Ecology/Environment Feed

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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Arianna Huffington, writing from Davos, discusses "resilience," the new value necessary for surviving and thriving in the 21st century.  

I first heard resilience discussed in an NPR story as a value that some cities were embracing in their architecture and design.  No longer is sustainability enough, we have now moved into the era when we must cope with globe climate change and defend ourselves against it.

Huffington takes the value to the broader level of global systems.

I'm curious how it will apply in the smaller systems in which I work, church, non-profits, household, etc.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over Thanksgiving weekend I visited Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas with Mom and Michael. While browsing the books, I saw this title from Michael Pollan. I had heard of it before, but had not considered it. This time it arrested me because I was about to begin a sermon series for Advent focused on desire. Hmm, would there be sermon illustration material in the book? I bought it.

And, yes, I used some of his stories of apples in my sermon the First Sunday of Advent. Clearly the illustration worked, as people talked to me about it through the following week, and even one church member posted on Facebook, "Am I the only one who has been thinking about apples all week?"

The main point of Pollan's book is that plants have evolved to match human desires and, thus, have succeeded at the evolutionary game. In other words, playing off of human desire has been good for some plants.

The book focuses on four desires and four plants, with interesting excursions and tangents in every chapter. Sweetness and apples; beauty and tulips; intoxication and marijuana; and control and potatoes. The book is one part exploration of human culture and one part exploration of botany. It is a joy, revelation, and delight.

Here is the story of Johnny Appleseed, tulipomania in Holland, and the potato famine in Ireland. There are excursions to Kazakhstan for the home of the apple and Peru the home of the potato. You learn about agri-business and the drug war and genetics.

Each chapter contained much of interest. I learned much about the development of marijuana and how the drug war has resulted in even more potent versions of the plant as growers have developed incredible new techniques. This chapter spoke about many of the hypocrisies of the drug war, often covered material, but within the context of a larger human desire. We need to be able to forget most of the information that we receive every day. There are natural processes built into the human brain to do this, but we can still become overloaded and have sought plant chemistry to help us with this. In fact, we use many different plants to alter our systems (caffeine, chocolate, chamomile, etc.). He also discusses how the plant-based high was perceived as a pagan threat by Christianity and connects the oppression of witches and sorcerers with their gardening abilities. Modern medicine is simply the controlled professionalization of this use of plants.

In the final chapter, on the potato, he discusses genetic engineering and modern agri-business. Wendell Berry is quoted a few times. It was also interesting to learn some of the history of the potato, particularly how it my be the one thing most responsible for the shift of power in Europe from the south to the north in the early modern era.

I recommend this book to all my friends interested in food, everyone who has read Wendell Berry, those who garden, and those who like history from the perspective that isn't focused on politics and government.

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