Review: The Garden of God

The Garden of God: Toward a Human Ecology, Pope Benedict XVI, foreword by Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s statements in homilies, papal greetings, letters, and other written documents, pertaining to a theology of human ecology.

Many would consider Pope Francis to be the environmental pope, especially with the issuance of Laudato Si. This volume shows that, at least in this respect, he builds upon the theology and actions of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Afterall, it was under Benedict that the Vatican went carbon neutral. This collection of the Pope’s writings on the environment in speeches, homilies, greetings to various governmental and international bodies, to youth and workers groups conveys a robust and far reaching ecological theology that offers distinctive contributions to our contemporary discussions.

The collection is divided three sections, and because of the “occasional” nature of these writings, many repeat similar ideas. I will discuss some of the key themes in each section.

Creation and Nature

Benedict begins with the idea of creation as the gift of a rational God, intended to be the Garden of God in which he placed human beings to enjoy and tend. From the beginning the peace and prosperity of human beings and the environment are seen to be integrally and reciprocally connected. And for our present day, we cannot hope to have peace in the world if we fail to protect the creation. Its peace is our peace. The creation was set up so that we might fulfill God’s plan for the flourishing of all his creatures, when we set ourselves up at the center and exploit the environment, we threaten our own existence. The protection of creation is also a matter of justice. Our failure to protect creation often puts at risk the poor and marginalized. Benedict celebrates the importance of everything from the Arctic to the Amazon as well as the fragile beauty of the earth as scene by space, with its vanishingly thin envelope of atmosphere on which our lives depend.

The Environment, Science, and Technology

Building on the idea of creation as the rational work of God, Benedict sees faith, knowledge, and science as in harmony. At the same time, the technological applications of science must be informed by the Church’s theology. Human ecology and environmental ecology must work together. He does not accept the pitting of humans against the natural world. The flourishing of families and societies, including the begetting of children is not at odds with seeking creation’s flourishing. Indeed, it is our task. In our time, this means moderating our consumption, turning to alternate energy sources, and ensuring the equitable access to the earth’s resources for all nations. He decries financial gains at the expense of the workers who make this possible, as well as speculative economies, that in the collapse of 2008, inflicted harm to the lives and livelihoods of the global community, as well as leading to environmental degradation.

Hunger, Poverty, and the Earth’s Resources

A number of the Pope’s messages in this section are to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. He urges the adequacy of the earth’s resources to feed the world’s people without compromising biodiversity. He decries policies that denigrate the dignity of agriculture and the rural parts of the world. He upholds the farmer as a model of upholding faith and reason, acting on his knowledge of the laws of nature while trusting in the providence of God. He calls for our solidarity with all of humanity for equitable access to food and the world’s resources. He believes this leads to sustainable development.

Most of the pieces are short, sometimes excerpts of longer documents. That makes this at once a resource for thoughtful Christian reflection on caring for the creation and a resource for those studying the environmental thought and advocacy of Benedict XVI’s papacy. Benedict contributes to the conversation the conviction of the transcendent basis for our use of reason in the care of creation. He affirms the role of humans, not only in environmental degradation but also in remediating these impacts. Human beings are part of God’s plan for the world. As leader of a global church, he speaks to global leaders about their responsibilities to all of humanity, and all living things. He affirms the spiritual values that enable people to renounce excessive consumption and make changes for the sake of both fellow human beings as well as the rest of nature.

I did find relatively few references to global climate change. There are concerns regarding his encouragement of equitable sharing of resources if this only means increased consumption of carbon-based fuels and more greenhouse gas emissions as other nations “catch up.” He seems more focused on land and water resources and assumes that climate will not drastically affect food production. Perhaps because we are further down the road as I write in 2023, we see more clearly the implications of our changing climate. Yet these impacts were not unknown in the years of Benedict’s papacy. Indeed it motivated the Vatican’s move to carbon neutrality. It seems more could have been said.

Yet what the Pope said and advocated was significant and far-reaching both in geographic scope and on the aspects of human existence on which he touched. It is striking how he wove these themes into so many papal messages. It both offers models and raises questions about how well we do this throughout the church. May we do as well.

Water Security

Photo by Pixabay on

Several weeks back I wrote a post on food security. It was in the wake of the Intel deal to build a huge manufacturing plant in Central Ohio, insuring the security of our micro-chip supply. But there is a form of security even more fundamental than food security, and that is water security. Human beings cannot live more than three days without water. Fifty-five to sixty percent of the human body consists of water.

