Ecology/Environment Feed

What Are People For?

What are People for?: EssaysWhat are People for?: Essays by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first encountered Wendell Berry in freshman English at OBU. The essay we read seems to be in this volume, "Word and Flesh" (at least this essay makes the same points I remember from 1992). At the time I disagreed with him, particularly that problems, including environmental problems, cannot be approached globally but can only be addressed locally.

I came back to Berry near the turn of the millennium, when I read his poetry and fell in love. The poetry invited me into the essays, and Berry has been one of the most significant influence on my thought.

But his ideas are rarely easy for me. In fact, they are quite difficult. He is not a writer I read for confirmation of my own ideas, but to convict and challenge me. Whenever I read him, I am reminded of my hypocrisies and moral failures.

Back in 2004 I considered following Berry's advice and abandoning my life and career and moving to a poor small town to become a teacher and grow much of my own food. I didn't do that. I came out, and gay life led in a very different direction. Though I did have friends who did something of the sort.

It is exciting in 2017 to see Berry's influence for good upon our culture--the local food movement, more sustainable agriculture, more awareness about food ethics, the various craft movements, etc.

This is one of the essay collections I had long planned to get to. It seems particularly apt in our Age of Trump, even if the essays are from the 70's and 80's. What Berry was warning us about has come to fruition.

I marked up this volume like my adolescent Bible. I will return to it often.

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The Pipeline: Public Reason, Affection, and Stewardship

Today I watched a fascinating exercise in public reason--the Nebraska Public Service Commission receiving more than seven hours of public testimony about the proposed Nebraska route for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

First, some background. It is activists in Nebraska who largely killed the pipeline twice before. First, when it might have been approved by the Obama administration, Nebraska was the hold up, as there was no approved route here.  At the time even some of the GOP political leadership of the state opposed the original proposed route.  A special session of the legislature was held, new laws were created, and cases were adjudicated in court.  When Obama did finally rule against it, it was again after years of activist leadership by Nebraskans.  These same folk have now returned to oppose it again with President Trump having reignited the fight.

At the current moment there is no approved route in Nebraska and so the Public Service Commission must approve a route.  The purpose of today's public hearing was to receive public testimony on Trans-Canada's application.

In Nebraska the opposition isn't quite what people outside the state expect--it is a bipartisan coalition that includes environmental activists but also conservative ranchers who oppose their land being taken through eminent domain by a foreign company.  This latter point has always for me been the clear public reason the pipeline should be killed.  

Nebraska is an agricultural state and has never before really had to wrestle with the fossil fuel industry, so this experience has been eye-opening for the people.  Nebraska sits atop the Ogallala aquifer, which provides fresh water for five states.  But here it comes within a few feet of the surface, and in the Sandhills in particular it can bubble to the surface.  The Sandhills are a unique and fragile ecosystem which sustains the state's agriculture, is on the route of many endangered migrating bird species, and is deeply beloved in the state for its beauty.

Keystone already has an earlier pipeline which runs through the state further east, away from the aquifer and the Sandhills.  It has always been a puzzle that Trans-Canada didn't simply build the new pipeline where they already have an easement.

So today's hearing reminded us of many of those issues and more.  Proponents, which were far outnumbered by opponents, spoke primarily about job creation, though many studies have indicated that the short-term construction jobs will have a minor economic impact upon the state.  Nevertheless, the union construction workers who testified, spoke compelling of the importance of those jobs for their livelihoods and their families.  They spoke of the skill with which they build, the pride they take in their work, and the concerns they have as Nebraskans for the land and its well-being.

Opponent testimony varied across a wide-range of points-of-view and represented the vast geographical spread of the state.  Some spoke against the bullying and manipulative practices of Trans-Canada.  Many spoke of the bad deal offered landowners in Trans-Canada's easement.  Some said that if there was going to be a pipeline, then put it in the route where the first pipeline is.  Many spoke about the dirty tar sands and the potential ecological disaster from the pipeline leaking.  Some spoke about climate change and the need to invest in renewable energy instead.  Many worried what would happen decades or more from now when the pipeline is no longer needed and neither the law nor the easements require Trans-Canada to attempt to reclaim the land. People spoke of Nebraska agriculture, the beauty of the landscape, Native American cultural sites along the route, negative economic impacts, and more. 

In fact, so many reasons were given for being opposed that it was difficult to imagine that the opposition won't outweigh the support.  

And the people speaking presented all walks of life, but with a heavy preponderance of rural folk, particularly farmers and ranchers.  (This left me puzzling over the post-election analysis of the rural-urban divide, analysis I've always thought too trite and not reflective of life here in the heartland).

