Thursday, March 19, 2009

Planet Awakening

Yesterday, I read “Planet Awakening” by Patricia Waak, a former Senior Advisor on population for Audubon and currently the Chair of the Colorado Democratic Committee. I read this on the recommendation of my adviser, who (I hope I get this right) worked with Ms. Waak on interfaith environmental issues through Audubon. He recommended this book because it talks about the intersection of faith and environment; so, right up my alley.

This far in my education, human population hasn’t been discussed much. We talked about population the most in my env econ class last spring and touched on it a bit in env ethics last semester. When population has been discussed, it has been mostly about population of other species and how we can avoid extinction for those that are vulnerable or endangered. When human population has been discussed, people have been afraid to say anything. “Planet Awakening” takes on the issue of human population and how it relates to the environment.

I’ll start off by saying that this is probably the fairest, most impartial and positive review of Christian environmental thought that I think I’ve read. It’s an extremely fair and positive review of every religion Ms. Waak covers (ancient indigenous religious practices, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism), but she talks about Catholic and various Protestant denominational thought the most as they deal with population, and I was impressed by what I read.

I think Christians and Christianity get a bad rap when people start talking about environmental issues, and in some sense I think it’s rightfully so, but I also feel that sometimes, many people want to only see the bad about Christianity. When discussing population, Christianity is all over the place. Some people feel that the command to be fruitful and multiply still applies today, even though we live in a world where we can’t feed and clothe all the people we’re producing. Some Christians feel that we should do all we can to control population without stepping outside some ethical boundaries. And there are people who are everywhere in between.

Waak says, “Our calling as theologians, pastors, spiritual directors, and lay persons is to reframe the dialogue around population growth and consumption, and bring to bear ethical and spiritual principles, without pretending to have answers to these complex sets of problems” (Waak 14). Why is human population such a big issue for the environment? Practically, more people in the world means that more resources will get used. It’s that simple. For each person that is born, more land has to be converted to farmland or housing. The loss of this land destroys ecosystems, speeds soil erosion, and contributes to climate change (through plant loss). More people = more consumption.

In theory, talking about population growth is a good thing. In reality, we avoid it because it brings up all sorts of sticky issues. In America, infanticide is a crime; in other countries and/or cultures, infanticide is practiced as a means to control population. How do we tell some of these indigenous cultures, like the Bakairi Indians of Brazil (Picchi 65), that their population control practices are wrong? In many countries, not just Western or developed, abortion is used to control population. Even the subject of birth control and contraception is difficult to talk about because some people believe that all forms of hormonal and barrier contraception, as well as sterilization, are morally wrong (there are many reasons for this). So if we really need to talk about population, but we have a hard time talking about how to deal with a growing population through preventative measures, we then have some acute difficulty in coming up with a workable solution. But we MUST talk about population growth, because more people means more consumption of resources.

In America, we are blessed to have the means and education to prevent unwanted pregnancies (which, if used correctly, work most of the time. That people disregard this information is a completely different blog post). We look around to see average sized families with two to three kids and wonder, “Where is overpopulation taking place?” Then we see pictures of starving people in Africa and Asia, particularly young children, and a light goes off – sort of. “Oh, so it’s the poor people who are having too many kids. How is this my problem? I know how to prevent that, and I do. Maybe they should learn to prevent all those pregnancies as well.”

Waak says we need to be careful here: “Many women’s rights advocates fear that by acknowledging the relationship between population growth and environment they will ‘blame’ poor women for environmental degradation” (Waak 31). Blaming the poor anywhere for this problem is a twofold problem. First, the poor, especially in other countries, don’t have access to contraception and gynecological care. In countries where women are seen as second or even third class citizens, girls and women can’t go to school for a basic education, much less receiving information on human reproduction.

But the second problem with this statement is that while people in poor countries might have bigger families, each person is using far fewer resources than a family of four in developed countries, especially America. The poor in third world nations have little access to electricity and running water. They don’t eat as much food, especially meat or animal products, and most of their food comes from local places less than 200 miles away. They don’t drive or fly, and they don’t have the things we have (toys, computers, clothing, appliances, etc). So while there might be more people, they use fewer resources.