In addition, we depend on water to grow both plant and animal food, as a source of power, for various manufacturing processes, and for transport among many other things. That Intel plant in Ohio? It is projected to use a staggering 5 million gallons of water per day, becoming the single largest user of water in Central Ohio. Ohio’s abundant supplies of water were no doubt one of the factors in siting the plant there. But they will now have to develop the infrastructure to move that water, and a reclamation plant to recycle at least some of the water used.

It seems that water may threaten our security in at least three ways:

When there is too little of it. Climate change is rendering many parts of our world much drier, not just for a year here and there but for the long term. The reservoirs that are supplied by the Colorado River have dropped by 50 feet or more to about 25 percent of their capacities, jeopardizing power generation as well as the supply of water to Arizona, California, and Nevada. And much of that supply, up to 80 percent, is for agriculture. It’s likely that the fresh fruit and vegetables in your refrigerator were grown there. But perhaps for not much longer–a major dislocation. NASA predicts that California has only one year of water. Given the low levels of water in rivers, streams and reservoirs, efforts are being made to tap into groundwater supplies in aquifers. But these are also finite and dependent on the same rainfall and runoffs for replenishment

When there is too much of it. We heard a presentation recently of a Christian school in rural eastern Kentucky that fought to recover from a hundred year flood last year, only to endure a thousand year flood this summer, with much higher floodwaters. One of the impacts of climate change in much of the eastern United States is more intense storms with heavier rainfall totals. That school has decided to re-locate out of its location in a hundred year flood plain because the once in a hundred or thousand year events seem to be coming much more frequently. Coastal communities like Fort Myers in Florida face greater storm surge, which in combination with rising sea levels can wreak ever greater devastation. And with the melting of ice from Greenland to Antarctica, rising sea levels will make many of our coastal cities new versions of Venice.

When impurities render it unpotable or toxic over the long term. It is a major wonder of infrastructure and technology that we can turn a tap, fill a glass, and drink it. This is not the case in many parts of the world, resulting in higher infant and child death rates, and underlying digestive illnesses for many. But bacteria are not the only danger to our water. Impurities are a major threat from lead that impairs child intelligence in many cities with aging water infrastructures to toxic chemicals that escape into adjacent groundwater, or are discharged by manufacturing processes. Finally, the possibility of sabotage always exists.

Many of our problems are ones that have been long foreseen, but ignored. John Wesley Powell, armed with watershed maps testified before Congress in 1890 about the limits the water supply of the West, situated in a desert climate, would impose on development. People did not want to hear him then and most still don’t want to heed his message. But it seems to me that the question needs to be asked whether the West, particularly in even drier and hotter conditions than Powell knew of, can sustain a growing population and the water uses to which it is accustomed. Likewise, climate experts have predicted with a high degree of accuracy the intensifying climate effects contributing to flooding and coastal inundations.

It seems it is probably past time for us to think about water:

  • How will what we know determine decisions about where we live, or don’t live?
  • How will we better steward existing resources, including the capture of rainwater runoffs, often wasted?
  • How will we protect and expand the supply of potable water, including in the permitting processes for industrial activity that may endanger it?
  • How will we manage water disparities in different parts of the country without creating water wars?
  • How will we think intelligently about various industrial uses of water to avoid disruptions in production while providing for other uses? How will we handle situations where demand exceeds supply?

Many places are already wrestling with these questions. Our presence on a burgeoning and changing planet means all of us need to grow in our awareness of these realities. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the warnings of John Wesley Powell and the host of others who have given public testimony about the challenges facing us. Every single one of us are within three days of extinction without water. That seems to me to be enough reason to care,

Review: How the World Really Works

How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil. New York: Viking, 2022.

Summary: A scientific, data-based assessment of how our advanced technological global civilization has developed, the challenges we face, and what it realistically will take to address these challenges.

Can we get to “carbon zero” by 2050? Why has it been so hard to get everything from computer chips to PPE? Why didn’t the dire predictions of The Population Bomb come true? Vaclav Smil would maintain that to respond to these questions, we need to understand the science, the data, of how the world really works. And it is often the case in our public discussions, we have refused to take a hard look at the scientific realities and the technological possibilities.

Take the Population Bomb illustration for example. Back in 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted massive deaths from famine resulting from overpopulation. At that time, the world population was 3.7 billion. Now it is over 8 billion, and no mammoth famines have occurred (yet). How could this be? It was the result of vastly increased grain yields resulting from hybrids and the intensive application of nitrogenous fertilizers manufactured with carbon-based fuels. Could we go back? Not easily–manure, the primary source of nitrogen before chemical fertilizers provides far less fertilizer, weighs far more and requires far more labor.