I was fascinated watching this democratic process and this effort at public reason.  Here were competing points-of-view.  Some arguments were more persuasive than others, some more compelling than others.  I learned a lot, including from the proponents.

Also, the speakers who became passionately angry and even sometimes mean in what they said (and frankly this was usually opponents) did not serve themselves well.  And too many speakers reiterated points already made, some times many times before.  But many speakers gave very well reasoned, well researched, and well presented persuasive arguments as to why the pipeline doesn't serve the public interest of Nebraskans.  

I was speaker number 119.  I didn't get a chance to speak till after 4 p.m. and wasn't sure I would as I didn't want to cover ground someone else had already talked about.  But no one had spoken of the issue from the perspective of the Christian faith, so I did.  I was surprised by the absence of clergy, particularly from my denomination, which has long opposed the pipeline.  I stated that our stewardship of nature is among the first commands God gave us and that if we are to fulfill our moral and religious obligations then we should reject the pipeline.

Most compelling for me were the ranchers and farmers whose land would be seized in eminent domain who opposed the pipeline.  Many are living on land that has been in their families since it was homesteaded in the 19th century.  Many hope the land will remain in their family for a century or more to come.  When they spoke of their land it was with deep affection (which reminded me of Wendell Berry) and an abiding sense of responsibility that goes by the old word stewardship.  They spoke of the fragility of the Sandhills soil and how their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers learned that once it was improperly disturbed it could not be restored to its former self.

Most powerful were the landowners who broke down weeping.  Usually men.  One could barely speak of how his family is afraid of losing their land.  They have had to mortgage it and they worry that the pipeline will destroy what makes it special.  Early in the day a rancher who had to be in his eighties was the first to cry, weeping as he spoke of his love and responsibility for his family land and his deep fear that his land will be seized and ruined.

So, an overwhelming and diverse group of Nebraskans testifying that this pipeline isn't in the public interest.  Many good and compelling rational arguments.  And the heartbreaking pleas of the farmers and ranchers who love the water and land God has given into their stewardship.  What the Public Service Commission should do is quite clear.


Hoka Hey

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I stood there admiring the eagle feather that Black Elk gave to John Neihardt.  The feather had belonged to Black Elk's father.  Then I noticed that the display also included Black Elk's coup stick, which surprised and amazed me.

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I was at the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.  John Neihardt had been Nebraska's poet laureate, the author Black Elk Speaks, the Cycle of the West, and more.  Ever since I'd read the first six years ago I had planned to eventually get to Bancroft and the center and so part of my sabbatical is catching up on some of those things I've long planned to do.

When I read Black Elk Speaks I was struck by the power and authenticity of Black Elk's vision and have incorporated it into my own writing and preaching.  While on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years ago, I visited Black Elk's cabin.

The great Lakota holy man had spoken his vision to Neihardt who then wrote it down and shared it with the world.  The Neihardt center is Bancroft has preserved Neihardt's writing study, a garden he designed according to the Lakota image of the sacred hoop, and encourages the furtherance of Neihardt's and Black Elk's legacies.

I was the only visitor at the center while I was there.  Amy, the director, welcomed me with "Let me turn all the lights on for you."  Then she asked if I wanted coffee.  For the next hour or so we carried on a great conversation about Neihardt and Black Elk.  She said that there are quite a few ministers who come in or call, and some are writing about Black Elk.  I had told her about my "Theology of the Plains" project.  She said, "I think quite a few people would be interested in that."

I bought a number of book I had yet read and received a free tote bag.

In the morning I had driven US-75 north from Florence through rich farm country.  After Bancroft I headed northwest to Pender, then continued east to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation and then to Winnebago on the Winnebago reservation.  The development in the latter was striking.  I toured the sculpture garden which represents the various clans of the Ho-Chunk nation.

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From Winnebago I headed south along the scenic route that is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail toward Macy, which is part of the Omaha reservation.  Three years ago our church had planted trees at the Omaha Care Senior Center as part of our denomination's Mission 4/1 Earth.  I was pleased to see that the trees are thriving.

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I stopped in Decatur for lunch at a place church member Bob Vassell had recommended, but they had quit serving lunch fifteen minutes before.  I crossed the Missouri and headed south along Interstate-29, exiting at Missouri Valley in order to visit Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Okay, I should have gotten there a long time ago.  But often in our early years here it was flooded or recovering from flooding.  The visitor's center contains a remarkable display.  In the 1960's a sunken steamboat, the Bertrand, was excavated and what was discovered was that the mud had preserved the cargo from 1865.  Much of that, commercial goods and the possessions of travelers, is now on beautiful display.  According to the informational cards, some items are the only surviving ones in the world.