I’ll illustrate. For fun, I went to My Footprint and took the quiz to see what my ecofootprint would be here in Springfield, in Brazil as a Bakairi Indian, and as an Ethiopian. For my own results - and this is me eating no meat and very little fish, recycling what the city will allow, having a smallish home, driving little, and using as many ecofriendly products as possible, FAMILY OF THREE – if everyone lived like me, we would need 3.66 earths for all of us to survive. Ouch. As a Bakairi Indian – little need for transportation, they grow most of their own food, eat little meat and hunt/fish for what they do, small houses with no electricity or running water, FAMILY OF 5+ – we would need 0.26 earths for all of us to survive. As an Ethiopian – tiny houses, no electricity or running water, in the middle of a severe drought, what little food they have they grow or hunt, little need for transportation, FAMILY OF 5+ – we’d need 0.08 earths. Look at those numbers again and come up with a good reason for us to blame the poor who have large families, when we who have small families use vastly greater amounts of resources.

How can we reframe the dialogue around population and consumption? I think we first need to admit that while population is definitely a problem, the bigger problem is consumption. Yes, we need to worry about population growth in other countries, and “The poor need to share in the human commitment to change so that life on the planet can be sustainable for all. But to make an appeal for that commitment credible, the rest of the world must address not merely its own salvation, but the relief of poverty as well” (Waak 68) and “If we are to be good stewards of the earth, we must strive to make our planet just and sustainable for all. We must care about and care for each of the six billion people – and more to come” (Waak 78).

Most people would consider forcible population control unethical. But should people really be allowed to have as many children as they see fit? Large families pose ethical questions themselves: consider Nadya Suleman, who recently gave birth to 8 children through in-vitro fertilization and already had 6 young children at home; or Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who have eighteen (or nineteen) children and will probably have another one on the way soon, if the pattern continues. Should Ms. Suleman or the Duggars be allowed to have that many children? Is it our right as individuals to have as many children as we want? Why do people have that many children, especially when there are children in our own country who don’t have homes or families? Can we control population through policy and still be considered ethical, especially if people like the Duggars continue to have children because they believe “be fruitful and multiply” still applies today, a tenet of their own faith?

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Ms. Waak and will post some of that interview here in the following days.

Picchi, Debra. The Bakairi Indians of Brazil. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2006.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Transformation (Green Ink 2)

I became a Christian when I was in high school, late in my junior year. That summer, I got a t-shirt similar to this one:

The t-shirt I had also had Romans 12:2 written on it:

“Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is - His good, pleasing, and perfect will.”

While my transformation as a follower of Christ began when I was sixteen, my transformation into a steward of the environment didn’t start until I was thirty-one. I think I’ve told that story numerous times, so I’ll give you the condensed version, which starts out with a geopolitics paper on soybeans and all their uses. There was a long period of thinking about what I’d written in that paper before I took any other steps. I wanted to become a vegetarian, but I wasn’t sure I could really give up meat. And then in August after I turned thirty-two, I just sort of slipped into it. Jeff was gone for work for a few days, and I didn’t eat any meat during that time, mainly because I didn’t feel like cooking it. Once I realized that not only had I not eaten any meat for that time but that I didn’t even miss it that I much, becoming a vegetarian was much easier. About six months after that, I started recycling (some of us are late bloomers!). Six months after that, I started this MA program. And now I want to retrofit my house with various (expensive) energy projects. Including trying to figure out how to get a green roof onto our sloped roof. Or a windmill. I think the huge tree in the front yard probably prevents solar panels up there…

My transformation into who I am today didn’t happen overnight. Most transformations don’t.

I’m talking about transformations because of this Frome quote:

“Along the way I came to believe that society needs a transformation, a viewpoint of human concern to counter injustice and greed. The spiritual ecological dimension of writing with green ink provides a way of life with its own rewards” (Frome 171).