Or those shortages of chips and PPE. Facilitated by global supply chains, far-flung factories with lower wage scales, and container shipping, it was economically feasible to “offshore” manufacturing throughout the world. But is it wise, Smil asks, to manufacture 70 percent of rubber gloves in a single factory, or all our computer chips elsewhere? Manufacturing shutdowns and transport delays during the pandemic exposed this supply chain that all of us took for granted.

Smil challenges us to face the realities of modern life. Take our dependence on electric power. Apart from nuclear, carbon-fueled power plants offer the maximum of power-generating capability and reliability. Hydro, wind, and solar are both less efficient and reliable. And our increased energy usage offsets the gains we are making in renewables. Getting free of carbon-based power generation is not happening in places like China and India who are increasing their usage of such power.

Then there are what Smil calls “the four pillars of modern civilization”: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Ammonia is what feeds the world in terms of those nitrogenous fertilizers. The lightweight durability and moldability of plastic makes it widely used in everything from water bottles to airframes, yet also troublesome as it breaks down and infiltrates our water, and our bodies. The world runs on concrete in our highways and buildings, yet it also deteriorates over time as witnessed in bridge and high-rise collapses. Likewise, steel is ubiquitous in our building, various utensils, our vehicles, our tools and more. It is very recyclable. The fundamental truth we need to face is that, at present, the manufacture of all of these are massively dependent on fossil fuels. As yet, no renewable power sources exist to manufacture these.

Smil assesses our environmental challenges. These do not come in terms of oxygen, food, and water, basic constituents of life but in terms of decarbonization. He argues that none of the “zero carbon” goals even begins to wrestle with the “four pillars” of modern life, nor the challenges of electricity generation globally. This doesn’t prevent him for arguing that we must do what we can, from reducing waste in food production to converting to cleaner forms of transport and reducing energy use (such as installing triple-paned windows, and reducing meat consumption. But that won’t get us anywhere close to carbon zero and he excoriates the magical thinking of so many public pronouncements without substantive changes.

Smil includes a chapter on understanding risk, which seemed a bit of a diversion from the other subjects in the book, but also connects to his basic theme of how the world works. He illustrates that many of the risks we fear are less than the ones to which we are daily exposed–for example the risk of dying at the hands of a foreign terrorist are infinitesimal to that of dying from domestic gun violence of various sorts and that often we do not make policies on the basis of rational factors.

His final chapter deals with understanding the future, the flaws in all our future predictions (again, remember The Population Bomb). The reality is that we are navigating a space that is somewhere between apocalypse and singularity. While the future is uncertain, understanding in realistic terms our past and our present helps us recognize one thing–our actions do matter.

This is a daunting book, both in terms of technical detail and its dose of hard empirical reality–a bucket of cold water drenching our idealistic dreams of a carbon-free world. Smil does not say we shouldn’t work toward these things. Instead, I hear him saying, “Let’s get real and talk about how we are going to get there and how long it will take and what that will mean.” He resists pessimism, but also points tellingly to the lack of little more than empty promises on the global stage. He wants us to stop thinking we can evacuate to other planets. We’re not going to terraform Mars. As a scientist, he wants us to focus on how modern life in the only world we have really works.

Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Summary: A collection of essays centered around the culture of sweetgrass, combining indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an environmental biologist teaching in the SUNY system. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She has dedicated her career to the integration of scientific understanding of the environment with indigenous wisdom. The book is organized around the different aspects of sweetgrass culture: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning sweetgrass. The braiding of sweetgrass is a metaphor for the weaving of science and indigenous wisdom in understanding the gifts of the earth and how we give back–how humans and all living things sustain each other.

Listening to other living things, indeed all the elements of the earth and reciprocity are two themes that run through the quietly eloquent essays organized around these five aspects of sweetgrass culture. In “The Gift of Strawberries,” wild strawberries come as a gift, an early harvest, but gratitude and reciprocity involve clearing land for runners to establish new plants, resulting in an even greater gift of strawberries. Likewise with sweetgrass, which comes as a gift. One receives only what is needed, leaving half, which we learns results in sweetgrass flourishing more than if left alone. Usually some gift is left, perhaps a sprinkling of tobacco leaves. And these gifts in turn are braided, given to friends, and burned in ceremony. She reflects on the Thanksgiving address and the giving of thanks to all the living things from the Earth and the waters to the trees. In an essay titled “The Honorable Harvest” she brings together so much of this wisdom in a kind of credo:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
--Kimmerer, p. 183.

She writes of becoming indigenous to a place, one with its wisdom. This reminds me of the writings of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson who pay attention to what the land is saying and farm in harmony with what they learn.

