Environmental Policy

With our new life on the shore of Lake Erie, I seem to have a hard time getting back to the blog. But, to continue from last time, here’s how it went down:

It had been a beautiful wedding in a mansion that had once been owned by Andrew Carnegie, overlooking one of his favorite trout streams. I was sitting at the reception across the table from a Pennsylvania Senator’s chief aide. Our conversation was wild and wide-ranging, and since we liked many of the same things, very enjoyable. Somewhere in there, I laughingly said, concerning his Republican boss, “How can a political party jam-packed with hunters, fishermen and other passionate outdoorsmen, constantly find themselves on the wrong end of every environmental issue, every time you turn around?” Suddenly my companion turned dead serious. “They get it,” he said. “But it’s the money. They accept so much money from Big Oil and Big Business and Big Energy companies, they end up voting against the environment all the time. And it is killing us with young people.” I don’t remember the exact words of what all else he said, but he clearly expressed his frustration at knowing that money was buying votes that were clearly against the common good.

Now, we say this kind of thing all the time, “follow the money,” but here was the highest aide of a prominent Senator telling me that it was exactly the case. I don’t know really what to do to solve that problem, except to say that it may very well be that the answers to many of our pressing problems are not going to come from Washington D.C. It’s dis-heartening, because, as great organizations like Bread for the World have found, it’s a powerful venue.

But I wonder if the way things get turned around are more through cultural grass-roots movements in regular neighborhoods and regular high schools and regular towns, so that there is a growing crescendo in the culture that some things are simply not acceptable, and that vibe or perspective percolates upwards to the extent that finally enough representatives believe something to be generally true in the culture that their voting simply reflects the new milieu. I don’t know, but it worked for the environmental movement, who were considered whack-jobs in the 1960s and yet now, in 2016, every single one of their major talking points is considered normative in our culture; (Of course you recycle, of course you conserve energy, of course you don’t litter, etc etc). The fact that very powerful money now works against that enlightened awareness, remains a conundrum. In the meantime, maybe teach a kid to garden and fish.

Henry Beston, writing from his farm in Maine, said this in 1948:

It often strikes me that in our modern Babylons you never see anything begin. Everything comes to you, even thought, at a certain stage in its development, like an iceberg lettuce. Now life is more a matter of beginnings than of endings, and without some sense of the beginning of things, there is no proper perspective on the whole mystery of living. This is only one detail, but it will serve as one of the marks of the whole incomplete urban perspective in which we live. For the city governs us now as never before; it tells us what to love and what to hate, what to believe and what not to believe, and even what to make of human nature.” (Northern Farm, by Henry Beston; Ballantine: 1948).

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Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

Slow Ways and Means

If you are a practicing Christian investing your energy in the Kingdom of God, or a person working for the betterment of the world, maybe you should realize this will not be quick.  Almost every image Scripture (and Jesus!) used – seeds, trees, vineyards –  are images of slow.

I am pastoring again. I thought that phase of my life was over, but it is not. I am on the shores of Lake Erie with wonderful folk in an exciting church. And lots of snow.

Pastoring is slow business. Church growth sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t – it depends on lots of factors – and I’ve known it both ways. But pastoring is slow. It requires patience, to do it well. It involves a long obedience in the same direction, and you walk slowly through the years with people in their lives. As I said, it requires patience, because most of its best outcomes require time to germinate and come to fruition. It’s probably good I’m a gardener and tree-planter, fisherman and hunter too, as these things propagate patience in the soul. Having pastored some 22 years, I’ve become much more patient about these things than I used to be. And patience is a cousin to wisdom. Hard-charging isn’t the answer to every problem, though our culture certainly likes it, and it can cause outcomes you didn’t foresee, because you are rushing in – something Solomon said about fools.

So the ways and means of pastoring – and Christian spirituality for that matter – are slow. God is inefficient, one person quipped, just look at the Old and New Testament story – long and winding. I am thinking about this because I am reading Northern Farm by the great American naturalist Henry Beston. Whether you are working in International Development or something else, these words probably apply. At one spot, Beston says this:

“There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this – that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.

