Long hiatus nearly over

September 15, 2010

As some of you know, I spent the summer with my family in earthquake-stricken Haiti working for a large intergovernmental organization. I’ll reflect some on what I did in the coming days. Sorry it’s been so long.

Spill, baby, spill

May 2, 2010

By the end of last week, media attention to the massive oil slick growing in the Gulf of Mexico was beginning to focus on the usual story lines: on corporate culprits (accusing or defending companies like Haliburton or BP), on government inaction, on failed technology, and on the first bird victim to turn up (a lonely, oily Northern Gannett seemingly looking for assistance).

As usual, the media have the wrong end of the stick. They should be featuring you and me in their stories, not to get a man-in-the-street perspective, but to berate us as the real culprits.

The blame for the unfolding tragedy, which will affect people as well as animals, economies and ecosystems, resides with all energy users. We are driven to drill in ecologically sensitive areas because people like me and you demand cheap electricity and gasoline. It is at our implicit and anoymous direction that the proximate culprits undertake known risks to the healthy functioning of productive oceans, marshes, and beaches, not to mention the danger posed to oil rig workers (like the 11 workers whose deaths are now barely mentioned by the media).

We don’t chant “drill, baby, drill,” but we might as well.

Such disasters are not “inconceivable,” as BP PLC Chairman Lamar McKay said on Sunday. They are to be expected if we continue using energy the way we have in the past. It is more than conceivable that more drilling in more dangerous places and difficult environments will lead to more accidents. Oil companies are willing to take those risks with their workers’ lives and with other people’s livelihoods. We do more than permit them to do so; we demand that they do so.

In last month’s energy atrocity in the Appalachians, there was a similar unwillingness to admit that we are all culpable, with some notable exceptions. Most attention focused on Massey Energy Company and it larger-than-life, bad-as-he-wants-to-be chief Don Blankenship. As villainous as the CEO appears, he can claim his company is, like the tobacco companies, merely delivering a legal product that people want to use. It’s true. And there were lax federal regulators to share the blame in that tragedy as well.

The side effects of coal use are underground mine disasters, and aboveground ecological disasters, and they are only about as inconceivable as lung cancer and emphysema.

We have permitted those disasters, pretended that they are accidents, and failed to recognize that we actually call them into being through our use of energy. We simply don’t holistic vision of the costly side-effects of our consumption decisions. When we use energy and demand the extraction of fossil fuels on the scale our economy requires, we cannot call these disasters and tragedies accidents.

Even more worrisome is the fatalistic reaction to the big picture. Having learned that the unavoidable costs of cheap energy are certain deaths of coal miners and oil rig workers, the certain catastrophe of mountaintop removal mining, and the certain destruction of oil spills, we too often adopt a faux courage, a resolute acceptance that these side-effects are simply inevitable. We forget that we have choices.

We can choose to develop our energy economy differently. Cleaner, renewable energies are more costly than oil and coal, but only marginally so. Events of the last few months should remind us that there are human and ecologocial costs that aren’t included in the prices of gasoline and electricity. Even nuclear energy is, on average, safer and cleaner. [There are risks, but they have to be compared with the certainties of fossil fuel extraction and use, like the 24,000 excess American deaths caused every year by coal power plant pollution, or the 1 in 6 babies born to mothers with toxic levels of mercury in their bloodstream.]

A recent report shows that the American South, depauperate in some forms of renewable energy, is actually the “Saudi Arabia of energy efficiency,” according to Dr. Marilyn Brown, who helped write the report.

Choices we make at the margin, to conserve or to consume, are incredibly important. Each increment energy we demand drives workers into riskier situations in ever more sensitive ecological areas. In contrast, each increment of energy we save or replace with renewable alternatives reduces the need for workers and creation to undergo these high risks. The payoff, even for small changes, is disproportionate to the costs.

It’s too bad our wake-up call must come in the form of disappearing mountains and expanding oil slicks.