One of the most enjoyable essays was her narrative of taking students for what she calls “shopping” in a cattail marsh–“Wal-marsh.” Materials for clothes and sleeping mats, rhizomes with carbs, stalks of pith for vegetables–even toilet paper! They learn both about the biology of a cattail marsh, and lessons about the tremendous gifts bestowed upon us. We say “thanks,” we care, and yet the earth gives us so much greater abundance.

There is so much that is attractive in what one finds her, and I think much we might all learn from this indigenous wisdom. Where I respectfully part as a Christian is with her “language of animacy,” really a form of animism that assumes a spirit or soul not only in all living things but even rock, water, cloud, and fire. What I respect is the attentive care and mindful use of all things–what I think implied in the “tending and keeping of the garden” in the early chapters of Genesis, or the knowledge of place we see in Berry and Jackson.

I am also impressed with the ways this professor integrates indigenous wisdom and science in her research and work with students. I wonder how many from other faith traditions make the effort to braid the wisdom of their faith with their research. Whether we accept everything about indigenous religion or not, I believe there is much that can be learned, and crucial wisdom in the American context for the care and renewal of the land we often have pillaged. Kimmerer has shared a gift from her own people. Will we receive it and listen and say “thank you” and share what we can in response? What could be braided together?

Review: Abundance: Nature in Recovery

Abundance: Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021.

Summary: A collection of essays describing both the loss of and recovery of abundance in the natural world, where people have caused harm and brought renewal.

Karen Lloyd is a border stalker. In this collection of essays, she describes her journeys throughout the UK and Europe at the border of where human activity is intersecting in the natural world–both for ill and for good. She describes her project using the ornithologist’s term of “getting your eye in”:

“When I turn on the news or read a newspaper, I am assailed by all the losses in the natural world. The natural world is being flushed out. In the natural world, there are no rites of passage to cope with this. Sometimes, frequently in fact–I am overwhelmed by all the losses and the reporting of all the losses, and what I want to do is get my eye in, in a different way. I want to use my binocular vision to look at and think about abundance and what that might mean. I want to take my binoculars into the field and see if it is still possible to see abundance–or something like it” (p. 14).

She begins her journey with the “murmurations” of starlings over East Cumbria and their response to the attempt of a peregrine falcon to penetrate the flock Her travels take her to the Netherlands, and attempts to site some of the wolves and jackals that are gradually returning and the debate over protecting these animals in what was once a natural habitat. A trip to Extremadura in southern Spain leads to sightings of vultures, harriers, and an abundance of bird species in a national park also devoted to wool production and lumber production serving the human population while preserving the natural environment allowing vultures to soar thermals and others to thrive.

We follow her and friends attempting to save a bird with a broken leg in eastern Hungary while chronicling the loss of the slender billed curlew, last sighted there. She describes efforts in Scotland to preserve beavers, that had slowly been eradicated by farmers and hunter. She witnesses the architecture of beaver lodges and dams, and the balance struck of running “beaver deceivers” through dams to pipe excess water through to regulate pond levels without disrupting the beavers efforts.

One of the more creative chapters was “Eighty Fragments on the Pelican” a “weird and perfectly adapted species. The most riveting chapter describes her time in the Carpathian forests of Romania, forests under threat of logging and an endangered habitat for bears. She takes us on a hike following bear tracks with a guide as well as her son, learning along the way not to get between a mother bear and her cubs, a hopeless situation.

As she observes the efforts of those seeking to balance human and natural interests and preserve abundance, she identifies their work as “cathedral thinking”–an attitude of planning and working that thinks in terms of future generations, even for centuries. She tells a wonderful story of Hatidze, a sixty year old woman in a rural village in Macedonia, who keeps bees, is never stung though not wearing protective gear, taking half a comb for her family, leaving half for the bees, exemplifying an ethic of respect and reciprocity.

This is a moving collection of essays. I felt I was present with the author on her travels. I was watching out for those bears, and reveling with her as she watched the vultures ride the thermals. She captures the joy of those working on the front lines to preserve and restore abundance and the love of these creatures. LLoyd articulates something often lacking in our environmental debates–the recognition that we must love what we seek to preserve and that there is a joy to be found in natural abundance.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.

Summary: An assessment of what it will take to get to “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, and the technological breakthroughs we will need to achieve that.

If you do not believe the scientific consensus about our changing climate and the implication of increasing global temperatures for all forms of life on planet earth, you probably want to take a pass on this post. Likewise if you have it out for Bill Gates. I’m not interested in arguments with you. I review books for those who want to know about new books so they may decide whether or not to purchase them and that’s who this review is for.