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The refuge was beautiful on this mild, sunny day.  Birds were playing and singing.  I saw a deer while walking the trails.  I've been meaning to get there some spring during the waterfowl migrations and must resolve to do so in 2017.

Hoka Hey is Lakota for "Let's go!"


Praise Be

Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common HomeEncyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis : On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a few papal encyclicals through the years, but none were as inspiring to me as this one. Francis is an easy and engaging writer. Benedict to craft intricate theological statements. And John Paul paradoxically combined the writing talents of a poet and playwright with the sometimes obscure philosophical speculations of a phenomenologist. Francis' writing is both clearer and more engaging to a wider readership.

And what he writes is challenging and inspiring. In many ways, there is nothing new here. The Roman Catholic Church has long criticized Western capitalism for its greed, consumption, and exploitation and/or neglect of the poor. But what Francis has accomplished is a beautiful, cheerful, and hopeful connection of the deep problems of our current society--ecology, economy, and quality of life. He has sought common ground with other faith groups and nonbelievers while also articulating specifically how a catholic, Trinitarian theology promotes engagement with the poor and radical changes in our lifestyles in order to live as better stewards of the earth.

I intend to look back through the letter (I've been reading it here and there over the last month during free time at work) in order to organize my thoughts more. I very likely will preach on topics from the encyclical this autumn.

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Keystone and the State Department's Wrong Question

Jeffrey Sachs writes that the recent State Department report on the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline didn't even ask the correct questions.  There is also a good video interview with Sachs, at the link.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the tragic, indeed fatal, flaw of the State Department review. The State Department Environmental Impact Statement doesn't even ask the right question: How do the unconventional Canadian oil sands fit or not fit within the overall carbon budget? Instead, the State Department simply assumes, without any irony or evident self-awareness, that the oil sands will be developed and used one way or another. For the State Department, the main issue therefore seems to be whether the oil will be shipped by pipeline or by rail. The State Department doesn't even raise the possibility that the pipeline should be stopped in order to keep a lid on the total amount of unconventional fossil fuels burned around the world.

The core assumption of the report is that the US Government has no role to play, either alone or in conjunction with Canada and other countries, to stay within an overall global carbon budget.

According to the State Department, in other words, the US Government is just a passive spectator to global climate change. 


Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

Sex, Economy, Freedom, and CommunitySex, Economy, Freedom, and Community by Wendell Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those Wendell Berry classics which I had not yet read. There are actually quite a few of those, which is funny given how important Berry has been to me. I guess I continue to return to those favourites savouring them and allow them to influence me anew.

Some of the specifics of this book are dated, but the general themes are not. In fact, many of the issues that alarm him are even more severe now than in the early 90's.

I probably underlined at least one sentence on every page.

Last week when the UCC was debating divestment from fossil fuels, I sat down in the convention center lobby to await Michael who was still in a committee meeting, and read Berry while I waited. He was talking about tobacco farming and why immediately ending tobacco farming was not a wise decision because it would harm a local economy of small farmers which would result in a loss of knowledge and care essential for maintaining the land.

The final essay, the title one, has much that we should reflect upon and ponder. His discussions of sex and marriage are powerful (though I found myself wondering what a dialogue between Berry and Foucault or Berry and Judith Butler would be like). Here is one example:

"If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another 'until death,' are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, 'die' into their union with one another as a soul 'dies' into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing -- and our time is proving that this is so."

I intend to blog more about topics from the book, but this should suffice for my review.

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Divestment

Last week during General Synod, the United Church of Christ voted to begin a process of divesting from fossil fuels.  The Washington Post covers the story here.  

The original resolution called for immediate divestment, and I did not support it.  My reservations were

  • Many members of the United Church of Christ, including friends, family, and church members of mine, work for fossil fuel companies or receive royalties for oil and gas.  
  • A place like Oklahoma would be even poorer and more backward without the profits from fossil fuel companies, jeopardizing other of our social justice aims.
  • The best fossil fuel companies view themselves as energy companies and are the institutions with the resources and position to invest in sustainable and alternative energy.
  • I also thought we need to start a conversation, not make a final judgement.
The compromise resoultion, which passed, I could support.  It was worked out with United Church Funds and the Pension Board and called for aggressive action by UCC investors, including requiring us to bring resolutions to shareholder meetings.  It does begin a conversation, takes gradual steps, and allows for investments to remain in energy companies that are "best in class."  It was also a great example of democratic compromise (Congress, take note).