Children, Animals, and the Imago Dei

April 26, 2010

I got to participate in two events on Friday and Saturday designed to bring children closer to creation. One took place in the inner city, the other (mostly) in the country. Both were signs of life and expressions of the imago dei, the image of God, granted to humans. They involved pit bulldogs, and wild birds, but not at the same time….

End Dogfighting in Atlanta

In the city, I stood at a press event with a dear brother, Ralph Hawthorne of the Humane Society of the United States, and his colleagues from animal stewardship organizations, to draw attention to an Atlanta program that aims to end dogfighting by helping urban youth train and care for their pit bulls, preparing them for showing instead of fighting. Professional dog-trainer Amber Burckhalter and a team of volunteers work with kids to learn wise animal stewardship, compassion, and responsibility. Read the rest of this entry »

Georgia Youth Birding Competition

April 26, 2010
Georgia Youth Birding Competition

Young birders atop an Indian mound at Ocmulgee National Monument near Macon, GA

On Friday and Saturday, my boys Angus and Ewan joined their friends Meggie, Patrick, and Eric, as a team competing in the Georgia Youth Birding Competition, in which teams try to spot (or hear) as many different bird species as they can in a 24-hour period. They started at 5 pm on Friday. All the teams converge on the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center near Mansfield, GA,to turn in their lists at 5 pm Saturday and to enjoy an awards banquet immediately afterward. There were lots of teams competing this year, in four age brackets.

Kids have to spot, identify, and record their sightings without adult help (except for driving!). Our team had 80 species, and placed third in the elementary group. The top team had just over a hundred birds!

Here’s our list from the 24 hour big day (birds added to the  life list of someone in the group are in ALL CAPS):

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Wood Duck
  3. Mallard
  4. Blue-winged Teal
  5. Wild Turkey
  6. Common Loon
  7. Double-crested Cormorant
  9. Great Blue Heron
  10. Great Egret
  11. Little Blue Heron
  12. Cattle Egret
  13. Black Vulture
  14. Turkey Vulture
  15. Osprey
  16. Cooper’s Hawk
  17. Red-shouldered Hawk
  18. Red-tailed Hawk
  19. Common Moorhen
  20. American Coot
  21. Killdeer
  25. Rock Pigeon
  26. Eurasian Collared Dove
  27. Mourning Dove
  28. Barred Owl
  29. Chimney Swift
  30. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  31. Red-headed Woodpecker
  32. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  33. Downy Woodpecker
  34. Northern Flicker
  35. Pileated Woodpecker
  36. Eastern Phoebe
  37. Eastern Kingbird
  38. White-eyed Vireo
  39. Red-eyed Vireo
  40. Blue Jay
  41. American Crow
  42. Fish Crow
  43. Purple Martin
  44. Tree Swallow
  45. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  46. Cliff Swallow
  47. Barn Swallow
  48. Carolina Chickadee
  49. Tufted Titmouse
  50. Carolina Wren
  51. Marsh Wren
  52. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  53. Eastern Bluebird
  54. Wood Thrush
  55. American Robin
  56. Gray Catbird
  57. Northern Mockingbird
  58. Brown Thrasher
  59. European Starling
  60. Cedar Waxwing
  61. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  62. Palm Warbler
  63. Common Yellowthroat
  64. Hooded Warbler
  65. Eastern Towhee
  66. Chipping Sparrow
  67. Field Sparrow
  68. Song Sparrow
  69. Swamp Sparrow
  70. Dark-eyed Junco
  71. Northern Cardinal
  72. Indigo Bunting
  74. Red-winged Blackbird
  75. Eastern Meadowlark
  76. Common Grackle
  77. Brown-headed Cowbird
  78. House Finch
  79. American Goldfinch
  80. House Sparrow

Climate economics challenges left and right

April 13, 2010

There are four key questions about the climate system I’d love for God to just answer for us. Unfortunately, he has chosen to let us figure them out. Not exactly on our own, though: we have his gifts of reason, and he does appear to have made an intelligible universe. Ignorance and sin afflict us as we try to apply these gifts, but the situation isn’t hopeless. We’ve figured out tough problems before (what caused the Black Death? how can we determine our longitude at sea? why can’t we put metal in the microwave?). But climate problems we’re still working on…