Bill Gates spent his early adult life building Microsoft as one of the leaders of the personal computer revolution, with the goal of a computer in every home, many of them powered by Microsoft software. He made a massive fortune and has spent the second half of his life giving much of it away, focusing particularly quality healthcare for the impoverished of the world and quality educational opportunities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has led initiatives for vaccinations to eliminate childhood diseases, and poured money into COVID-19 vaccines, resulting in conspiratorial allegations, a classic example of the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” His travels around the world have brought to his attention how global climate challenge threatens to undo the progress made by the health and education programs the foundation has funded. And in typical Gates fashion, he has researched the problem, read voraciously, and put his own money where his mouth is. His book recommendations at GatesNotes are second only to my own (just kidding!).

This new book makes a very simple contention. We need to go from 51 billion to zero. 51 billion is the amount of pounds of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. Zero is zero net emissions, which most climate scientists believe we need to get to by 2050 at the latest if we have any chances of averting the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Gates outlines their case and the consequences, disproportionately hitting the world’s poorest who have contributed the least to the crisis. And probably in the biggest understatement of the whole book, Gates spends the next chapter telling us “this will be hard.” If we ignore it, things will be even worse. We could just say, we have what it takes and we just need to do it. Gates makes the case that this is only partially true at best. To get to zero, there are problems we need to solve for which we do not yet have the solutions. And we hardly have a consensus that we need to lean into this hard work and invest in solutions we don’t even have.

In the chapters that follow, he lays out the challenges. Electricity and the grid that delivers it is an amazing thing. But we get much of it from burning fossil fuels and we have to figure out how to eliminate those emissions, either by capturing the carbon or better, using forms that don’t require burning carbon-based fuels. He reviews all the alternatives, making the argument for solar, wind, and thermal, but also for a new generation of nuclear plants (in which he is investing). We need to figure out how to make things without carbon emissions. Plastic, steel, and concrete all require significant emissions as currently manufactured. We have to deal with how we grow our food. Huge increases in crop yields have fed the world, but require fertilizers that add to our emissions as do the cows that provide for our beef-heavy appetites, through their burps and farts (Gates’ words!). Then there is transportation. Trains, planes, and automobiles (and ships) are most efficiently powered by fossil fuels. Battery technology allows cars to travel up to a few hundred miles, but they are heavy, and the larger the vehicle, the more limited they are as a solution. Finally, there is heating and cooling. Even if there are solutions for all these problems (and for some they don’t yet exist), the Green Premium (the extra cost of the carbon-free alternative) is often prohibitive, especially in poorer countries, and needs to be reduced.

The final part of the book attempts to chart the course governments, companies, and individuals will need to take to overcome these challenges to get to net zero. First he addresses the fact that adaptation will be part of it. The world will get warmer. It will be particularly critical to address food production, especially in poorer countries. Then Gates argues for the importance of government policies that invest in research and in leveling the playing field so fossil fuel based solutions don’t enjoy an advantage that removes the incentive to develop alternatives, and more. One of the most critical pieces is to invest in research and development and match it to our greatest needs. Finally he focuses on what each of us can do as citizen advocates, as conserving consumers, and as Green employers.

I found myself reflecting as I read all this on whether we have any hope of making it to zero. One thing I appreciate about Gates is his blunt honesty. This is incredibly hard! Even at the height of pandemic lockdowns, carbon emissions only went down 17 percent, according to Gates. Actually the pandemic is a kind of dress rehearsal for what we need to do globally to address climate change. While there are bright spots like the rapidity in which the vaccines and new therapies were developed, or individual countries that managed to balance public health and economic pressures well with high citizen cooperation, the uncoordinated global response and contentiousness within countries have led to a muddled effort at best, far from optimum. Bill Gates does not address how to overcome the resistance to the hard work needed (when many resisted even wearing masks) and what will be needed to engender trust in the science instead of suspicion.

Perhaps the question is whether a critical number of world leaders, business leaders, science leaders, community leaders, and faith leaders will come together in resolute action over a thirty year period. Not all will follow–at least at first. Over time, new norms may just become norms. Bill Gates is hopeful that we will take the measures needed and that we will find and implement the solutions that are necessary. I’m not so sure. But I also agree with him that the alternative is far less desirable. The question is whether we will see it coming before it is here.

The Insects are Coming!


Maize weevil, U.S. Department of Agriculture, [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The other day, we had a delivery scheduled at our home. A young man was directing the driver as he backed into our driveway when suddenly he yelled, “Stop!” He pointed up, and low and behold, there was a nest of bald-faced hornets hanging from a branch in the maple tree by our drive, about twelve feet from the ground. Concealed partially by leaves, we had not noticed it. I’m glad this young man did, because bald-faced hornets are nasty insects when aroused. They can sting repeatedly and respond in large numbers when their nest is endangered. Not something any of us wanted to deal with.

