Ecology/Environment Feed

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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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).

Are we collectively immature?

My friend Donald Wester, Junior sent me this link to an essay by Bill Plotkin arguing that the various problems we currently face as a culture result from our lack of maturity.  We have not developed in the proper way and therefore lack the ability to address the issues that face us.  An interesting thesis.  He writes, "Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world and with our souls, and consequently we are doing untold damage to both."

What Happened?

Tornado forecasting was invented in Oklahoma, at Tinker Field.  This was a necessity, as tornados are part of our way of life and death.  And over the years, we got damn good at tornado prediction and coverage.  We have the best local television weather divisions in the country, who invest heavily in the latest equipment and newest technologies.  By the 1990's they could predict what minute a cell would reach a specific intersection.  All the divisions have helicopters who follow the storms, so you can watch live on television and know whether you are in the direct path or not.  We Oklahoma citizens become amateur meteorologists ourselves.  We know meteorological terms.  We can read radar images, even before they are interpreted by the weatherman.  We are drilled in disaster procedures from earliest childhood.  Oklahoma is so good at it, that I've always been afraid only when I'm someplace else and a storm comes, because I do not trust that the local news in other states knows what to do or possesses the technology required.

And, so, on May 3, 1999 when nature hit us the hardest it ever had, it tested all our systems and preparedness.  The storm that ripped through Moore, Mid-Del, and Stroud was the worst ever recorded, with winds over 300 miles an hour.  Scientists debated whether they should create the category of F6, which does not exist, in order to describe it.  The weather system that night spawned 72 tornados, the most ever spawned from one storm.  Almost every citizen of the state had to take shelter at some point in the night.  You wondered if  you should stay awake until it all passed.

And the next day, as devastated as everything was, we were proud that the death toll, for such a mighty storm, was surprisingly low.  "Gary England saved lives" you would hear, referring to the legendary channel 9 weatherman.  Our systems had worked as well as could be expected.

Which is why May 20, 2013 will be so devastating psychologically.  By every measure, this monster was not as strong as May 3.  Yet, the destruction in Moore seems worse and the death toll is so much higher.  We thought that in the 21st century we had done our best to conquer this catastrophe.  Nature reminds us that we have not.

My only guess is that the time of day is the major factor.  May 3 hit in the early evening, during the dinner hour, with storms raging well into the night.  So most people were home from work and school and off the roads.  This storm hit while people were still out and about and gathered in workplaces and schools.

We have a cavalier attitude towards tornados.  It shocks people from other places.  I'm not sure I can explain it, but I will try.  

Catastrophe is part of our story and identity.  We are aware from childhood that death and destruction come unexpectedly and hit randomly.  You survive, really, because you've been lucky enough not to be in the direct path of a mighty storm.  Rather than cower in fear or anxiety, the storm has elicited a defiant spirit -- courage in the face of death and resilience and generosity when--not if--destruction comes.

That is why we go outside and watch the storm if we are not directly in its path.

I was struck today by something I heard one of the children say on CBS This Morning.  Norah O'Donnell was asking him about his experience and he said, by introductory way of explanation, "This was my first tornado."  He said it matter-of-factly.  And there is great meaning in it.  Even this child had lived with the expectation of some day encountering the storm.  Lives still with the understanding that this is his first tornado.  

But I think something will be different this time, because our systems didn't work as they have, and this monster killed too many of us.  Maybe Oklahoma will finally pass building codes that acknowledge reality.  You cannot build in California without taking earthquakes into account or in Florida without preparing for hurricanes.  Oklahoma has never required tornado safe and resilient buildings.  Oddly, many of our oldest structures are the safest.  The oldest homes usually have cellars.  After May 3, it was shocking that we didn't pass new laws.  We cannot repeat that mistake after May 20.

This morning I heard an old woman on CBS say "The sound was like a turning of the world."

Pipeline and Politicians

The publisher of the York New Times, the paper in the small town of York, Nebraska, strongly criticizes Nebraska's politicans for supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline and, even more, for refusing to be present to listen to Nebraskans strong opposition.

Let’s get serious. The nation’s final KXL environmental hearing was held at the same venue as the Nebraska State Fair. Had this been an actual state fair, this current crop of elected officials would have been thicker than flies over at the bovine barn. But their minds were made up and nothing their constituents would say, nor over 800,000 comments submitted to the State Department, means anything to them. That says a lot about their view of democracy, doesn’t it?

Their absence was a glaring embarrassment on a day when the nation came to Nebraska to listen to the people, and our state leaders didn’t want to hear a word.


Bag in the Wind

Bag in the WindBag in the Wind by Ted Kooser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was Chaplain of the Day at the Nebraska state legislature today. After I had given the invocation, conversed with a handful of Senators and their aides, enjoyed an Ernie Chambers speech, and (in total) spent about an hour in the chamber, I chose to head on home. On my way out, I stopped by the gift store in the Capitol. The store had the best selection of Nebraska-themed books I have yet encountered -- many stores hear have excellent Nebraska-related collections; the literary tradition here is valued.

I picked up a single volume copy of Neihardt's Cycle of the West, which I had not seen anywhere else before, and browsed a number of other interesting books, registering some which I'd like to read or own some day.

In the children's book section, I encountered this beautiful book cover and interesting title and was intrigued to see that Ted Kooser was the author. Kooser is a former poet laureate and a Nebraskan. I read one of his books last spring and very much enjoyed it. I have two books of his poetry that I plan to get to this year. I was curious what a children's book by him would be like.

I picked it up and skimmed it and could tell that it was indeed a lovely book -- lovely art and lovely story, so I purchased it and read it this evening.

This is a magnificent story about the travel of a grocery bag. For anyone interested in teaching their children about recycling, the environment, the homeless, gender equity, or thrift shops, you should get this book. The moral themes are not preached at, but lie within the elements of a well told story.

Also, indicative of Kooser, the natural landscape is a significant character in its own write. Here it is lovingly described and illustrated.

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