My questions distill down to these four (and if anyone can find Bible references on these, let me know  😉  ):

  1. Is the climate changing in ways that (do, or will) threaten human flourishing?
  2. If it is, are we causing any (substantial) part of that climate change?
  3. If we are, could we do anything (substantial) about it?
  4. If we could, should we do anything about it? (What would it cost to act? What would it cost to not act?)

As you might expect, a lot of furious debate occurs around Question 4, which is really about economics. Read the rest of this entry »

Cell phones save lives, help the poor tend the garden better

April 12, 2010

Africa transformed by cell phonesCell phones have the potential to transform our existence, as any parent of a teenager knows. There are benefits and costs to making cell phones are central part of our lives. Some of the dangers are not well-known, but neither are some of the benefits. Read the rest of this entry »

Church ladies fight strip mining instead of strip clubs

April 5, 2010

In Tennessee, legislators are used to seeing church ladies with a range of traditional social concerns. Recently they’ve discovered a new set. The women of LEAF (the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship)  are among the most informed and eloquent advocates fighting the most destructive form of coal mining threatening eastern Tennessee, mountaintop removal mining (or MTR). Their deep faith, reasonable theology, and encyclopedic knowledge of the dangers of mountaintop removal mining has begun to earn them a reputation in Nashville, as recounted in this recent story from The Tennessean.

I’ve met Pat Chastain and Pat Hudson several times now (and look forward to meeting Dawn Coppock). I wish that every environmental advocate could take lessons from their gracious demeanor and their sacrificial determination to see justice done for the people Appalachia. Learn from them. Pray for them. Support them!

EPA proposes landmark veto of mountaintop removal mining permit

March 30, 2010
Mountaintop Removal Mining

Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia (John Paget | PagetFilms.com).

In what is regarded by many as a sea change for the most reckless and destructive form of coal mining, mountaintop removal, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday issued a proposal to veto a large-scale mining permit already approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers (Washington Post; New York Times)

Arch Coal Inc.’s Spruce No. 1 mine would degrade surrounding water quality, fill more than 7 miles of headwater streams and affect more than 2,000 acres of forest, EPA said.

That would be really bad for the people who get their drinking water from those mountains. Never mind the violence done to some of the oldest and most beautiful mountains in America.

The Clean Water Act grants EPA authority to veto Corps-issued permits for surface mines on environmental grounds, but it has only used that authority 12 times since 1972. Never before has the agency vetoed an already-issued permit.

An EPA willing to flex its muscles on behalf of poor mountaineers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining is a significant change from recent policy. “The EPA is showing signs of backbone on this issue,” says Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agency has already acknowledged the science confirming that this extreme form of strip mining is incompatible with environmental protection.”

Peter Illyn, of the Christian environmental group Restoring Eden, says, “It’s about time. There’s no moral, ecological, or economic justification for the damage that mountaintop removal  does to the people, to the water, and to the ecosystems of Appalachia.” Illyn’s group works with local partners in Appalachia to bring Christian leaders and college students to the region. “I’ve seen some of the most broken places on the globe, but I’ve never seen such egregious damage done in the name of cheap energy.”

Other signs also suggest that Big Coal’s days raping and pillaging the Appalachian Mountains may be numbered.

Fewer and fewer people are actually employed in mining coal in the Appalachians, as Big Coal has moved from underground mining to blasting the tops off mountains. The new hyper-violent strategy is cheaper, and employs a lot fewer people (some coal companies have laid off 90% of their workers). Coal’s constituency is being reduced to the barons who use profits to buy influence but don’t create jobs. More and more former miners are realizing the loss of their natural heritage. “The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved,” says Allen Johnson of the West Virginia based advocacy group Christians for the Mountains.