Because of the location, near a sidewalk where many people, including school children walk, we had no safe alternative but to call a pest control company to remove it. If the nest had been on a part of our property remote from house or walks we could have safely left it a few more weeks because the first frosts would have taken care of it. The young man who came out, wearing protective gear, quickly took care of it. We were chatting about the warmer temperatures and changes in growing seasons and then he made an interesting comment. He said, “I don’t know about this climate change stuff, but it sure has been good for our business.” He deals with things like termites and ant infestations as well.

Much of the focus in discussions of climate changes have focused on rising sea levels, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, drier or wetter conditions, more severe weather events and so forth. Another consequence however is greater problems with insect pests that eat crops, that carry disease, and invade our homes. My pest control man is already seeing the difference in his bottom line. I guess climate change isn’t bad for everyone!

It is bad news for the world’s food supply. Insects are ectotherms, which means that their metabolisms speed up as it gets hotter. They eat more and reproduce more quickly. Some projections suggest up to a 46 percent increase in wheat yield losses, 31 percent for corn, and 19 percent for rice. This compounds potential losses from weather events, drought, and other climate-related problems.

Two other factors also stand out. One is that insect ranges are changing. As once-temperate zones get warmer, tropical and subtropical insects are able to move into these zones. Also, in northern areas, like the one I live in, many insects don’t survive stretches of sub-freezing temperatures. Some always do, but more will with milder winters.

While the most critical impact could be on crop yields, we can’t ignore the increased prevalence of insect-borne diseases and the need to deal with more insect pests invading our homes.

It is possible that various pest management approaches and insect-resistant plants can offset some of these impacts. But it also means we should be prepared to spend more addressing the problems these pests cause. It might be extra cost for increasingly scarce food or even food shortages. Or it might simply be extra production cost. Wearing insect repellents may become necessary whenever we go out. Pest inspection and control measures may become a cost we factor into home maintenance.

A saying I remember from the first Earth Days in the 1970’s was “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We may have fueled our high energy economy relatively cheaply with fossil fuels, only to find we have merely deferred the cost of our actions, perhaps long enough that our children will be the ones to pay them. If nothing else, it appears they may face a buggier future. I doubt they will thank us for it.

Review: Our Only World

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.

Summary: Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable.

In reading this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, some transcriptions of addresses, written between 2010 and 2014, I felt like I had read much of this material before. In some sense, I have. Berry continues to ring the changes of themes that recur in his works: local membership, sustainable land practices, the character of good work, our violent relationship with our world.

There was the sense of someone who has been saying these things for a long time, and perhaps coming toward the end of his work. As I write this, Berry has recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Both his earlier essay collections and earlier novels are longer. For all that, it seems to me that we have both a summing up and a carrying forward into our current context of the things Wendell Berry has been saying to us for fifty years.

The essays range widely covering everything from our tendency to dissect life into parts rather than see wholes (his “Paragraphs from a Notebook”), our violent treatment both of the creation and our fellow human beings (“The Commerce of Violence” and “On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes”), and sustainable practices centered around right-sized land management and appropriate technology (“A Forest Conversation,” “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” “Less Energy, More Life,” “Our Deserted Country,” and “For the 50-Year Farm Bill”). Two address wider concerns in our society (“Caught in the Middle” in which Berry sets forth his views on abortion and gay marriage and “On Being Asked for a ‘Narrative for the Future”).

There were several that stood out for me. One was “A Forest Conversation.” Much of this essay describes the practices of forest owner Troy Firth, who owns a maple sugar operation and also logs his forest with sustainable practices in his choices of trees to cut, and in how he removes them to minimize damage to the forest floor (horses!). “Our Deserted Country” chronicles the movement of people from country to city and the use of industrial technology as a substitute for an appropriate ratio of “eyes to acres” that human-scaled land care involved. He ranges widely in this essay, discussing impacts on the land, the disappearance of a country culture of fishing, hunting, and foraging, and the decline of local streams, including the loss of his favorite willows that no one can explain or had noticed.

In “Caught in the Middle,” Berry voices what many of us feel, that neither of the major political parties represent his views. He ventures into the contentious space of abortion and gay marriage. He opposes abortion as the taking of life, and yet concedes there are circumstances he would help someone obtain an abortion. He acknowledges the conflict in these statements but also contends there should be no laws for or against abortion. He argues this is a personal matter that should not be subject to law, and argues similarly with regard to gay marriage. He questions whether “rights” are bestowed by government, including the “right” to marry. He would go further in saying that neither does the church, but that a “marriage” is made by two individuals who vow and live those vows until death. I suspect this is one of those essays that has subjected him to fire from all sides, the danger of being “caught in the middle.” But Wendell Berry has never shrunk from controversy!