 In our barn the larger beams were worked over and squared by someone using what was probably an old-fashioned ship builder’s axe. They are honestly and carefully made, and something of the humanity of the past is in them to this day. Certain other beams have been sawed out, and they are good beams, too, though quite different in look and feeling. The means used in making have marked each kind of beam for all time.

 But I do not wish to labor the point. It is enough to say that prophets of expediency who are careless of the means they use and who work outside the human and moral values, have never been able to build anything humanly worth while.” (Henry Beston, Northern Farm; 1948. Pgs 70-71).

Locality and Tragedy

Author Barbara Kingsolver says that seeing death on the television in the news – a plane down here, a bomb there, a war over there – bombards our senses, alternatively numbing us or overwhelming us, but almost always with the sense that we can’t do anything about it. Because news is primarily visual outside of print and radio media, the images the news feeds us has to be driven visually. Presented as a random sampling of ‘what’s going on in the world today’, these images add to the sense of powerlessness in the face of enormous amounts of death. But they are not a random sampling of what is happening in the world. They are the worst of the worst – they are the images that get people to watch the news. It becomes, she asserts, a peculiarly unbalanced diet for the human psyche – one that does not reflect the day to day real world that most people live in, if they will actually live in it, rather than stare at the screen.

And so here’s what she does. In the summer, they move into a farm house whose ancient wiring is incapable of sustaining a TV. And the only media she partakes is the local newspaper, County News, comprised largely of farm forecasts and obituaries. And she bakes casseroles. Instead of being pommeled by visual accounts of catastrophic death she can do little about, or a politician’s or celebrity’s tragedies far away from her, she responds to each death in that local community. “On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles or whatever else I can offer. I believe… it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world,” she writes, “that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” Paying attention to the local deaths, she says, “is a healthy exercise. It helps me remember what death really is, and helps me feel less useless in the face of it.”

Kingsolver is not saying to hide in small communities and ignore the large-scale tragedies or injustices going on in the world. In fact, she writes quite a lot about those things. What she is saying is that a broadcast-news-only diet warps our view of the world, giving bad news and death a larger slice of the pie than they are in the actual realities of the world around us. In reality, when we step away from that screen, there are birds singing, sun shining, wind moving the leaves, birds migrating, gardens growing, birthdays being celebrated for first graders. There are mountains, quilts being sewn, marriages, cats purring, friends at the post office, suppers being cooked and enjoyed, “and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN.” If we take our view of the world overmuch from the news feed, we get a narrower slice than reality, and it can have negative, dysfunctional, depressive results in our view of things. Saint Paul, no stranger to the darker side of pain and evil in our world, advised, in regards to seeking to live a life of joy, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

Again, not a call to hide away and ignore the pain and suffering in our world, but a call to get a realistic slice of it within the larger picture of the creation all around us, rather than the narrowly disasterous, and psychologically destructive, view that comes from too much time on the newsfeed. Without a larger view of the good in creation and life all around us, we may be so worn down by the newsfeed that we find ourselves drained of energy to help in local situations where we actually can.

(Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays; Perenniel, 2002)

Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

If Climate Change is Natural, Does that Change Anything?

It never ceases to amaze me that two radio entertainers have convinced a majority of Americans that Global Warming is a hoax, although it happens to be a hoax that nearly every government on planet Earth believes is true, and is working to address. The immense confidence my fellow citizens have in these two entertainers is astounding. For sure, they are talented.

However, there is now another tagline alongside the hoax argument, and that is that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and so our use of fossil fuels (57% of the carbon dioxide released currently) shouldn’t matter. (What we do and don’t know about climate change is summarized pretty handily in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772 ).

So let’s consider the “it’s only natural” argument for a moment. First, certainly that is in part true. We know, from analyzing a variety of materials, that Earth’s climate has been both hotter and colder in the past. The polar caps on Mars were melting/shrinking/subliming the last few years, and of course my Chevy Silverado’s engine didn’t cause that.

However, it is also certain that we are releasing unprecedented amounts of CO2 in the last hundred years, and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. No one wanting to be serious should argue that increased greenhouse gas doesn’t contribute to the rise in temperature.

But if the temperature is climbing anyway (increased sun output, etc), should we bother trimming back on our contribution? Let’s think about that.

