The Insects are Coming!

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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.”

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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

chesapeake requiem

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.]

Review: Creation Care

Creation Care

Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural WorldDouglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018.

Summary: An survey of the relevant scriptures concerning how we might think biblically and theologically about the creation and our role in it, and the relevance of this teaching to current environmental concerns.

Many discussions about the environment get caught up in arguments about scientific findings and public policies. Often Christians end up fighting each other about these matters as well. What the father and son team of Douglas and Jonathan Moo offer is a study that takes us back to first principles. As Christians, our actions in the world ought not be informed fundamentally by talk radio, political party positions, or scientific papers, but rather biblical teaching, and the wisdom principles that arise from that teaching that we seek to humbly and prayerfully apply to all the activities of our lives.

This work serves as a kind of sourcebook for thinking about caring for creation. The authors begin by asking what we mean by the care of creation and contend that this ought matter to us because it matters to the God we love. They then explore how do we develop a theology of creation, and how we understand the evidence of scripture in light of theology, culture, and science. They suggest a “roundabout” model where understanding of text and these influences feed into each other.

The next seven chapters, the majority of the work, develop the teaching of scripture. They begin with the beautiful world God has created, that it is his and our beginning posture is one of joining all his creatures in worshiping his goodness. They turn to our place as members, rulers, and keepers of creation. In discussing dominion and the idea of subduing the earth, they suggest particularly the idea of “bringing the earth under the appropriate rule of those who bear God’s image,” a task that becomes even more urgent in a post-Genesis 3 world. This involves abad and shamar, working and caring for God’s garden. They explore Israel’s relationship to the land, their homeland, and yet owned by God and thus a gift and not a possession. Their use is shaped by sabbath and jubilee, as they trust God to sustain them in the land.

At the same time, they discuss the impact of the fall on a creation “subject to frustration.” All creation suffers because of our rebellion against God, yet the context of Paul’s reference is that God has acted to redeem and reconcile both us, and the creation. The incarnation reveals God’s care for the material creation. God in human flesh in the person of Christ reveals what it means to properly rule in God’s world as his image bearers, and died and rose to inaugurate the renewal of God’s loving rule through his reconciled creatures. They are part of the new creation accomplished through the resurrection of Christ that not only means new life for those who believe but a new heaven and a new earth. They deal with 2 Peter 3, often understood as “it will all burn,” and used to denigrate our care for what will be destroyed, and contend that this passage is best understood as speaking of refining and not destroying fire, consuming all that is dross and evil, preparatory to the new creation.

The last part of the book is a reflection on the relevance of this biblical material in our present time. They propose that caring for creation is an integral part of our gospel. They affirm our role as stewards accountable for good care of the creation, that is also shaped by the realization that our care for creation also is an act of caring for people, and their flourishing. Understanding the biblical teaching leads us into wisdom, which involves knowing and doing, using all of our knowledge of the world, much coming from science, to care for the world in ways that acknowledge God’s ownership, the earth’s goodness, is just toward all God’s creatures, in dependence upon God.

The authors include a chapter briefly summarizing current environmental challenges that require our caring attention: the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the plight of the world’s oceans (depletion of fisheries, destruction of coral reefs, etc.), soil loss and developing sustainable agriculture, and our changing climate. They are measured in their treatment, providing peer-reviewed data. They conclude with the importance of putting creation into our teaching of new creation and putting ourselves into the creation. They commend five ways in which we might be AWAKE to caring for creation:

  • Attentiveness to the creation and its suffering.
  • Walking and de-emphasizing mechanized transportation.
  • Activism, often beginning in our own churches and communities.
  • Konsumerism: learning to step back from excess to enough.
  • Eating, through choosing food grown sustainably.

While others have covered this ground, Douglas and Jonathan Moo bring strong evangelical credentials and careful treatment of biblical texts to this task with a strong commitment to biblical authority. Because of this most of the work is formulation of the Bible’s teaching. It might be faulted on being short on practical recommendations, yet what this allows is for the reader to reflect on the theology of creation care and determine their own response, perhaps side-stepping politicized discussions.