His concluding essay speaks a good word to all our prognostications about the future. He writes:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good–good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places–by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future.

It may well be that this is the theme that under-girds all these essays. His urging that we turn away from our energy-intensive economy is not first for the environment, but because it is not a good way to live. His arguments limiting the power of big government and reliance on national politics is centered in the goodness of the local community, and the ability of local people to best care for their land. Good work, rather than jobs, is what people were made for, but is also good for the world.

Agree with Berry or not (and probably no one will on all he writes), his contrarian voice comes from a different place from much of our public discourse. It comes from a place that is close to land from a life of tending a farm and the surrounding land, and to local people, a “membership.” He offers us the chance to examine the way of living and the way of governing a society that we have assumed. In the end, his concern is not to change the world, or Washington, but to invite each of us to consider what it means to pursue the good in the place we are. Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the best we can do in “our only world.”

Review: The Way Home

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The Way Home: Tales of a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle. London: Oneworld Publications, (Forthcoming in the US, June 11) 2019.

Summary: A narrative of a year without modern technology, and what it is like to live more directly and in rhythm with the immediate world of the author’s smallholding and community.

“It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever strong. No running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. Just a wooden cabin, on a smallholding, by the edge of a stand of spruce.”

In 1925, only half the homes in the United States had electricity, which first was delivered to the public by Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City. It is now hard for us to imagine a world whose technology is not powered by this source, or by carbon-based fuels. Most fundamentally, we relied mostly on the sun for light, with fires, oil lamps, and candles running a poor second. Mostly, when it got dark, people went to bed. Heat came from wood. Water came from springs or wells, was hand-pumped or carried. We wrote with pen or pencil and ink and communicated either face to face or by letter carried by the postal service. Most homes did not have indoor plumbing and provision had to be made for the disposal of waste. Much of one’s food was grown or raised either on one’s own property or locally or secured by hunting and fishing and preserved without refrigerators. Significant labor was involved in washing one’s clothes or one’s self. One’s community was those in walking distance or within a reasonable ride on horseback.

It was to this kind of existence that Mark Boyle decided to return and this book, the narrative of his first year living that kind of existence with his partner, Kirsty. Boyle doesn’t abandon all technology, but rather technology powered by anything other than his own energy, or the heat of a wood fire. What one is struck with on immediate reading is that this is hard, sometimes back-breaking and slow work that often takes up most of the author’s days. It often involves re-learning skills that were once common knowledge, but that have been all but loss, whether that be starting a fire by hand or fishing for pike in a local lake or preserving venison. It gets into the nitty-gritty of our existence, such as turning one’s own waste safely into compost.

Why does he do this? He recites a number of ecological and socio-cultural reasons, but the most critical reasons are ones of existential meaning:

“…I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship and community, and not just the things that pass for them. I wanted to search for truth to see if it existed and, if it didn’t, to at least find something closer to my own. I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, and not merely exhibit the signs of life…”

One has the sense in reading this work that the author does find many of these things, most essentially how his life is intimately connected with the world around him, whether it is the stand of spruce nearby, or the pike he holds in his hand after catching it, that gives up its life to sustain his. He eyes his growing woodpile and food put up for the winter and realizes that these things represent his ability to live into another growing season. He explores the complexities of simplicity, and the complexities we avoid in our technologically simplified lives.

Boyle previously lived for a year without cash, and the cashless life figures significantly here as well. It is not a barter economy but rather communal exchanges: berries for wine, labor for food. Often it is not reciprocal, but rather a community where people help each other, and often “pay it forward.” One senses in the course of the year that his virtual community withers away, as few take the time to put pen to paper, but that he builds bonds with neighbors like Packie, musicians at the local pub, his mail carrier, and others in nearby communities. Even while the experiment goes on, the encroachments of technology continue: local post offices and pubs close, and land is cleared for agro-businesses.

Interspersed in his own narrative of the practicalities of his life and his reflections upon it is a narrative of Great Blasket Island, once a self-sufficient island but now deserted with the advent of modern technology. The island stands as a mute symbol of a former way of life.