When it gets colder outside, I put additional wood on the fire. I mulch the flower beds deeper, wear an additional layer, and maybe add a layer of insulation to the attic. When there’s a drought in the summer I don’t water the lawn, and pay extra attention to when I water the garden. When the average frost line dips south, farmers look to more cold-resistant strains of grain. (At the moment, world governments are looking at heat resistant strains, and planting further north). In short, we make adjustments to our life due to climate all the time. Even when the changes are natural.

So, if climate changes are largely natural, should we do anything with our lifestyles? Several questions arise for North Americans, even if you leave out moral questions about how our decisions affect Fiji, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. First, do you like Florida? Because if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes off the landmass and into the water, Florida will no longer be above water. Goodbye. And one of our problems is that we simply don’t know when the tipping point in that slide is reached, so it’s hard to know if we are very close to danger in that area, or not. How about East Coast cities? Have you watched the news on this? The numbers of East Coast cities dealing with tidal flooding and writing up emergency plans for such is growing monthly. These are cities that never dealt with tidal floods in the past. Or consider the wheat belt in Kansas, et al. There is extreme concern of catastrophic crop failure due to a spike in temperatures. Your croissants are going to get very expensive. So expensive, that Bill Gates has already funded the 30 kilometer high balloon-lifted hose that would spray silicates into the high atmosphere to shield us from sunlight. It’s the most popular of the ‘geo-engineering’ projects being debated by world governments as we speak. Sound like science fiction? The money has already been spent. Governments have been discussing it in deadly earnest for some time now. Do you like coral reefs and seafood? Because industrial acidification is killing off the coral reefs, and we know this for a fact.

As a Christian who believes in the stewardship God placed us in over His world, I believe we should be a serious and thoughtful voice at the table these days as we try to figure out an appropriate response to climate change. My brother-in-law in Kentucky, a very wise follower of Jesus, said to me not long ago when I asked his opinion on all this, “I’ve always believed you should clean up any mess you’ve made, and avoid making a mess when you do something, if you don’t need to make one.” Good common sense.

So, in a word, here’s what I suggest is worth talking about: even if climate change is purely natural, it is very worth our time thinking together about how to adjust our contribution to it, because our contribution is exacerbating a situation that is already going to make life here more difficult. If I knew fire-danger was at an all-time high one summer, everything dry as a bone, and we had 25 mile an hour winds, I’m not going to burn a brush pile that day.

Poverty, lack, enough

I meant to post this two weeks ago, but my access to internet has been spotty the last few weeks. Looking around our new location (we have moved to SE Asia) has sparked thoughts about, among other things, what is poor and what is not. I am looking at the cover photo right now of Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick’s Theories of Development. It is a rural African scene, with the small clay-brick houses and stick-wall-and-thatch-roof homes of smallholder farmers. There are tools on the roofs, fruit trees around the homes… this field-and-tree homesteader view rolling into the distance, where it creeps one third up a mountainside, with the top two thirds of the mountain still wild-forested. The scene appears to have sufficient water, and there are harvested crops stacked and stored.

In terms of ‘material civilization,’ this scene doesn’t have a ton. It is a relatively sparse setting, in terms of the number of objects the households own. But does that make it ‘poor’? If there is sufficient water, food, shelter and clothing, is that poverty because there is less than rural Pennsylvania? (My grand parents and their parents used to say to me “we didn’t know we were ‘poor,’ everybody was.”) Or is poverty more an issue of enough, and then access to sufficient education, healthcare and opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and develop one’s life (… aka Amartya Sen)?

I have a feeling we often think ‘poor’ when looking at a material civilization without as many accumulated household goods and gadgets as is typical in the West. But I don’t think that’s accurate. My family of six came here with 12 suitcases of clothing and small personal effects (no one in their right mind goes across the world without their favorite fishing reels!) We then bought some furniture, an iron, some cooking and eating implements, and mosquito nets. Our new home (palatial as it is!) seems more than adequately outfitted. I now am wondering, aside from my books, why we shipped 200 cubic feet of household items and fun stuff. The families around us have far fewer material possessions than people accumulate in America, yet they do not seem poor at all. Alongside Sen, I wonder if our impressions and measurements of ‘poverty’ and ‘lack’ are often skewed toward material possessions that are not actually the determining indicators.