I would love to commend this work for adult education in churches. The difficulty is that this is a more academic work than I sense many adults in the church willing to engage in an adult education program. The issue is less comprehensibility than comprehensiveness. The treatment of the biblical material is thorough and lengthy, more appropriate for a college or seminary level course. It also would be a good resource for a creation care task force in a church or Christians concerned about the environment who want to think Christianly about their activism. The authors do help us see what is distinctive about a Christian concern for creation and balance proper dominion with care and serving of the creation. They help us understand both how fallen human beings are the problem, and offer hope that as redeemed and reconciled new creations, we can care for God’s good world in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth.

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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: A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard

a field guide to your own backyard

A Field Guide to Your Own Back YardJohn Hanson Mitchell. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration, season by season of the animals, plants, insects, bird, amphibians and reptiles, and weather conditions we might encounter in our own back yard, even as city dwellers.

Many ecological books seem to be concerned either about really big problems like air pollution or climate change, or really big spaces away from cities–from polar ice to wilderness to forests. It has long seemed to me that if we don’t care and notice the spaces where we live and most immediately have care for, the rest of it tends to be an abstraction. I became aware that at least our own climate was changing when I discovered that I could now safely plant frost tender things after May 1 when I used to wait at least a week longer. Our local nursery confirmed it several years ago noting that we were now in a warmer growth zone with a longer growing season, reflected in their having annuals in the greenhouse earlier.

Still, I suspect there is much in my backyard to which I’m oblivious until it stares me in the face. I considered skunks denizens of the woods until one stared me in the face recently on several visits to my back yard. It occurred to me when I saw some growing in a ditch, that it had been several years since I’ve seen Queen Anne’s Lace, considered a weed, in my backyard. Aside from cardinals, sparrows (what kind?), blue jays, robins, and the occasional crow, and the ubiquitous Canada geese in nearby retention ponds, I don’t pay attention to the bird life. I mostly notice insects and arachnids if they get inside my house, or nibble my roses. So when I saw A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, it struck me that it might be helpful in being a bit more observant of my own patch of the creation.

That’s John Hanson Mitchell’s aim as well. He writes, “…the talent for observation is a learned art, and with very little effort it is possible within a single year to become intimate with the natural environment of your immediate neighborhood. The best place to begin, of course, is your own backyard.” This, in a nutshell, describes the contents of the book, as Mitchell walks us through the seasons from early spring of one year to late winter of the next. He notices and tells stories season by season about his observations of weather conditions, migratory birds, trees, wildflowers and weeds, butterflies, morels and mushrooms, shrubs, insects, amphibians and reptiles, backyard mammals, pests and their natural enemies. He writes about the things we’ll come across if we look closely: nests, holes in trees and what we might find living there, hornets nests, galls on plants, wetland life, life under the bark and running sap. He writes about the life we might find around our woodpile, and our birdfeeder. A number of hand drawn illustrations complement the text at key points.

I discovered that the skunk in my yard was probably eating grubs and that this is its redeeming virtue. I looked where it had its nose in our turf and suspect the author was right. There were little holes where it was probably feeding after a rainfall. Still, this is a mammal not to be encouraged and so I made sure there were no sheltered spots around our foundation where it could make a home, because sooner or later it would spray. I suspect, the skunks (we later saw it trailing four or five babies) is living under a neighbor’s deck.

I also realized beyond the basics, I don’t know the identity of our trees. I could do far better at learning and observing the different avian visitors who consume many of our pesky mosquitoes. I might learn when the bird migrations are in our area and watch for them. I learned this about the fireflies I delight to watch on a summer evening: “Electric lights are only about 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas firefly lighting approaches 100 percent and is, in comparison to firelight, gaslight, or electric light, entirely pollution free.” I learned at that the toad I found in my downstairs office last summer is my friend, eating up to 200 insects a night, mostly pests. I’m glad I released him into our back yard! I decided that some of the weeds at our property margins might be worth leaving rather than cutting down with the weed eater. I learned that if you are good, you can distinguish calls of the different kinds of crickets and frogs at night. And the author confirmed something else I’ve observed over the year–nothing deters a hungry and very clever squirrel!