I did not find this modern-day Thoreau so much making a statement as holding up a mirror to a world where the boundaries of human and electrically-driven technology are becoming increasingly porous, and asking, is this really a life well-lived? While I suspect that most who read his book won’t embrace the same life he did (in the end, even Kirsty does not), his narrative invites us to ask what kind of life we are embracing, and is it truly life-giving? How are our minds and bodies and communities being shaped by our advancing technology? How in touch are we with our elemental connection with the earth from which we come and to which we will return? It seems that for each of us, asking these questions are important for finding “the way home.”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this advanced review copy from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Chesapeake Requiem

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Chesapeake RequiemEarl Swift. New York: Del Rey Books, 2018.

Summary: A journalist’s account of nearly two years on Tangier island, the tight knit community organized around watermen harvesting blue crabs, and the likelihood that it may disappear within the next century.

I first learned about Tangier Island nearly twenty years ago when I heard one of the people mentioned in this book, Susan Drake Emmerich, speak about the Watermen’s Covenant she helped facilitate, rooted in the strong Bible-based beliefs of the island’s watermen, that helped ease tensions over state and federal laws and fostered care for the island environment as well as the crabs and the Chesapeake Bay that provided their livelihood.

Earl Swift chronicles a different threat to the very existence of the island. Throughout the Chesapeake, there are shoals that were once inhabited islands. Over the last two centuries, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land. The northern part of the island, called Uppards, once was inhabited. Now its graves are washing into the sea and most of it is a patchwork of marsh and open water. The west end of the island’s shipping channel has widened to over 75 feet. A seawall protects the landing strip on the south end of the island. Residents are hoping for a jetty off of the shipping channel, and a sea wall around the island. The cost is over $30 million, and most consider that it would be cheaper to relocate this community of under 500 to the mainland. The most obvious cause is coastal erosion, evident after every major storm when more coast is lost and parts of the island are inundated. However, geologically, Tangier is slowly sinking, and the Chesapeake is slowly rising. It’s possible that all or most of it could be submerged within 50 years.

Swift, who first visited a much bigger island in 2000, returned in 2015 and spent the best part of two years researching his account of the island. It is not only an account of what is happening to the island, but an account of the community that traces its origins back to 1608 when John Smith mapped it and the Revolutionary War, when it was settled. Many of the current residents trace their lineage back to these early settlers and most are related.

Swift joins in every part of the island’s life from sessions of the island’s elders at “The Situation Room” to attending both of the island’s churches. He eats at the restaurants, endures the insects, and attends the funerals. He describes town services from the sewage plant to the local grocery, the school, and the visitor center (a place representing a painful memory). Most of all, he spends time with the watermen on their boats, especially James “Ooker” Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and the town’s spokesperson when the media come calling. Up before dawn, we get a sense of how hard the work of crabbing is, and how precarious this existence always has been, even before declining catches.

Perhaps the most riveting part of the account is that of Ed “Eddie Jacks” Charnock and his son Jason, who are stranded on a sinking boat during a blinding, gale force storm on the bay, and the urgent rescue efforts mounted by the other islanders who hear the one distress message they were able to send out. It is a story that represents the tightly knit character of this community as well as the deep biblical faith that undergirds their life.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Swift is his ability to portray the islanders on their own terms. There is no deprecation of their religious faith or their avid support of President Trump and denial of climate change (islanders attribute all the loss of land to erosion and dismiss evidence of island subsidence and water level rise.) He even affirms that Ooker Eskridge bests Al Gore in a discussion with his straightforward assertions that he has seen no water level changes at his crab shack.

At the same time, he describes an island that is slowly dying, no matter what the islanders believe. Youth are moving to the mainland, and the elders are dying and the population continues to decline. Properties are abandoned, and despite the religious rectitude, there is evidence of drug use among a portion of the population. There are tipping points approaching for sustaining everything from the local school to the grocery.

Swift calls his book a requiem. While Tangier has not yet died and its residents have not given up, the book helps us to appreciate on a small scale what it would mean to this beautiful place and its tight knit, beautiful, and productive community, to be lost. He helps us care for these people and their place.

I find myself also thinking that this might be the first of many requiems, or perhaps a more hopeful image is that Tangier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning of how much more we might lose if we fail to act. The factors that endanger Tangier are the same ones that put our naval station at Norfolk at risk, and even our nation’s capitol, as well as the coastal cities of the world. Perhaps the irony that the islanders themselves dismiss climate change and its effects is also salutary. It is one thing to have to relocate under 500 climate refugees. Potentially this could be multiplied by millions in the years ahead. Will we close our ears to this requiem until catastrophe is upon us, or take prudent steps now? If the trends at Tangier are any indication, we may know the answer within a generation.

[PBS News Hour profiled Tangier including interviews with Ooker Eskridge and Earl Swift.]