Ecology/Environment Feed

Wendell Berry's Lifelong Dissent

A good essay in the Nation on Wendell Berry as his new volume of collected essays is published.

Even as Berry made himself a student of the flaws of local life, he sought to refashion its patterns of community and culture into something that might repair them. For him, narrowing the horizons of one’s life is the only responsible way of living, since it is how we might actually heal old wounds, clean up our own mess, and give an honest account of ourselves. Throughout his essays, he makes this case for ecological reasons but also for moral ones. Farming on a local scale, he argues, can respond to the nuances of soil and landscape and can rebuild the fertility cycle of dirt to plant to manure to dirt. Ethics also has its limits of scale. “We are trustworthy only so far as we can see,” he insists. The patterns of care that give ethics life also require a specific space. To hold ourselves accountable, we need a palpable sense of what is sustaining us and what good or harm we are doing in return. Community depends on the sympathy and moral imagination that “thrives on contact, on tangible connection.”


River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


Berry Criticism

This review of Berry's essays in the New York Times seems woefully unfair to me.  The author is correct that Berry has often written on the same topics, which is a reason one doesn't really need every essay he's ever published.  But the author fails to highlight some of the key themes that are so important, such as affection or what it takes to really build community.

Yes, Berry can sound like a crank at times, but I have found his an essential voice.  I read both his essays and poetry, admiring the latter deeply while often feeling challenged by the former.

And, yes, he is "conservative" on many issues while being "progressive" on many others, meaning he doesn't fit well into our current political divides.  I think he likes it that way.  I believe this is part of his essential function, however.  He is the rare voice trusted by folks across the spectrum who can speak words of challenge to them on some of their sacred cows.


This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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Great Plains Bison

Great Plains BisonGreat Plains Bison by Dan O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What have we done? This well-written book is about one of the great ecological catastrophes in human history--how human beings have in the last few centuries ruined the thousands years old ecosystem of the Great Plains. Not only did we slaughter the bison to near extinction and commit genocide against the nations of the Plains, we ruined the entire habitat with our plowing, irrigation, pesticides, GMO crops, etc. If you thought the sad part of this story ended a hundred years ago, and we began improving things after the Dust Bowl, O'Brien's book will surprise, for the catastrophe continues apace.

But he is a good writer, with a beautiful imagination, so this is not a depressing read. Hopefully it is a call to action for those of us who love the Plains.

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A new Utopianism?

An interesting essay on why utopias have failed and yet why they might be necessary.  Can we craft a new utopianism?

There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. So why not think of them as thought experiments? They point us in a certain direction. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings.


Hearing Voices

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"You lit the fuse of dynamic, inclusive environmental change that heard all voices.  This is the Lord's action," declared Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club.  He was referencing the impact that the UCC's 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race had upon the environmental movement.  This study coined term and first drew attention to the concept of environmental racism, the reality that there is "a direct correlation between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color." 

Mair discussed how the conservationist movement of the early 20th century had ties with the eugenics movement and that modern environmentalism was largely a movement of white, privileged people.  The UCC's study not only drew attention to a vital problem but also laid the groundwork for transforming the environmental movement itself.  Thirty years later he celebrated the UCC's work and shared how he had used the study in his own work for environmental and racial justice.

In the afternoon there was an immigration march from the convention hall to the federal building which houses ICE offices.  In partnership with local faith communities and the Annapolis Sanctuary Network, we were demanding justice and freedom for an artist and father who had been detained in Annapolis.

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Today was largely a day of business, with occasional breaks to celebrate our ministry or launch new initiatives, such as a new Caribbean Initiative from Global Ministries, new fundraising campaigns, and the local church mission efforts of the Three Great Loves--Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.

The business included passage of the Constitution and Bylaws changes to the way the board committees work and the portfolios of the officers of the church are determined.  I was one of only two to speak against the second part of those changes.  I have practical and governance concerns for streamlining our national leadership into a model where associate ministers report to the General Minister and their portfolios of ministry are not set by Synod, but my primary objection is theological.  I liked the Collegium of  Officers.  For much of my time in the UCC there were five co-equal ministers who deliberated together.  I believe this modeled a form of leadership that fit our ethos--conversation among a diverse group.  I believe it gave them unique authority when they issues pastoral letters to the church on topics of importance.  Now there will be one boss and a staff working for him.  I'm grieved to lose something that I believe was important to our character.

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But most of the day was taken up by the long series of resolutions on  a variety of topics--climate change, gun violence, survivors of abuse, diversity training, fair wages for farm workers, and more.  With generally harmonious debate though sometimes getting into the weeds of amendments and procedural motions and questions, we deliberated and decided on all these topics.  Some resolutions passed overwhelmingly, some failed narrowly (resolutions of witness require a two-thirds vote).

The resolution I was most concerned about was one calling on the church to support the right to die.  I rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but did not get a chance to speak, as a series of procedural questions and motions robbed much of the time and my effort to extend debate failed, though at least a dozen people were still in line to speak both pro and con.  So, let me state what I would have said.

As a pastor and an ethicist I believe we do have the right to choose death when we have a terminal, debilitating condition.  But I believe that before the church takes that position, we must engage in robust theology.  Previous significant theological steps have included study committees who met over many years to research a topic and then draft a thorough report that was received by Synod.  I believe we should do the same on this issue, and not simply pass a resolution of witness.  This is more than a social justice or civil rights issue, but a matter of clearly articulating a Christian theology.  I believe we owe a clear theology to our church members, to the wider community, and to our sisters and brothers in the church universal.

I did not get to say that.  But the opponents who did speak included an interesting coalition of some conservatives, some very liberal queer folk, and representatives of the disabilities ministries.  And the resolution failed, by less than 1 percentage point.

And so it was a day in which we heard many voices speak on many issues, trusting that we are also listening to the Stillspeaking God.

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