This might be the year I begin a back yard journal. Mitchell’s stories remind me of things I’ve seen, but perhaps not sufficiently paid attention to. He also helped open the eyes to the reality that the quarter acre on which we live is bustling with life that happens to share the space with us and the wonders awaiting me outside my front and back door. We might find different things in our back yard that Mitchell does in Massachusetts. But he gives us some good clues of what we might look for.

Review: Buying Time

buying time

Buying Time: Environmental Collapse and the Future of Energy, Kaz Makabe. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017.

Summary: A study that looks at the world’s increasing energy demands and the environmental challenges these pose, and makes the argument that nuclear power, even with its risks, needs to be considered in the energy mix.

A number of years ago I led a group in my church in doing an environmental audit of the resources we used in the activities of our daily lives, the source of these resources, and what happened to these after our use. It was an eye-opening exercise for all of us, particularly as we realized how heavily dependent we are upon electricity. As I write, the light, the air conditioning in my home, the computer on which I am writing, the TV in the living room, the washer and dryer laundering our clothes, and the refrigerator preserving our food all run on electricity. That’s typical of most of our homes. Multiply this by our businesses and manufacturers, and the devices from phones to cars that require re-charging and you realize how highly dependent we are upon the reliable supply of electric power.

Kaz Makabe takes this a step further and looks at the integral relationship between energy supply and economic growth, and the rapid emergence of countries like China and India, as well as existing developed countries from the United States to the EU to Japan and South Korea. Clearly the demands for energy are going to grow. Furthermore, the “energy return on investment” (EROI) is crucial, and sources of energy that have low ratios of return can put a check on development, particularly if the overall mix drops below 8, which he proposes is an “energy cliff.”

The additional factor that must be weighed in all of this is environmental impacts. On the one hand, fossil fuels provide a high EROI–a lot of energy for the buck. But the environmental impacts from air quality that impacts the health of people, to CO2 emissions, that potentially impact the the health of the planet are leading many to conclude that a move from fossils fuels is necessary because of how much these contribute to human-generated CO2.

Yet there is a problem and that is that the other more “sustainable” sources such as wind and solar at their present stage of development cannot fill the gap, and certainly not with the economy of fossil fuel. This could lead to limited growth or even collapses as the effects of an energy shortage cascade through an economy.

Enter nuclear. Makabe, who lives in Tokyo in the shadow of Fukushima, argues that for all its problems, nuclear, and particular Generation IV nuclear technologies, need to be included in the mix of options we consider in a world of growing populations, developing economies, and potential or actual environmental perils. He does this with open eyes, surveying the history of nuclear power, and the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. He notes the problems of regulatory structures, dated technologies, and inadequate safety protocols that led to each of these disasters.

He also explores newer technologies, some of which use the most hazardous products of our existing nuclear waste, and generate far less and safer wastes, are capable of modular construction at lower costs, and have design features for greater safety. He also chronicles how regulatory constraints, and the interests of those committed to older technologies from obsolete plants to manufacturers have slowed the implementation of Generation IV designs. Furthermore, taking plants offline following Fukushima, and slowing implementation in other countries has led to increased carbon emissions as fossil fuel plants have largely filled the gap.

In the chapter preceding his conclusion, Makabe argues that never has the need for innovation been so great, given the challenges the human species faces. He notes with concern the slowdowns in many fields such as antibiotics. He touches on a concern I’ve come across with increasing frequency, the displacement of humans by intelligent machines from jobs that could accelerate in the coming years. As we face all these challenges, he concludes that it is imperative in the field of energy that we “buy the time” our civilization needs for facing these changes with not only development of renewable forms of sustainable energy, but new nuclear technologies that provide the energy that allows us to stave off economic collapse or conflict for ever more scarce energy.