I also believe that society needs a transformation. If you ask me what I think is the most important transformation that needs to happen, I would say that people need to come to know Jesus and have their minds transformed and renewed. (Some of you disagree with me about the Jesus part, and that’s OK; we each have our own religious world view.) The next transformation would be that we all follow the two greatest commandments, as given by Jesus, which sum up all the laws: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

In my opinion, when one loves God and loves one’s neighbor, everything else follows, including being a better steward – not just of the environment, but of all that God has blessed us with. Human concern to counter injustice and greed is part of that transformation that I’d like to see myself. We can’t separate environmental concerns from injustice and greed because it is so often our greed and the resulting injustice that cause environmental concerns. What we do to the environment today will effect our children for several generations. We might be around to see some of it, but we won’t see the worst of it. But the effects don’t stop at that, because what we do today to the environment also affects people in third world countries.

Palm oil is a really good example of this because it is found in a lot of products we consume, especially crackers and cookies. When we consume these products, demand for the ingredients, including palm oil, increases. Increased demand for palm oil increases the demand for more oil palms, which are grown mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia. To grow more oil palms, tropical rainforests in this country must be cut down and the land burned to prepare it for the new trees. As of now, more than 170,000 km2 (105,633.1 mi2 ) have been lost to oil palm plantations in Borneo (1) (the island that houses Indonesia and Malaysia), which is just under half of Borneo’s total area. Destroying the native rain forest kills or drives out native fauna, encouraging species vulnerability or endangerment. And most oil palm plantations aren’t being farmed sustainably, causing soil to be depleted of nutrients.

There is a human side to the palm oil problem too. The continual burning of forest releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. Higher demand for palm oil increases its price, making it difficult for poorer people around the world to buy it for cooking. And Malaysia’s government, at least, is replacing local leaders with timber company associates in a bid to take land from indigenous peoples.(2)

What we consume – our greed – fuels environmental and human injustices.

I’m not perfect; far from it, in fact. But I see what we are doing to this world and have to wonder how people who believe in God and that He created this world can participate in greed and injustice, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. After all, Jesus told us to store up our treasures in heaven, not on earth (Matthew 6:19-20) and when we are the victims of an injustice, Jesus said we are to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Jesus calls the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers blessed, and I think He wants us to be transformed to have these qualities, that we might reverse injustice in this world.

And in focusing on environmental injustice, Frome says, “Focus on principle, rather than personality. In environmental journalism you are likely to upset somebody, but writing in one sense is outreach to adversaries, recognizing that people who disagree are not evil” (Frome 101). And this is why I’m not perfect: I don’t think of those who disagree with me as evil, but I do tend to think of them as lazy, stupid, insensitive, and lacking compassion and love.

Refocusing takes transformation. I need to be transformed so that I might love others and see them as children of God, but I also need to be transformed so that my own greedy impulses and drive to do injustice to others can be replaced with compassion, forgiveness, and love.

1. Little, Jane Braxton. “Regrowing Borneo, Tree by Tree.” Scientific American Earth 3.0. Vol. 18, num. 5, 2008: 66.
2. Mok, Kimberly. “Logging, Palm oil, and Human Rights in Borneo.”

Writing about Writing (Green Ink 1)

For the past week, I’ve been reading Green Ink by Michael Frome. This is the second time I’ve read this book for a class, and I’ve enjoyed it both times.

Even having read it twice, I’ll be honest – I’m not completely sure what the point is. The book is about how to write about the environment, aka, how to be an environmental journalist. That’s the whole reason I’ve read it twice for school. However, it’s not really a how-to book in the sense that Frome says, “Step 1… Step 2…” Green Ink is mostly about his own observations or stories he’s read or heard about being an environmental journalist.

In the semester and a half that I’ve been focusing on stewardship, I haven’t talked much about writing – since writing wasn’t really the purpose of the independent study. However, I chose Green Ink since it was about environmental writing, and I want to spend this little bit of time talking about writing, in general and about the environment.

If you’ve ever tried to write something serious, then you know writing is not an easy task. Even writing the perfect thank-you note can be a Herculean effort, especially if you have to write many of them, over and over, thanking people you barely know for something you wish you hadn’t received. (“Dear Mr. and Mrs. --, thank you for the lovely sterling silver cookie tray you bought us for our wedding almost 16 years ago. While it is lovely to look at, it has sat in our basement or in storage, untouched, for all that time, and it was a complete waste of probably $100. Neither of us cares for knick-knacks and especially not those that have to be polished after being subjected to air for a time. Thank you for the impracticality of your gift, I’m sure the money could have bought something off our registry that we would still be using today. Sincerely, the unappreciative bitch.” Also known as, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. --, Thank you for the lovely sterling silver cookie platter you gave us for our wedding. We are very grateful you thought of us and appreciate your kindness. Thank you for sharing in our special day. Sincerely, Jeff and Stephanie.” Hmph.) But honestly, trying to write something lighthearted or funny is just as difficult.

