pollution. While war in the Middle East may feel like a world away from our work on climate and environmental justice, we ignore its consequences and our role at our shared peril.

The U.S. military is the single largest institutional source of greenhouse gas emissions by some accounts, but its emissions are not actually required to be reported as part of global agreements. The pollution of the seven military bases in Washington State; Hanford, with its role in the Manhattan nuclear bomb project; and our state’s role in more modern global military weapons and their delivery have scarred our landscape and intertwined Washington State’s economy with global conflicts. In Gaza a much worse story about the long-term impacts to the water, soil, and air from the deployment of these weapons, and the Palestinians made vulnerable to them through the denial of the essentials like water, food, and shelter, can and must be told. At the same time, Gaza is filled with countless stories of resilience, defiant joy, and a connection to the land that violence will never succeed in breaking.

It’s not just the environmental impacts of military and associated weapons movements that connect us, it is also the movement of people. People displaced by conflict and climate around the world continue to move to Washington State. Like many of us, my grandparents migrated under the backdrop of violence, my father’s parents escaping Nazi persecution in Germany. People forcibly displaced or fleeing persecution by fascist or colonial powers form the root of conflicts in the Middle East. Separating people from the land and water they steward has had disastrous consequences for human and environmental health everywhere it occurs. But it is people reconnecting to a culture of caring for each other, and for land, water, and life that hold promise to reduce conflict, pollution, and climate change. That starts with listening to the people suffering most right now and heeding their call to stop the violence and let them live.

Critical Mass Beirut

In 2010 I returned to Beirut after finishing graduate school with the grant from the University of Washington. I had come with my bicycle, with the idea of sustainable and just transportation still in my head. The opportunity with the Green Line organization had passed and Lebanon was only in worse shape from an environmental governance perspective. But the people I met when posting fliers around the city were excited to join me in starting a “Critical Mass” Beirut bicycle ride to make space for the sometimes recreational cyclists, but more often immigrant workforce who attempted to brave dangerous and dirty city traffic to get around on two wheels.

During that visit I cycled all over the tiny country and experienced its legendary beauty from mountains to sea, I met long lost family, and filled my belly and my spirit enjoying the nightlife. I also saw the extreme environmental hazards and the poor conditions displaced Palestinians experienced. Lebanon has only faced greater challenges since 2010 with the war in Syria, a devastating explosion at the port, and an economic meltdown and continued instability as a pawn in the political game of more powerful actors often experiences. Returning home made me more committed and grateful to Washington State and the opportunity to participate in governance than ever before, flawed as it may be.

Lunch in Lebanon
Reuniting with long lost family

Environmental Justice originated as a highly local and highly American movement. But in today’s global movement for a Just Transition, the trans-local nature of our work is impossible to ignore. We must own up to the reality that our work on climate change in Washington does little to preserve a safe climate without global solidarity. Without peace, demilitarization, and self-determination, there’s no chance the transition we seek will be just, let alone in the direction of a healthy environment for all.

Ramadan starts this week and begins an important month of reflection for people of Muslim faith. Washington voters cast their ballot by March 12, which should also cause pause for reflection around what is happening in our name. Some will make a unique choice to send a message as they seek to align with people from other states and the nearly the whole world in calling for the U.S. to do more for an immediate and permanent end to violence in Gaza. In doing so we may be on ever so slightly firmer footing for the global solidarity we need to make a Just Transition.