A recent study from West Virginia University indicates that for every dollar of benefit coal mining produces, there are five dollars of health care costs borne by innocent bystanders. If coal companies weren’t able to offload their costs on third parties, mountaintop removal mining wouldn’t exist.

And David Roberts from Grist comments that even long-time coal defender Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has shown little desire to defend the practice of obliterating his home state. (West Virginia’s junior senator, Jay Rockefeller, and much of their Congressional delegation, don’t seem to be similarly enlightened.)

We could get rid of mountaintop removal mining with a negligible effect on energy prices, since only 5% of the nation’s electricity comes from such intemperate practices. The temptation will be to try to tinker at the margins of current technologies. Such an attempt will be misguided, according to Perks of the NRDC. “What EPA needs to do now is finally recognize that when it comes to this practice, there’s no way to mitigate the damage by tweaking the regulations.  You can’t mend mountaintop removal, you have to end it.”

Further resources:

Restoring Eden | Mountaintop Removal Campaign

Christians for the Mountains

NRDC “No More Mountaintop Removal Mining”

LEAF (Tennessee-based Christian advocates against MTR)

Emergence, emergents, and libertarianism

March 19, 2010

Over on Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed”, Michael Kruse has a guest post on what he claims is a “selective appeal” to emergence theory (a theory about the operation of complex systems). I think he misunderstands emergence theory, or applies it in only a limited way. The post is worth reading, and that’s necessary to understanding my comments. But in a nutshell, he asks why emergent or emerging Christians aren’t economic libertarians. They argue that spontaneous order will still emerge even when the shackles of authority are thrown off. Sounds kinda like theological libertarianism. But it’s not. Read the rest of this entry »

How front porches encourage loitering (aka “community”)

February 22, 2010

If you walk or bike or drive from Downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, your transect encompasses an architectural spectrum that tracks the twentieth century. Close to downtown is the King District and Cabbagetown, shotgun houses each with its own front porch, in easy speaking distance of passers-by on the sidewalk, or even front porch sitters across the street. People walk, and see each other walk, and get to know each other, and have encounters that are at just the right level of intimacy to foster engagement. The built environment creates the opportunity for community-building. A visitor unused to seeing foot traffic on the street would think there’s a lot of loitering going on.

Further on, the front porch reaches its pinnacle of development in 1920s and 30s Craftsman bungalows. Then a diminishment sets in, as porch sizes are reduced, and they migrate to the sides of houses, while the front element is reduced to a mere stoop, sometimes with awning, sometimes without. Eventually there is no porch, no stoop–the only thing facing the street is the automatically-controlled door to a 2, 3, or 4 car garage. Life happens on the back deck. There is no loitering, and walkers may be looked on with suspicion.

Kendra Juskus writes this month, on the Flourish weblog, about front porch culture and African history , in honor of Black History Month. It’s a fascinating piece, in which she explores why front porches act as bridges between public and private spaces, and how that builds community. My family’s own experience in urban Atlanta was to discover how in an older African American neighborhood, life still happens on the street side of the house. People tend to sit out front, to barbecue out front, and to live life in closer proximity to neighbors than in the housing districts that emphasize private spaces.

In related pieces this month, we explore how churches can begin to re-inhabit their neighborhoods and communities by allowing the “front porch mentality” to influence their architecture, landscaping, event planning. Churches have in many cases allowed their facilities to become semi-private spaces that are more like private clubs than public buildings, and how we might overcome that, through thoughtful changes to the built environment, in the way we welcome walkers, bicyclists, and in the way gardening accomplishes community-building.

Public spaces are endangered in modern American landscapes, and our politics and community-mindedness suffer as a result. When you have to buy a ticket or a coffee or a beer to encounter other people in neutral spaces, you lose some folks. How do we encourage spiritual loitering in a rat-race world?

Do you have ideas about how to retrofit our landscapes and lives to foster a front-porch culture? Write us (rusty@flourishonline.org). We’re happy to receive feedback and would love to share your ideas with others.