The other difficulty in writing is that each type of writing has its own laws, reasoning, and mechanical issues. Writing a thank-you note requires striking the right balance of appreciativeness without appearing underwhelmed or looking like a complete buttkisser, and you probably have to write a little creatively here so that if people compare notes, you don’t look like you copied a generic note. Writing an essay means that the writing part is, in essence, the icing on the cake. All the writing shows is what you’ve learned from your research. I should mention that whatever you call this essay - whether it’s essay, research report, scientific study, market analysis, etc. – the important part is communicating what you’ve learned to the audience, but different audiences expect that information to be communicated in different ways. For example, my English professors expected me to do literary criticism or analysis in a specific way and use a specific format for citations. My environmental studies professors, on the other hand, expect something a little different than what I was trained to do in undergrad. It’s not “and now for something completely different” different, but you try learning APA format after you’ve been writing in MLA all your life!

I research and write for my job, too. Learning this particular style of writing has been a brain stretcher because it involves communicating all the subtle nuances of statutes as succinctly as possible. It involves an endnote format (I work with parenthetical citations for school work) with citations in what I would call… well, I’m not sure what to call it. Its not MLA, it’s not APA, it’s not even anywhere in between. We use a format that will help the audience find the statistic or statute as quickly and easily as possible.

Writing creatively is quite another monster. Just because you don’t have to cite your facts doesn’t mean that you don’t have to research. And where in other writing the point is to say exactly what you mean, writing fiction involves the feared craft of “showing, not telling” – i.e., don’t say, “she had blonde hair,” say, “Her hair reminded me of the silken tassels of Illinois corn.” But you have to know when to show and when to just get to the point already.

I am not a journalist. My education so far has involved learning about the environment, but I have yet to learn how to write an article, especially one about the environment.

I say all this to show you that writing is not a simple task. Not every person can write well. You might think writing is just putting the words in your head on to paper or in the computer, but it’s not that simple. I don’t like reading anything written by H.G. Wells or Charles Dickens (my apologies to my former English professors). In Dickens’ case, I have to tell you I feel for the guy, because he wrote in the era of getting paid per word. But wordiness doesn’t make one a good writer, and I think Dickens milked the system without any thought to his audience or the story. After all, why say in twenty words what you can say in 500? I feel about the same about Wells. Then there’s Victor Hugo. In Les Miserables, Hugo works sections of his stories for a good hundred pages in some cases. The first section of the story has little dialogue, and we learn about the priest, Monseigneur Beinvenu, who eventually meets Jean Valjean, who stays with the Bishop and steals his silver before departing. The whole point of the story is to show Beinvenu’s character:

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.

"Ah! here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?"

We learn here that Bienvenu doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk, and his compassion changes Jean Valjean’s life. So while Hugo is wordy, there’s a point. I suppose Dickens fans would say he had a point too, but I fail to see it.

Writing is a craft. It’s not just about putting words on paper, but about putting words together like puzzle pieces so that the pieces don’t just fit, but show the intended picture. For some people, writing can be easy, but for most of us, learning this craft is difficult work, full of red pen marks, mechanical errors, and draft upon draft of rewrites.

Frome addresses the task of writing about the environment. What is especially important to me, as I learn to write about the environment for an audience of Christians, is this particular quote: “It seems that the task of environmental writing can be defined as translation. It is our job to narrow the gulf…” (Frome 125). Another one; “…but you’ve got to make those technical issues clear and understandable to the public. Don’t write for your sources, write for your public” (Frome 126). The more I hear about what some people think about climate change, the more important to me this becomes. If I had to sum up the whole point of my education, I could do it quickly and without regret using the two Frome quotes above.

I feel like I’m starting to lose my point, so more later about Green Ink.