What I appreciate about this book is its calm realism. I’ve always scratched my head as I look at the question of implementing renewable energy and the challenge of providing enough energy to replace fossil fuel. Yet it seems many who argue for renewables want to take both fossil and nuclear power options off the table. Currently in my state (Ohio) 97 percent of our power comes from fossil fuels (83 percent) or nuclear power (14 percent). I do think that much can be done to incentivize renewable implementation and to encourage economies in usage. It does seem an error to subsidize fossil fuels, if we need to move from this source (kind of like subsidizing tobacco producers). But it does seem that if we were to try to even halve our use of fossil fuels, it would take us a very long time to get there at even our current energy usage if nuclear energy could not be considered.

What the book doesn’t address as much as I would have liked are what needs to happen to change both the regulatory environment and safety protocols to convince an apprehensive public to allow nuclear into their back yard. If new technologies cannot get built and licensed, and if implementation of safety protocols are not enhanced and monitored by those with an “arms length” relationship to the industry, it’s not going to happen, or it will happen shoddily if we get desperate enough. Reform of the industry and its regulation needs to accompany the economic and technological case Makabe makes.

What Makabe has given us are good reasons for doing that hard work, even as we take a hard nosed look at the challenges and risks in our energy future.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

After Paris

Paris_Night

By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).

I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.

1.  Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?

2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?

3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.

4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.

5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.

6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech.  He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?

In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Caring for our Common Home

steel millsEarlier this week I had the chance to hear Cardinal Peter Turkson speak on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’ “. At one point he talked about the beginning of his concern for the creation. It was when he was growing up in Ghana (he is African) and saw the degradation to his beautiful land caused by the surface manganese mines.

In that moment I realized I had something in common with Cardinal Turkson. I grew up in Youngstown. I saw the stark contrast between the Mill Creek watershed, and the river into which it flowed–the Mahoning. I watched how on one hand we were thankful for the clouds of smoke over the valley that represented jobs and paychecks and how we fled to the park or places like Pymatuning or Cook’s Forest for cleaner air whenever we could.

I realized that seeing these things was the beginning of my concern for the creation, what Pope Francis calls caring for our common home. I know lots of people these days argue back and forth about the science or how rigid our environmental standards should be when jobs are at stake. I find the idea of caring for our common home far more compelling.

Let’s take Youngstown. A number of you who read these posts do so because you loved growing up in Youngstown, and for some you love it so much you still live there. I have friends working for the renewal of neighborhoods in various parts of the city.

What do we love about the city? Of course there is all that good food. But beyond this, here are some of the things I think of:

  • The fact that there are so many vantage points where one can see across the valley and see much of the city, day or night.
  • I think of the hill above downtown with St. Columba’s Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church overlooking downtown, and as it were, blessing the city.
  • I think of St. Elizabeth’s by the freeway, inviting the sick and the injured to find solace and healing.
  • I think of the river, slowly becoming the site of restaurants. Could it be a place of walking trails, fountains similar to the riverfronts in many cities?
  • Of course there are the lakes and trails and pavilions of Mill Creek Park. Lanterman’s Mill and Suicide Hill, the Silver Bridge and Fellows Gardens.

It seems that this is a time when Youngstown can have a new beginning…or fall prey to outside interests who would degrade it once more. It has taken 30 years to clean up the sites of the old mills, “brownfields” in environmental terms, and begin to develop new businesses. The old Ward bakery has been converted to artists studios. Downtown is coming back in a new form.

Cities take decades to develop or re-develop. Youngstown is particularly vulnerable to predators who think the city so desperate for jobs that it will allow those big interests access to the natural resources of the city and degrade them.

Youngstown has the chance to both attract businesses with its location, tax incentives and low overheads and do this in a way that is safe for our land, air, water, and people. Both are possible.  We had a hundred years of trading the beauty and health of the Valley for jobs. If we care for our common home we won’t let that happen again. There’s too much we love and count precious.

What do you love about Youngstown that you believe is worth preserving and enhancing?

Review: Laudato Si’

Laudato siLaudato Si’, Pope Francis. Vatican City: Link is to online version of the encyclical (.pdf version available at site), 2015 .

Summary: Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, advocating an “integral ecology” that links care for the creation with care for the poor, the quality of life in our cities, and a way of life emphasizing spiritual rather than material priorities.

Encyclicals are circular letters from the Pope to the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church addressing important matters of church teaching. The title of the encyclical is taken from the first two words of the encyclical in Latin. This encyclical, “on care for our common home” begins with the words Laudato si’ or “Praise to you” and are the first words of a song of Saint Francis. The remarkable thing about this particular encyclical is that it has been addressed not only to the Catholic faithful, but “to the whole human family.”

The encyclical begins with a review of prior church teaching on the environment and particularly that of Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom the Pope draws his inspiration for what he terms “integral ecology.” For Saint Francis, the love of God and his creation transcended the separate categories in which we often place science and faith, care for the environment and care for the poor, the pursuit of stewardship of the earth and social justice. One commentator has noted that the most significant word in the encyclical may be the word and because Pope Francis associates things we often separate.

Six chapters follow this introduction. Chapter 1 explores “what is happening to our common home?” and considers pollution and climate change, water supplies, biodiversity, and the decline of the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, and global inequalities. Chapter 2 is titled “the gospel of creation” and explores a Catholic theology of creation. emphasizing that our dominion of creation was not domination but tilling and caring for it. It movingly states:

“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.” (paragraph 92)

Chapter 3 turns from God’s intent to the “human roots of our ecological crisis”. The encyclical sources this in an inordinate reliance on technology–technocracy, in the globalization of the technocratic paradigm, and an excessive anthropocentrism that paradoxically compromises human dignity as we exploit not only the environment but other human beings as well. This chapter ranges widely considering everything from genetically modified food (and the usurping of smaller landholders by big agribusiness) to the dignity of human work and the need for gainful employment. Chapter 4 then turns to the remedy of these woes in “integral ecology” that concerns environmental, economic, social, cultural and everyday ecology, the common good and justice between generations.

Chapter 5 considers “lines of approach” and has to do with various public spheres in which environmental advocacy and action must occur. I was struck how often the word “should” was used here in ideas for international, national, and local policy. Perhaps the most trenchant remarks in this section are in the Pope’s call for transparency in dialogue and decision-making and in his call for a rapprochement between religion and science around environmental concerns.

The final chapter concerns “ecological education and spirituality” and turns to the impact a Catholic eco-theology might have at the parish level. In a section on “Joy and Peace” the Francis writes:

“To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.” (paragraph 222).

He also calls for a kind of ecological conversion and considers the relation of the Trinity, and of Mary to the creation. He concludes the encyclical with two prayers, the first “a prayer for our earth” and the second a “Christian prayer in union with creation.”

I found much to commend here. Here is an ecology that is pro-human life from the uterus to the grave, and at the same time fully recognizes the dignity of all creatures. Francis recognizes that it is often those who have contributed least to our ecological problems who suffer the most and sees the issue of justice and not simply ecological concerns in this suffering. He also recognizes that most profoundly, we need a conversion from the materialism and consumerism that is neither ecologically sustainable nor spiritually satisfying. With his namesake, he eloquently argues for how our lives are inextricably bound up with the life of the whole creation.

He speaks prophetically to those in political and economic power. And I found myself wondering here whether in fact it will be the weak of this world, the powerless, who will, under the grace of God, confound the mighty and whether change, if it comes, will not come from the politicians or big business interests but from a grassroots movement. My own hope is that such a movement might be nurtured by Christian communities whose faithful presence and witness in these matters captures the imagination of others, as did the church in eastern Europe during the fall of Communism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” I’m troubled that we have not lived in such a way to leave a healthy, verdant world to our children. The kind of world their children find may well hinge on whether both the church and the wider human community heed this passionate plea for our common home.

[Note: after publishing this post, a friend asked for the source of this Bonhoeffer quote. It appears on a number of sites but there is no source information on any of these and a search of Google Books and questions to some who know Bonhoeffer’s work well have failed to turn up the actual source of this quote. So it may be more accurate to say that this statement is attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, actual source unknown.]